The magazine for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at
Iowa State University

Paying it forward by giving back

When Jen Scharff (’98 physics) recalls her undergraduate years at Iowa State, she fondly remembers marching band friends, the rigors of studying physics, cheering for the Cyclones at Jack Trice Stadium—and a college journey that was made easier by a generous scholarship.

“I continue to be extremely grateful for everything that scholarship provided,” Scharff said. “It was an incredible gift and I’m still feeling its effects, years after graduating.”

The scholarship covered her tuition and provided a sense of financial peace, allowing Scharff to focus on her studies, remain active in band and graduate debt-free.

Years of gratitude inspired her to “pay it forward.”

Now, Scharff is making the road a bit smoother for many Iowa State students who walk in her former footsteps.

Jen Scharff as an Iowa State undergraduate, posing with marching band friends
Jen Scharff poses with fellow marching band members during her sophomore year at Iowa State.
(Submitted photo)

“I want to make sure that other students have a good experience at Iowa State and enjoy their time there like I did,” Scharff said. “I like knowing that I can help students get ahead by easing some of their financial burdens.”

Giving by design

Scharff has established two distinct scholarships which are conferred every academic year.

Each scholarship has unique qualifying criteria. One is awarded to a physics major with an avid interest in medicine; and the other is given to a trumpet player in the Iowa State University Cyclone Football ‘Varsity’ Marching Band.

For Scharff, it just makes sense to give back in a way that honors the most cherished aspects of her Iowa State experience.

“I want to make sure that other students have a good experience at Iowa State and enjoy their time there like I did.”

“I really loved marching band. We were like a close-knit family and I couldn’t imagine my college years without it,” Scharff said. “And the physics department is where everything began for me. It’s where I figured out that I wanted to pursue a career in medical physics.”

From physics major to lead physicist

Scharff has come a long way since her days in Physics Hall where she was first introduced to matter, motion and negative G-forces. She’s now the lead medical physicist at the John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines, a service of UnityPoint.

Jen Scharff poses in front of a large linear accelerator that is used to treat cancer patients
Jen Scharff poses in front of a linear accelerator at John Stoddard Cancer Center in Des Moines, where she is the lead medical physicist.
(Mark Tauscheck/UnityPoint Health)

Scharff’s work profoundly impacts the lives of people who are battling cancer. She formulates treatment plans, calibrates complicated equipment and ensures the quality and safety of radiation therapies. She also consults on physics-related matters involving brachytherapy, a lifesaving therapy that delivers high-dose radiation to targeted areas inside the body.

“It’s extremely rewarding work,” Scharff said. “I didn’t start out wanting to be a medical physicist. I didn’t know anything about medical physics when I began studying physics at Iowa State.”

The power of undergraduate opportunities

Scharff entered Iowa State with precise plans. She wanted to become a physics researcher and work in a lab. However, an undergraduate research job at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, located on campus, chipped away at those rock-solid goals.

“After two summers of physics research, I realized that there was no way I could do this as a career,” she said. “That was invaluable information to know before I entered the workforce. It guided me away from research and into medical physics.”

“People laugh at this, but I first became interested in physics while watching the television show ‘MacGyver.’”

Each year, hundreds of Iowa State students conduct innovative research in labs across campus. Those opportunities can strengthen existing interests or steer students toward new careers and fresh possibilities.

Scharff spent her final two years at Iowa State preparing for her career. After earning her master’s degree in medical physics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Scharff worked as a medical physics consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. In 2011, she returned to Iowa and joined the John Stoddard Cancer Center.

Impacts in physics

Mayly Sanchez, professor of physics and the Cassling Family Professor, agrees that Scharff’s career story is an important teaching tool.

“Not only does her scholarship provide economic incentives to study physics, Jen Scharff is also an excellent career role model for our students to follow,” Sanchez said. “Many students will learn through her path and be inspired to give back to society through physics.”

As Scharff makes her mark in the hard sciences, she’s also changing the lives of students who are passionate about music.

Hitting the right note with a trumpet scholarship

Since 2016, Scharff’s trumpet scholarship has helped several marching band students reach the graduation finish line. That’s no easy feat—with rehearsals, game days and special performances on top of academic obligations.

Rebecca Gomez, a sophomore majoring in music education, was recently awarded the trumpet scholarship for the 2021-22 academic year.

“Receiving this scholarship is such an honor and I’m incredibly grateful to receive it,” Gomez said. “It’s just really cool that an alumna specifically designated a scholarship for a marching band trumpet player. It makes me feel valued and like the band is valued, too.”

Scharff’s scholarship will help Gomez become a high school band teacher, a career that she’s dreamed about since middle school.

A sweeping view of Jack Trice Stadium, where Jen Scharff poses in front of Iowa State student Rebecca Gomez, who is playing her trumpet on a beautiful, sunny day
Jen Scharff poses with Iowa State student Rebecca Gomez (’23 music education), the 2021-22 recipient of Scharff's trumpet scholarship.
(Keo Pierron/Iowa State University)

“This scholarship instantly made college more affordable and now I won’t have to stress as much about funding my education,” Gomez said.

Christian Carichner, associate director of bands and director of the Iowa State University Cyclone Football ‘Varsity’ Marching Band, describes Scharff’s trumpet scholarship as “an incredible opportunity that supports students’ academic dreams as well as their passion for music.

“We are so honored to have Jen’s support,” Carichner said. “This scholarship allows us to help our most talented trumpet players in pep band and the marching band lead the charge for the soundtrack of Cyclone Nation.”

Paying it forward, MacGyver style

Scharff continues a legacy of giving back. She serves on the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Dean’s Advisory Council, is a lifetime member of the ISU Alumni Association and an ISU Foundation Order of the Knoll member.

She contributes to her profession by serving on several hospital committees and mentoring radiation therapists.

“People laugh at this, but I first became interested in physics while watching the television show ‘MacGyver,’” Scharff said. “He was a physicist who was always working through difficult problems and solving puzzles. I liked that out-of-the-box thinking.”

Jen Scharff poses in front of the Physics Building on the Iowa State campus
Jen Scharff revisits the Physics Building, where she spent many hours studying and attending classes during her undergraduate years.
(Keo Pierron/Iowa State University)

The puzzle-solving spirit of “MacGyver” clearly lives at the heart of Scharff’s career, as well as her philanthropy. Her scholarships continue to fill in key pieces which help Iowa State students cross that graduation stage.

“I feel like if you can, you should give back to the places that gave you something, whether that place gave you friends or a degree or it’s just a place that you like,” Scharff said. “Paying it forward feels terrific.”