Buonanno Receives Balzan Prize

Alessandra Buonanno has been awarded the Balzan Prize, along with Thibault Damou of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in France, for pioneering work in gravitational waves. They will share the 750,000 Swiss franc award.

Buonanno is the director of the Astrophysical and Cosmological Relativity Department at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute) in Potsdam and a Research Professor at the University of Maryland.

She joined the UMD Department of Physics in 2005, and received an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship and the Richard A. Ferrell Distinguished Faculty Fellowship. She is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the International Society of General Relativity and Gravitation. In 2018, she received the Leibniz Prize, Germany's prestigious research award. Earlier in 2021, she was elected to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and was awarded the Galileo Galilei Medal of the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN). Alessandra Buonanno © A. Klaer Alessandra Buonanno © A. Klaer Buonanno was also recently elected to the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, which originated in 1652 as a classical scholarly society, and she received the Dirac Medal, along with Damour, Frans Pretorius, and Saul Teukolsky. 

Buonanno's research has spanned several topics in gravitational-wave theory, data-analysis and cosmology. She is a Principal Investigator of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, and her waveform modeling of cosmological events has been crucial in the experiment’s many successes.

Buonanno, Charlie Misner, Peter Shawhan and others detailed UMD's contributions to gravitational studies in a 2016 forum, A Celebration of Gravitational Waves

Quantum Materials Center’s Silent Hero Recognized with College Award

Doug BensenDoug BensenWhen responding to an interview request for this story, Douglas Bensen (B.S. ’85, industrial education), who has worked at the University of Maryland for 35 years, warned that he might be a boring subject. His title on the Department of Physics website is the generic “coordinator” after all.

But when speaking to those who have benefited directly from Bensen’s expertise, it becomes apparent that “coordinator” in this case stands for “The Person that Makes Things Work.”

“If something breaks, I text Doug, and I know the problem is going to be gone,” said Sam Deitemyer, a physics graduate student at UMD who works in the Quantum Materials Center (QMC).

Deitemyer’s experience is typical for graduate students working in QMC labs. Through the years, whenever something has gone wrong, something needed maintenance or a new piece of equipment needed to be installed, Bensen has been there making things work and sharing his knowledge along the way.

“It's really great when Doug's there fixing something,” Deitemyer said. “I mean, it's always bad when things break, but it's a good learning opportunity for me. I've gotten to learn how to do a lot of stuff myself, because Doug’s not just good at fixing stuff, he's good at teaching people while he's doing it.”

It’s Bensen’s brand of boring—being quietly consistent and under-the-radar indispensable—that earned him the Dean’s Outstanding Employee Award from UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences in spring 2021. The students Bensen helped were looking for a way to give back, and the idea of nominating Bensen for the Dean’s award caught on, thanks to Deitmeyer.

“I don't know the total number of nominations,” Deitmeyer said, “but I know he helped me and helps everyone that I know in this building.”

Bensen cultivated his penchant for fixing things from an early age. When he was nine years old, soon after his family moved to Maryland, he started taking apart and rebuilding lawn mowers and go-karts.

“I learned a lot of things on my own—how to weld, how to restore and paint cars, and all the mechanics that go with bringing them back to life,” Bensen said. “Really, you learn how to do things if you want to play. And my dad was very supportive, making sure I was always having fun. His attitude was, ‘Here are some tools, don't kill yourself.’”

When Bensen started college at UMD in 1982, he was planning to become an Earth science teacher. But, like many college students, Bensen struggled during his first semester. Looking for classes that were more in his wheelhouse, he stumbled into an industrial education program and found his stride.

“We had welding, we had foundry, we had machine shop, we had plastics technology, we had metallurgy. We had a lot of classes that were very hands on,” Bensen said. “For somebody like me who's been building go-karts and different cars since I was a little guy, it felt like, ‘How can this be school?’”

After graduation, Bensen took a job with the UMD High Energy Physics group.

“One of the guys I studied with had a part-time job working for High Energy Physics on campus,” Bensen said. “He said to me, ‘If you’re looking for something to do, a job until you find a real job, we could use you for maybe a year, year-and-a-half.’”

