Research Projects Open Doors for High School Students

Before this summer, going to college seemed impossible to Casey Claveria, a rising senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A problem-solver at heart, Claveria was set on a career in STEM but did not know how to get there. A University of Maryland program called PROPEL—Physics Research Opportunity for Promoting Equity in Learning—changed that.

PROPEL aims to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in physics by exposing high school students to cutting-edge university research. When UMD’s Department of Physics established its Climate Committee in 2020 to ensure a welcoming and supportive environment, graduate student commit PROPEL participants visited campus toward the end of their summer program to tour physics labs. From left to right: Casey Claveria, Kalkidan Michael, Peter Elgee, Landry Horimbere, Ananya Sitaram. PROPEL participants visited campus toward the end of their summer program to tour physics labs. From left to right: Casey Claveria, Kalkidan Michael, Peter Elgee, Landry Horimbere, Ananya Sitaram.tee members Landry Horimbere (B.S. ’16, physics; B.S. ’16, physical sciences) and Ananya Sitaram decided to set the program into motion.

“PROPEL is a really important step toward addressing the transition between high school and undergrad and getting more students interested in doing physics in college by showing them what you can do with physics,” Sitaram said.

In fall 2020, 17% of undergraduate physics majors at UMD were underrepresented minorities and 20% were female. The Climate Committee quickly acknowledged the importance of investing time and resources in the high school-to-college pipeline.

“There’s direct value in recruiting underrepresented students and giving them a research experience. It demystifies physics, engineering, mathematics for students early on,” Horimbere said. “If you go into physics and take the classes, you’ll learn a lot of formal material, but it’s not as involved or interesting as thinking about unsolved problems and conducting research.”

Horimbere and Sitaram presented PROPEL to high school students at the Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU2MIP) in January 2021 and encouraged them to apply. During the spring semester, they planned a daily itinerary for the summer program and enlisted physics faculty members—including Gretchen Campbell, Alicia Kollár and Dan Lathrop—to give lectures and lead workshops.

Three high school students were accepted into this summer’s pilot program and paired with mentors based on their research interests. For two months, the students worked daily on their research projects while also attending professional development workshops and lectures and participating in community-building activities. Horimbere, Sitaram and physics graduate students Peter Elgee and Naren Manjunath served as mentors.

Claveria worked with Sitaram and Elgee on atomic physics research, using lasers to cool strontium atoms down to close to 0 K (“absolute zero” temperature), where quantum physics takes over. After flashing the atoms with sequences of laser pulses and taking images of the atom clouds throughout, Sitaram and Elgee measure how the state of the atoms changes. Claveria worked on a coding project to measure those changes.

“Her project is essential to our lab running, because the code that she has written calculates the number of atoms, the temperature and width of the cloud, parameters like that,” Sitaram explained. “This type of analysis is necessary in any experiment in atomic physics.”

The other high school students in the program, Abriana Medina and Kalkidan Michael, studied random walks and saltwater conductivity, respectively.

Medina worked with Manjunath to use Python to compare types of random walks, the process by which randomly moving objects wander away from where they started. The flight path of a cicada or the path traced by a molecule as it travels in a liquid are both examples of random walks that scientists use to model various patterns.

With mentorship from Horimbere, Michael designed and built an experiment to run varying voltages through different levels of turbulence in saltwater to see how much the resistance changed. The goal of this experiment was to provide insight into the potential inefficiencies of a magnetohydrodynamic power plant.

Now that the summer and PROPEL have come to a close, Claveria plans to pursue research opportunities in college and use the information she learned about how to apply for scholarships and other resources to help make college a reality.

“Since I aim to be in a STEM field in the future, I plan to use combinations of what I learned throughout the program in my college career,” Claveria said. “Though I learned basic Python in high school, this program taught me how to utilize it to make graphs and do more complex calculations involving statistics and calculus.”

Teaching high school students and bringing them into research projects required the mentors to take a step back and find ways to make complex physics concepts easier for the students to understand.

