Ellen Williams Named Director of ESSIC

Distinguished University Professor Ellen D. Williams has been named director of the university’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC) for a five-year term beginning July 1, 2020.

Established in 1999 through a cooperative agreement with the Earth Sciences Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, ESSIC supports research, teaching and career training in Earth system science.

“With Ellen Williams at its helm, ESSIC is in an excellent position to expand its leadership in Earth system science research,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. “Ellen has successfully led large organizations throughout her career, and she has vast experience in interdisciplinary research related to energy and national security.”Williams EEllen Williams. Credit: Lisa Helfert

The broad goal of ESSIC is to understand the relationships between Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land masses and biosphere, with a focus on the influence of human activities on Earth’s coupled systems. Major research thrusts include numerical weather prediction, climate variability and change, atmospheric composition and processes, the global carbon cycle and the global water cycle. ESSIC has 18 academic faculty members, over 140 professional-track research faculty members and annual research awards of more than $45 million. 

ESSIC also administers the Cooperative Institute for Satellite Earth System Studies (CISESS), a joint center with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Environmental Satellite and Data Information Service. The establishment of CISESS in 2019 built on NOAA’s long-term partnership with UMD, which included the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites (CICS) from 2009 to 2019 and the Cooperative Institute for Climate Studies from 1984 to 2009.

As the largest research center at UMD, ESSIC serves a unique role as a collaboration hub within the national Earth system science research community by linking research efforts at UMD’s Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geology, and Geographical Sciences with NASA and NOAA.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve as the director of the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center,” Williams said. “Its mission is core to addressing the issues of climate change in the context of the world’s ecosystem. I am looking forward to working with ESSIC’s talented scientists in this crucially important mission.”  

Williams is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Society (London). She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the American Vacuum Society.

Williams came to UMD in 1981 for a postdoctoral fellowship and rose to the rank of professor by 1991. At Maryland, she established an internationally recognized research program in experimental surface science, exploring fundamental issues in statistical mechanics and nanotechnology. She also pioneered the use of powerful scanning tunneling microscopy to study the surface of materials such as silicon at the atomic level. In 1996, Williams founded the University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, serving as its director until 2009. She holds an appointment in the Institute for Physical Science and Technology (IPST). 

Williams served as the chief scientist for British Petroleum (BP) from 2010 to 2014, where her work included sustainability studies in collaborations including the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University and the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois. In 2014, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Williams led the agency in its mission to advance high-potential, high-impact clean energy technologies that are too early in development for private-sector investment. 

Williams returned to UMD in January 2017. Since then, she has been working on bridging policy and technology perspectives for clean energy innovation. Recently, she completed a report to the State of Maryland on “The Present Status and Future Potential of Maryland’s Clean Energy Innovation System.”

She received her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Michigan State University in 1976 and her Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1981.

Williams succeeds Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, who is leaving UMD to become dean of the College of Science at George Mason University in Virginia. He served as interim director of ESSIC since January 2016.  

Since arriving at UMD in 2013, Miralles-Wilhelm led efforts to secure the five-year, $175 million cooperative agreement with NOAA in 2019 to form CISESS; the five-year, $64.8 million cooperative agreement with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center for ESSIC in 2017; and the five-year, $93 million cooperative agreement with NOAA for CICS in 2014. He served as principal investigator for the three programs. Since July 2018, he also served as chair of UMD’s Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science.


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Original story: https://cmns.umd.edu/news-events/features/4585

Zic, Poniatowski Named Outstanding Undergraduate Researchers

Physics majors Mark Zic and Nicholas Poniatowski are among those selected as UMD Undergraduate Researchers of the Year for 2020.

Zic, who was nominated by Johnpierre Paglione, has also received an NSF Graduate Fellowship and a Barry Goldwater Scholarship. He will attend Stanford University in the fall.

Poniatowski, nominated by Rick Greene, has also received an NSF Graduate Fellowship, a Barry Goldwater Scholarship and a Merrill Presidential Scholarship. He will attend Harvard University in the fall.

Each cited UMD Undergraduate Researcher will receive a $1,000 reward.