Thirty-five years later, Bensen said he’s still waiting on that real job, but he has no regrets.

“UMD is like a small little community,” he said. “The environment here is incredibly comfortable. You have something here that you don't have in a lot of jobs, which is freedom. If you’re not happy, you can do other things or explore other things.”

After a year with the High Energy Physics group, Bensen moved to plasma physics, working in the machine shop and supporting the free-electron laser group and gyroklystron (a version of a klystron microwave amplification device) group in what is now the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics (IREAP). In 1991, he moved to the Center for Superconductivity Research, and has remained there, watching it transform into the Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials and now the QMC.

In describing his office, Bensen said it’s perpetually in a state best described by the phrase “There appears to have been a struggle.” It’s littered with tools and old parts for equipment in and out of use. Some of those parts can’t be replaced because they haven’t been manufactured in over a decade. Bensen revels in making equipment run long past its intended lifespan, even collecting dilution refrigerators that other institutions decide are too old to maintain. He said that tidying up the office would force him to get rid of things that may still be of use, and, in any case, it’s an organized kind of chaos.

“I had a professor come in to look for a vacuum flange,” Bensen recalled, “and I just kind of reach down and ask, ‘How many do you need?’ And he says, ‘How did you know where they were?’ And it’s because that’s where they were 10 years ago. Why would they move?”

Even more than making things work and reviving old equipment, Bensen derives joy from watching students learn and grow. In a sense, his original wish to become a teacher has come true. Whenever a graduate student asks for help with an issue, Bensen approaches it as a chance to figure something out together, teaching the students not only the ins and outs of the apparatus, but also how to diagnose the problem and figure things out for themselves.

“I’m kind of boring,” Bensen repeated. “I just really like working with the students. Working with them and helping them and seeing them get it. When their stuff works again and they can start collecting data, my life is good.”

Even after graduating and leaving QMC, many students still reach out to Bensen for help.

“I'm like a resource,” he said. “‘Where'd you get this, where'd you get that, where'd you find these parts?’ Just because you leave doesn't mean you're gone. And I'm always here.”

Deitemyer and some of the other students who nominated Bensen for the Dean’s Outstanding Employee Award have made him promise he won’t retire until they graduate. So at least for the next few years, QMC can continue to count on Bensen’s boringly consistent behind-the-scenes excellence.

Written by Dina Genkina

Faculty, Staff, Student and Alumni Awards & Notes

We proudly recognize members of our community who recently garnered major honors, began new positions and more.

Faculty and Staff 
  • Tom Antonsen received the 2022 IEEE Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award.
  • Doug Bensen received the Dean’s Outstanding Employee Award.
  • Alessandra Buonanno was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the German Academy of Sciences and received the Dirac and Galileo Galilei medals.
  • Sankar Das Sarma was quoted in Quanta Magazine.
  • Professors emeriti Bob Dorfman and Ted Kirkpatrick published a new book with Henk van Beijerenan of the Institute for Theoretical Physics of the University of Utrecht. The book, published by Cambridge University Press,  summarizes major developments in kinetic theory over the past fifty years, and is dedicated to a close friend and longtime collaborator of the authors, Matthieu Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Utrecht.
  • Bill Dorland was quoted in the IEEE Spectrum on fusion power.
  • Jim Drake described the Parker Solar Probe's findings with SpaceDaily.
  • Ted Einstein was quoted in the obituary of B. Mitchell Baker. Einstein retired in August and continues as a Research Professor.
  • Alexey Gorshkov received the Arthur S. Flemming Award
  • Mohammad Hafezi was named a Minta Martin Professor of Engineering.
  • Donna Hammer received the University System of Maryland Board of Regents Staff Award for Outstanding Service to Students in an Academic Environment.
  • Negar Heidarian Boroujeni received a nomination for the Donna B. Hamilton Teaching Award from a student who wrote, "Thank you Dr. Heidarian for teaching with passion and compassion. Your love for physics shines through."
  •  Alicia Kollár received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation
  • Dan Lathrop spoke with Physics Today about the strains of COVID-19 isolation on scientists.
  • Rabi Mohapatra wrote a book on the neutrino.
  • Judy Myrick retired after decades of service to the department. 
  • Johnpierre Paglione and Efrain Rodriguez have recently published a new book entitled Fundamentals of Quantum Materials: A Practical Guide to Synthesis and Exploration with World Scientific Publishing.
  • Steve Rolston was appointed to a second term as department chair.
  • Raj Roy was quoted in a Science News article on random number generation.
  • Peter Shawhan was named a UMD Distinguished Scholar-Teacher.
  • QMC postdoc Rahul Sharma was featured in the Cornell Chronicle.
  • Nicole Yunger Halpern has published a book entitled Quantum Steampunk  that "...explores the field’s aesthetic, shares its whimsy, and gazes into the potential of a quantum future. The result is a blast for fans of science, science fiction, and fantasy.” She will discuss it at the physics colloquium at 4 p.m. on March 29, 2022. 
  • Daniel Gottesman joined UMD as the first Brin Family Endowed Professor in Theoretical Computer Science and will hold an affiliate appointment in Physics.
  • Xiao-Ning Zhao retired after 23 years in the department.
 Students
Alumni
 Department Notes 
 