“One of my favorite things to do in research is help someone get a result on a project,” Horimbere said. “Together, we get to see exactly how known results come about instead of just plugging variables into an equation that you could find in a reference. Simply doing the calculation yourself is actually quite enlightening. We also get to be surprised by unexpected results that we try to reconcile with existing knowledge.”

PROPEL’s eight-week program culminated in the students presenting their research to the mentors, program coordinators and Donna Hammer, director of education for the Department of Physics.

“What’s great about this pilot for PROPEL is that it’s something these graduate students conceived and put together,” said Peter Shawhan, a physics professor and the chair of the department’s Climate Committee. “It’s a sign of the energy our students have to be proactive about improving diversity and better serving students and the community as a whole by incorporating more people into the scientific effort.”

Looking ahead, Horimbere wants to expand recruiting efforts for this program and enlist faculty members to serve in advisory roles.

“I am convinced that with modest financial support and careful planning, PROPEL would scale very well and have a significant impact on the readiness and diversity of incoming physics and, more generally, STEM students,” Horimbere said.

For Claveria, the PROPEL experience made her less nervous to attend college. From giving her a UMD campus tour to answering her questions about the physics profession to offering tips for scholarships, Sitaram’s mentorship meant everything.

“The best part of this program are the mentors—Ananya felt like a big sister to me. She really inspires me,” Claveria said. “PROPEL gave me more experience with research and made me feel more comfortable with harder concepts in Python, calculus and more.”

Written by Katie Bemb

UMD Leads New $25M NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation

The University of Maryland has been tapped to lead a multi-institutional effort supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that is focused on developing quantum simulation devices that can understand, and thereby exploit, the rich behavior of complex quantum systems.

The NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation announced on September 2, 2021, brings together computer scientists, engineers and physicists from five academic institutions and the federal government. Funded by a $25 million award from NSF, researchers in the UMD-led institute will develop theoretical concepts, design innovative hardware, and provide education and training for a suite of novel simulation devices that can predict and understand quantum phenomena.

“Maintaining and growing our global leadership in quantum science and technology is important for the state of Maryland and a top strategic priority for its flagship campus, the University of Maryland,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “The Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation positions us to tackle grand challenges in quantum information science and quantum computing, and it further elevates our region as the Capital of Quantum.”

Quantum simulation is a fundamental step toward realizing a world where general-purpose quantum computers can transform medicine, break encryption and revolutionizeWith $25 million in support from the National Science Foundation, the University of Maryland will lead a multi-institutional effort focused on quantum simulation devices that can exploit the rich behavior of complex quantum systems. UMD Computer Science Professor Andrew Childs (second from right) is principal investigator of the award and director of the new NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation. Photo by John T. Consoli / University of MarylandWith $25 million in support from the National Science Foundation, the University of Maryland will lead a multi-institutional effort focused on quantum simulation devices that can exploit the rich behavior of complex quantum systems. UMD Computer Science Professor Andrew Childs (second from right) is principal investigator of the award and director of the new NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation. Photo by John T. Consoli / University of Maryland communications. Even the most powerful of today’s “classical” computers struggle to represent even relatively small quantum systems, an obstacle that could be overcome by building next-generation quantum simulators.

Andrew Childs, a UMD professor of computer science and co-director of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS), is the lead principal investigator of the NSF award and will serve as director of the new institute.

“Quantum simulation is arguably the most compelling application of quantum computers,” Childs said. “Through dedicated research, education and outreach, we will nurture the quantum simulation community and provide a sharp focus on new discoveries and applications involving quantum simulation.” 

In addition to faculty, postdocs and students from UMD, the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation will include quantum experts from Duke University, Princeton University, North Carolina State University and Yale University, as well as researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Nine of these federal scientists are already embedded on the UMD campus, working in the Joint Quantum Institute, launched in 2006, and in QuICS, launched in 2015.