Recalling CUWiP 2020

In January, the University of Maryland Department of Physics and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for the second time sponsored a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). CUWiP is a three-day regional conference for undergraduate physics majors, bringing students from several universities together for networking, career advice and discussion of research opportunities. The conferences were launched by the American Physical Society in 2006.

Historically, physics has had one of the lowest levels of women and racial and ethnic minorities among all STEM fields. Research by the American Institute of Physics has shown that women and minorities are consistently underrepresented among those receiving physics bachelor's degrees, compared to their portions of college enrollments.

“We believe that efforts to encourage interest and camaraderie can be extremely helpful,” said UMD Physics Director of Education Donna Hammer, who with NIST's Katharine Blodgett Gebbie and Angela Hight Walker organized a very successful CUWiP in 2014. That gathering inspired them to establish the Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU2MiP) in 2016.

Anna Grafov, a UMD Physics undergraduate student and a member of the 2020 Local Organizing Committee, gave the following account:grafovAnna Grafov

On a cold January morning, the 2020 UMD-NIST Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics officially began as attendees filed into the Cambria Hotel to check-in. The lobby quickly filled with young physicists from across the country - from locals who came from just down the road, to a group of students from Chattanooga, who braved an 11 hour drive to Maryland.

As the registration dwindled down, the chatter in the lobby increased as students reunited with old friends and introduced themselves to new colleagues, and prepared for the day ahead - namely, traveling to NIST.

            Three charter buses filled with attendees made their way there. After a lunch networking with current female NIST physicists and hearing from NIST director, Dr. Walter G. Copan, the CUWiP participants attended a plenary talk by NIST Boulder Prof. Ana Maria Rey, and were introduced to the APS STEP UP program. The students then had the opportunity to tour several of NIST’s world class laboratories, including the reactor. The day concluded with a banquet and a plenary talk by NIST and UMD professor and Nobel Laureate Dr. Bill Phillips, and a chance to network with the renowned scientists. Everyone settled in for a restful night at the Cambria Hotel, aided by advanced blackout curtains and a high-tech Bluetooth mirror.

            Bright and early the next morning, attendees were able to check out some of the University of Maryland’s beautiful (albeit construction-filled) campus as they made their way over to the Edward St. John Learning & Teaching Center. After the introduction and group photo (in which nearly 200 attendees fit on one staircase!), the students attended several panels led by physicists ranging from undergrads and graduate students to renowned professors such as former Chief Scientist for BP and director of ARPA-E, Prof. Ellen Williams. The panels covered topics such as the Intersection of Technology and Policy, Life as a Graduate Student, Research Experiences for Undergraduates, Diverse Careers in Physics, and Navigating a Career in STEM as a Member of the LGBTQ+ Community. Women at the conference were thrilled to be able to connect with other physicists who have been through similar experiences - students said that they benefited from “just hearing shared experiences from other women,” and that this gave them “a better sense of community.” The attendees had a chance to continue their discussions over lunch, and also had the opportunity to check out the networking fair, which included booths for local universities and organizations such as APS and OSA.copan tweet

            After lunch, the UMD-NIST CUWiP attendees connected virtually with the 17 other CUWiP sites concurrently being held across the country. National Keynote Speaker Dr. Andrea Liu delivered an exciting talk and answered questions posed by students over Twitter. One student said that seeing all of the other sites made her finally able to “conceptualize the number of women physics majors,” and the opportunities to meet other students stood out as a highlight throughout the entire conference. The attendees then had a short break at the hotel, during which they were able to participate in the hotel door decorating contest, and produced some outstanding physics-themed designs. The group then headed to the UMD Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center for the poster session. The session was packed with over 30 outstanding posters on topics ranging from outreach to advanced research in universities and industry.

The next event was the Quantum Cafe, led by UMD Physics Department Chair Prof. Steve Rolston and several members of the UMD Joint Quantum Institute. Through an exciting presentation, the event demonstrated the importance and implications of quantum mechanics in the modern world. An awards session followed, in which both the best posters and honorable mentions were acknowledged. We then heard a moving speech by Morgan Chamberlain, a physics student from Linfield College, who was commissioned to design the logo for the 2020 UMD-NIST CUWiP. Morgan’s art was featured on the CUWiP totes every attendee received, and even speakers and guests were dazzled by the design. A delicious dinner was served, and the night concluded with an inspiring talk by Prof. Ellen Williams on energy and technology and the implications for climate change.