 
 

Taking Satellite Technology—and Physics—to New Heights

Jim CarrJim CarrJames Carr (Ph.D. ’89, physics) has been making his mark on satellite technology for more than three decades. But his passion for space launched long before his professional career did.

“I grew up in the days of the race to the moon and I was very drawn into that,” he recalled. “I followed all of the Apollo missions. In fact, I used to pretend I was sick and couldn’t go to school so I could watch the coverage on the networks. I was very interested in the space program and that carried forward into what I ended up doing professionally.”

Today, Carr is president and CEO of Carr Astronautics. For more than 30 years, the company has provided problem-solving technology and expertise to clients in the aerospace industry, specializing in U.S. and international weather satellites.

A running start

Carr got a running start on a future in physics and space technology as a boy growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At home, science was part of life. Carr’s first mentor was his father, a scientist who authored two books and more than 100 scientific papers and received a dozen patents during his professional career.

“My father worked at Westinghouse Research Labs; he was a physicist,” Carr explained. “Back in that day, we called it solid state physics, now we would call it condensed matter. So, I grew up surrounded by those environmental influences.”

When it was time for college, Carr stayed close to home and, like his father, was attracted to physics and mathematics. He got his undergraduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University, then headed to Washington, D.C., to join his wife who had already graduated.

“She was a software engineer and she came down to Washington, D.C., because that’s where the jobs were,” Carr said. “She found a job with IBM in the Washington suburbs.”

Carr landed a position working on military projects with a D.C.-area company, but his longer-term sights were set on a very different mission.

“I wanted to work with NASA”

“I had a tremendous first job and I really enjoyed it,” he recalled. “But I wanted to be involved in more civilian things, what you’d call space exploration. I wanted to work with NASA.”

Within three years, Carr was working at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, doing the kinds of projects he once dreamed about. Much of his work focused on remote sensing—processing and analyzing data collected in space, especially weather data.

“I started out helping out on various programs—science experiments that were flying on the space shuttle,” Carr explained. “Then I got involved in a program called Landsat. I was helping NASA integrate all of the work from the different contractors that were contributing to the program and then developing algorithms for processing the data on the ground.”

In 1983, Carr got his master’s degree in physics at Georgetown, while still working at NASA. By then, he was involved in a new operational weather satellite program called GOES (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite).

Ground zero for GOES

“When I got on the GOES program, it was sort of ground zero and it was new and there were a lot of problems to figure out,” Carr said. “It was a more challenging and fun environment to work in than some of the projects I’d done before and I really enjoyed it.”

Later in 1983, Carr decided he was ready for a very different kind of challenge. He applied to the University of Maryland’s physics Ph.D. program.

“I wanted to have a big impact on science and there were a couple of courses at Maryland that really brought me into particle physics, which is not what I did at NASA,” he explained. “I decided that was where the really exciting frontiers of physics were so I should go all in.”

Carr’s years at Maryland, and especially his work with the particle physics theory group, made a life-changing impact.

“Oh yeah, there’s no question, I consider my time in the physics department at Maryland to be formative,” he said. “It was important for my formation as a professional person, very key, a very positive experience.”