In addition to Childs, leadership roles in the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation will be filled by Ian Spielman from NIST (associate director for research), Mohammad Hafezi from UMD (associate director for education), Gretchen Campbell from NIST (associate director for diversity and inclusion), as well as co-principal investigators Kenneth Brown and Christopher Monroe (Duke), Alicia Kollár (UMD) and Jeff Thompson (Princeton). UMD physicists who will be part of the efforts include Maissam Barkeshli, Zohreh Davoudi, Victor Galitski, Chris Jarzynski, Norbert Linke, Vlad Manucharyan, Steve Rolston, Edo Waks, Ron Walsworth, Victor Albert, Alexey Gorshkov, Daniel Gottesman, Michael Gullans, Bill Phillips, Trey Porto and Nicole Yunger Halpern.

“Our strength in quantum science research and our connections with academic and government collaborators give us a solid foundation on which to build this newest quantum endeavor,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, where the new institute will be administratively housed. “The NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation represents scientific discovery and impact at its best—taking on the most difficult of challenges and using the knowledge gained to transition to a quantum-based economy that can improve people’s lives significantly.”

The researchers believe that by evaluating the best approaches to small-scale quantum simulation, they can provide a detailed blueprint for what could be early practical applications for quantum computers. They have identified three major scientific challenges to focus their efforts on: methods for verifying the correctness of simulations, the interaction of simulators with their environments, and the development of scalable quantum simulators for science and technology applications.

To do this, the researchers plan to explore the theoretical foundations of quantum algorithms and error correction—in conjunction with experimental implementations of reconfigurable quantum simulators—on four leading hardware platforms: trapped ions, arrays of Rydberg atoms, quantum photonics with solid-state defects and superconducting circuits.

They envision tight collaboration between theoretical and experimental approaches to co-design near-term simulation protocols with current and next-generation devices. This includes the joint development of optical and microwave control techniques across different experimental platforms, allowing for rapid advances in system size and controllability.

The ongoing mission of the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation will also include a strong educational component. Plans call for a new flagship conference on quantum simulation and other outreach and education programs that engage diverse groups of students in quantum science, including partnerships with Morgan State University and North Carolina Central University.

Faculty in the new institute also plan to introduce cross-disciplinary undergraduate specializations in quantum information and provide quantum information training for postgraduates and professionals.

Today’s announcement is the latest in a series of federal grants establishing a cohort of Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes nationwide. Three Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes launched last year, with the Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Robust Quantum Simulation and the Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Quantum Sensing in Biophysics and Bioengineering—led by the University of Chicago—being funded in 2021.

With science currently undergoing a quantum revolution, NSF is leading the charge through large-scale investments into centers that further the understanding of basic quantum phenomena, fundamental discoveries that will translate into transformative technologies.

“Our Quantum Leap Challenge Institutes program is developing the foundation of quantum information sciences, as well as developing the future students, faculty, startups and industry partners who are engaged in it,” said Sean L. Jones, NSF assistant director of mathematical and physical sciences. “These two new institutes are tapping into challenging fields that have the potential to develop the next generation of tools that will establish the United States at the forefront of quantum innovation.”


This research is supported by the National Science Foundation (Award No. OMA-2120757). This story does not necessarily reflect the views of this organization.

Media Contacts: (UMD) Abby Robinson, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; (NSF) 703.292.7090, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the National Science Foundation

The NSF propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2021 budget of $8.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

About the University of Maryland

The University of Maryland is the state’s flagship university and one of the nation's preeminent public research universities. A global leader in research, entrepreneurship and innovation, the university is home to more than 40,000 students, 10,000 faculty and staff, and 300 academic programs. As one of the nation’s top producers of Fulbright scholars, its faculty includes two Nobel laureates, four Pulitzer Prize winners and 59 members of the national academies. The institution has a $2.2 billion operating budget and secures more than $1 billion annually in research funding together with the University of Maryland, Baltimore.




John S. Toll Endowed Lecture in Physics Honors a Culture of Excellence, Curiosity and Collaboration

Chuan Sheng Liu and Jingyi Liu Chuan Sheng Liu and Jingyi Liu

John Toll (1923-2011) knew how to bring talented people together to build something bigger than themselves. 

As chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Physics and Astronomy from 1953 to 1965, Toll recruited dozens of top-tier scientists to catapult the department onto an international stage. As president of UMD from 1978 to 1988 and founding chancellor of the University System of Maryland from 1988 to 1989, Toll helped grow the system and elevate its reputation. 

In 1990, faculty, staff and administrators of the department established an endowed professorship in his name, and in 2002, the physics building was named after Toll in recognition of his contributions to the university. 

Now, Chuan-Sheng Liu and Jingyi Liu are generously honoring Toll’s enormous legacy by endowing a lecture series in his name. The couple donated $50,000 to establish the John S. Toll Endowed Lecture in Physics, which will bring some of the brightest physicists to UMD’s campus to share their talent and enthusiasm with the community.

Chuan Liu is a professor emeritus of physics who joined UMD in 1974 and served as department chair from 1985 to 1990 and 1993 to 1994. His wife, Jingyi Liu (M.S. ’83, communications; Ph.D. ’91, radio/tv/film), was a cross-cultural communication consultant, educator and TV producer for educational programs, and she served as a contract interpreter for the U.S. Department of State.

The Lius’ gift to the university was followed by a $20,000 contribution from John Toll’s widow, Deborah Toll, who was thrilled to see her husband being honored in this way.

“I’m delighted that the Lius have established this lecture series, and it’s wonderful of them to do it in John’s name,” Toll said. “We now realize how sorely this country needs to improve scientific literacy, and I’m sure if John were alive, he would be doing something about it. If this lecture series can help bring some of the brightest minds to Maryland and get people excited about physics and science, all the better.”

The first John S. Toll Endowed Lecture in Physics will be presented by S. James Gates Jr., the current president of the American Physical Society and a College Park Professor of Physics who has been on the UMD faculty since 1984. He was the John S. Toll Professor of Physics from 1998 to 2017. Awarded the President’s National Medal of Science in 2011, Gates served on former President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. He is known among scJim Gates and John Toll in 2001.Jim Gates and John Toll in 2001.ientists for his work in supersymmetry, supergravity and superstring theory, and is more widely known by the public for his frequent appearances on scientific documentaries. Gates is currently the Ford Foundation Professor of Physics at Brown University and director of the Brown Theoretical Physics Center. 

“Gates is a great representative for this first lecture,” Chuan Liu said. “He is a brilliant physicist as well as a very accomplished leader and public speaker. In addition to bringing brilliant people to speak to the community, we want to embody the spirit of collaboration and curiosity that John brought, and I think Gates is a great example of this.”

The Lius stressed that John Toll was dedicated to bringing people together under the umbrella of science and knowledge. It was a core part of John Toll’s personality that they both experienced firsthand throughout the years they knew him.

“We got to know John Toll very well and consider him a good friend,” Chuan Liu said. “I first met him when he came back to Maryland as president of the university, but he was also a physicist, so we had a lot in common and we talked about physics often.”

The Lius were also involved in Toll’s efforts to build relationships with scientists in China. In 1979, soon after the normalization of U.S.-China relations, Chuan Liu and three physicists from Princeton were invited by the Chinese Academy of Sciences to visit the Institute of Plasma Physics in Anhui, China. It would be Chuan Liu’s first return trip to China since his family left the country for Taiwan in 1949, and he was very excited. 

When John Toll learned of the trip, he entrusted Chuan Liu to deliver a letter of invitation on behalf of Maryland Governor Harry Hughes to Wan Li, the governor of China’s Anhui province. Later that year, Wan led a delegation to visit Maryland, and Jingyi Liu served as interpreter for him and his delegation. While in Maryland, she got to know John Toll and Hughes and they encouraged her to come to UMD for her graduate studies.

The following year, Hughes visited Anhui province. Both John Toll and Chuan Liu were members of Hughes’ delegation. The exchange led to Maryland and Anhui becoming sister-states, which enabled numerous interactions and collaborations.