The final day kicked off with more awards to acknowledge all of the amazing CUWiP participants, including outstanding door decorations and interesting tweets. The attendees then split up into workshops, which covered the topics of Communication and Negotiations Skills, Thriving and Building Inclusion in STEM, Building and Presenting Physics Demonstrations, Applying to Graduate School, and Networking and Job Searching Using LinkedIn. Students completed the workshops feeling more prepared to take on their future careers as physicists. “I had been doubting if physics was the right path for me, but after attending CUWiP, I cannot see myself doing anything else.” These words by one student were echoed in the expressions of many other attendees, who reported that they felt more excited and prepared to continue with careers in physics.

After the workshops, attendees were able to visit some of UMD’s exceptional laboratories and research groups. Not only were they able to see exceptional facilities, but the tours also offered the opportunities to hear about graduate school first-hand from current graduate researchers and speak with professors whose research they may pursue when applying to graduate school. The conference concluded with a final lunch. As the meeting ended, these young female physicists took their time to leave, saying goodbyes, taking pictures, exchanging numbers. This is the lasting impact of attending a CUWiP - joining a community of successful female physicists who support and empower one another. As one attendee so perfectly summarized, “CUWiP made me proud to be a Woman in Physics.”


Amber McCreary, a postdoctoral researcher at NIST who assisted in organizing this year’s conference, was also active in planning a Penn State CUWiP while a student. In NIST’s Taking Measure/Just a Standard Blog, she described some of her experiences as a woman in physics and gave a detailed account of January’s UMD-NIST CUWiP. Read Amber’s perspective here: https://www.nist.gov/blogs/taking-measure/conference-undergraduate-women-physics-leveling-playing-field

Robert Lee Park, 1931 - 2020

Bob Park, a Professor Emeritus who was an author and outspoken advocate for science and rational thought, died on April 29, 2020. He was 89.

Park was born in Kansas City, Missouri and intended to pursue a career in law. When the Korean War intervened, his service as an electronics officer in the Air Force ignited a passion for physics. He enrolled in the University of Texas in 1956 and earned a BS in Physics in 1958 with High Honors. He stayed in Austin for a master’s degree and then accepted an Edgar Lewis Marston Fellowship at Brown University. He earned his Ph.D.  in physics in 1964.

He worked during the next decade for Sandia Laboratories before joining UMD in 1974. He served as Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy from 1978-1982.   In 1983, he opened a Washington office for the American Physical Society, and divided his time between the University and the APS until 2003. He retired in 2008, but continued writing an online column, What’s New, in which he deplored fallacies, particularly those allowed to affect public policy.

He wrote two books, Voodoo Science: the Road from Foolishness to Fraud and Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science and features in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. Park received the 1998 Joseph A. Burton Award of the American Physical Society for informing the public about physics and the 2008 Philip J. Klass Award of the National Capital Area Skeptics for promoting critical thinking. He often criticized the manned space program as risky and expensive, and repeatedly warned of overpopulation of this planet.

He was a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the American Vacuum Society.  

Park was nearing age 70 when, while jogging on a calm Sunday, he was nearly crushed when an oak tree toppled. As described in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

A pair of priests who happened upon him lying unconscious under the tree administered last rites, he later found out.

….a strange coincidence….took place the day he returned to the scene of his accident a year later.

"The story gets even more unbelievable," he said. He went to the exact place where he was struck, he said, and as he passed the broken-off trunk of the tree that nearly killed him, he passed two elderly men walking. "You know that tree fell on a guy last year," one of them said.

When Park said he was that man, one of the two began to tear up. It turned out they were the priests who found Park pinned under the tree and gave him last rites. They decided to throw him a champagne party to celebrate his survival.

Park is survived by his wife Gerry and sons Robert Jr. and Daniel.  The family asks that any memorial donations be directed to the Department of Physics: https://giving.umd.edu/giving/fund.php?name=physics-department-operating-fund