Carr was inspired and influenced by his thesis advisor, S. James Gates Jr., who is now a College Park Professor of Physics at UMD.

“He was a young faculty member at the time, and I was drawn to him because of he was working at the frontiers of physics,” Carr recalled. “His energy and enthusiasm were compelling, and as I got to know him, I found him to be as fine a human being as a physicist—very supportive of the intellectual and professional growth of his students.”

After receiving his doctorate in 1989, Carr had an important career choice to make. He could keep working at NASA or pursue a postdoc and a career in academia.

The offer that launched a company

Carr decided to stay at NASA, but his entrepreneurial side was pushing him to do something more.

“I saw the companies that were doing work with NASA and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t run one of those companies myself,” Carr explained. “I decided that I would do it, that would be my career path. I would continue working in the NASA community and I would look for an opportunity to start a business.”

That opportunity came in 1991.

“It happened when I was presenting a paper at a conference about the work I was doing with GOES,” Carr recalled. “I was approached by some people from Europe who proposed that I come to work for them as a consultant to help them in a program called Meteosat Second Generation, which was similar to the American GOES weather satellite I’d been working on for NASA.”

That offer launched Carr Astronautics. Though Carr was the company’s only employee, he had his first client—the French aerospace manufacturer Aérospatiale—and his first project, the Meteosat Second Generation weather satellite. Carr moved his family to Cannes, France, where he worked on Meteosat for the next five years. After they returned to the U.S., Carr’s company took off.

“I came back to the U.S. in ’96 and at that time I was acquiring other business at NASA and also at NOAA and we just continued to grow,” Carr said. “I hired some people that I had known from working with them at NASA and I started working with some American aerospace companies like Boeing Corporation.”

In the decades that followed, Carr Astronautics built a track record of success in satellite technology.

“One of our templates for success has been to partner with large aerospace companies like Boeing and Aérospatiale and help them design their satellite systems. These are billion-dollar space systems and it takes a giant team of engineers to design them, and we have niche expertise,” Carr explained. “The other thing we do is we build software systems to transform the raw data that comes from the spacecraft into something that is scientifically sound and is consumable by the weather community including the National Weather Service.”

And the work is far from over. By 2023, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket will launch the Intelsat communications satellite, and with it an air pollution-sensing instrument that Carr Astronautics has worked on for years. The instrument, called TEMPO, is an imaging spectrometer designed to detect trace gases—including pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone—by the “fingerprints” they leave in the sunlight reflected off Earth’s surface.

“TEMPO will allow us to understand how the rhythms of human activity affect our environment hour by hour,” Carr said. “It will be part of a constellation of similar sensors to cover North America, Europe and Asia.”

Honoring his first mentor

Through all his professional growth and success, Carr has always appreciated the impact his very first mentor—his father—had on his life. And, in 2007, he found a way to pay it forward. Working with UMD, he established the W.J. Carr Lecture Series on Superconductivity and Advanced Materials in the Department of Physics to honor the man who introduced him to physics.

“My father passed away and we started this before he passed,” Carr explained. “I wanted to memorialize him in some way, and I thought this was a good thing to do.”

Carr’s endowment supports an annual lecture series that brings eminent physicists to College Park to speak and interact with students in UMD’s physics program and Quantum Materials Center.

“They’ve brought in really top people to talk, and typically they stay for a week, doing seminars and lectures and collaborations,” he explained. “I think my father would have liked that.”

This year’s W.J. Carr Lecture will be held on November 2, 2021, with speaker Dale J. Van Harlingen, the Donald Biggar Willett Professor of Physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

It’s been more than 30 years since Carr turned his passion for space into a successful business, advancing the technology of weather forecasting one satellite at a time. Still energized by the work, he’s glad he’s been able to make a difference.

“I am very proud of what we do,” he reflected. “The weather affects us in very big ways with hurricanes and tornados and droughts and in very small ways with the decisions we make every day. So it’s extremely important to have good information and good forecasts. I find it very gratifying that the work that I’ve done—the satellite technology—has provided a foundation for all of that.”

Written by Leslie Miller