The Lius agree that part of John Toll’s ability to recruit talent and bring people together was his warmth and enthusiasm, qualities that seemed to come naturally to him. Deborah Toll echoed that sentiment, recalling stories her husband told about his early days as department chair.

“He used to bring some of the best scientists from all over the world to Maryland, and then he would take them to his mother’s house in Chevy Chase,” Toll explained. “She would host them and make meals for them. They had a grand time.”Deborah TollDeborah Toll

It was that kind of personal touch that the Lius remember so fondly. Although their gift reflects a deep appreciation and respect for John Toll as a leader and a scientist, it was his warmth and generosity as a friend that they often refer to when speaking about him. 

“We want to continue the culture of inclusion, excellence and curiosity that John established here,” Chuan Liu said. “He wanted to share the excitement of discovery and to really help spread the spirit of collaboration in science.”  

Perhaps no better example of that spirit is the Department of Physics’ traditional afternoon tea where students, faculty and staff came together daily to discuss science and socialize. John Toll started that tradition when he joined UMD in 1953, and it continued for many decades. 

“He was a person who respected people and tried to bring out their best with his inspirational leadership,” Chuan Liu said. “And he had a truly unselfish spirit that was dedicated to truth and to bigger things than himself. We want this wonderful culture that John Toll started to continue, and in naming this lecture series for John, we want the next generations to remember the older generations and know the history and traditions that were the foundation of the department.” 

Written by Kimbra Cutlip

Follow this link  to a 1989 profile of John S. Toll in the department's newsletter. 

Buonanno Receives Dirac Medal

Alessandra Buonanno has been awarded the Dirac Medal, along with Thibault Damour, Frans Pretorius, and Saul Teukolsky. The medal is given by the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), in Trieste, Italy, to honor significant contributions to theoretical physics. This year's recipients were cited for their work envisaging LIGO's detection of gravitational waves.

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.

“It is a great honor for me to receive this prestigious award. It’s a wonderful recognition not only of my own research in gravitational waves, but of the work that the members of my research groups at the AEI and University of Maryland have done over many years,” Buonanno said. 

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.

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

Sibylle Sampson, 1929-2021

Sibylle Sampson, a crucial member of the Department of Physics during a period of remarkable growth, died August 8 at the Ginger Cove retirement community in Annapolis.

SampsonJohn Toll praises Sibylle Sampson at her retirement party in 1991.John Toll praises Sibylle Sampson at her retirement party in 1991. joined the department in 1960 as a stenographer, and rose to become Director of Finance and the utterly essential aide to John Toll during his frenzied and fruitful expansion of UMD Physics. She was a renowned administrator and advocate of the department.

Toll’s arrival transformed the department (and by extension, elevated the research stature of the entire university). By all accounts, Sampson's assistance was crucial in bringing Toll's plans to fruition.

Three decades ago, Sampson established the Sibylle Sampson Award to highlight particularly innovative efforts of  physics staff members.

A native of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, Sampson traveled to several countries for various jobs, and first arrived at College Park while visiting her brother, who was a postdoctoral researcher here. She eventually married her brother's roommate, an economics student, in 1959. Bob Sampson died just five months before Sibylle.

In retirement, both Sampsons enjoyed travel and boating. Sibylle was a poet in both English and German, and in 2018 published aSibylle Sampson recalls John Toll at his 2011 memorial.Sibylle Sampson recalls John Toll at his 2011 memorial. volume entitled, "Wanderings".   


I woke into black silence,
The earth so still as if it held its
Spinning, had drowned
The breath of wind.

It is the night of darkest winter
Sol sistere – when the sun stands still,
When ancients built fires to
Chase the ghosts of night.

From the East,
Dawn slowly spreads her mantle,
Gray and reluctant first – her cloak will
Soon reveal a golden rim:

The promise of the sun
Of light embracing the earth,
Of snow vibrating in the spectrum of color -
The hope of every window in this world.

Stand still, o moment,