Rockafellow One of Three UMD Goldwater Scholars

Ela Rockafellow, a junior physics major who is also a member of the University Honors program in the Honors College, is one of three University of Maryland undergraduates awarded scholarships this year by the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, which encourages students to pursue advanced study and research careers in the sciences, engineering and mathematics.Rockafellow Ela sqEla Rockafellow, courtesy of same

Also receiving the distinction are Sanketh Andhavarapu, a sophomore biological sciences and neuroeconomics (Individual Studies) dual-degree student who is also a member of the University Honors program in the Honors College and Naveen Raman, a junior computer science and mathematics double major who is also a member of the Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students in the Honors College.

Over the last decade, UMD’s nominations yielded 37 scholarships—the second most in the nation behind Stanford University. Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University also rank in the top 10.

“Our scholars are already contributing significantly to understanding a broad array of important scientific problems through their research. Collectively, there are advancing our understanding of plasma physics and laser-matter interactions, neurological disorders, and bias in artificial intelligence-based algorithms. These young research stars are on trajectories to make major research contributions throughout their careers,” said Robert Infantino, associate dean of undergraduate education in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. Infantino has led UMD’s Goldwater Scholarship nominating process since 2001.

Andhavarapu, Raman and Rockafellow were among the 410 Barry Goldwater Scholars selected from 1,256 students nominated nationally this year. Goldwater Scholars receive one- or two-year scholarships that cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to $7,500 per year. These scholarships are a stepping-stone to future support for the students’ research careers. The Goldwater Foundation has honored 73 UMD winners and five honorable mentions since the program’s first award was given in 1989.

Rockafellow—a Banneker/Key Scholar who went to elementary school in Zambia and graduated from high school in Washington, D.C.—works on one of only three high-power, ultrafast lasers in the world that operates in the mid-infrared wavelength of 3.9 microns. She has co-authored a paper published in the journal Physical Review Letters and presented two posters at national American Physical Society meetings.

Since January 2019, Rockafellow has been working in the laboratory of Physics Professor Howard Milchberg, who also holds appointments in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics (IREAP).

First, Rockafellow designed and constructed an autocorrelator—an optical device for measuring the duration of short laser pulses—for the team’s 3.9-micron laser. Then, she was instrumental to a team that measured ionization yield by lasers of 14 orders of magnitude.

"Ela's measurements and analysis were critical to the success of this experiment," Milchberg said. "She set up sensitive imaging optics and wrote really clever algorithms that required her to not only learn about lasers in general, but she had to master our unique mid-infrared system, which is most definitely not a turn-key laser."

Currently, she is running simulations and conducting experiments measuring terahertz radiation generation.

“Ela’s level of scholarly activity and publication is rare and exceptional, and I can say without qualification that Ela is the one of the best undergraduate students I have seen at the University of Maryland,” said one of Ela’s course instructors, Thomas E. Murphy, Keystone Professor of ECE and director of IREAP. “She exhibits a rare combination of intelligence, creativity and dedication that I seldom find, even in graduate students.”

She also has a passion for teaching others. Rockafellow has been an undergraduate teaching assistant for several physics courses and is currently involved in designing a physics course about diversity, equity and inclusion that will be taught in the fall.

She also serves as outreach coordinator and as a volunteer tutor for the university’s Society of Physics Students chapter and was the mentor coordinator for the 2021 Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU2MIP).

Outside of school, she has been competing in equestrian events since she was 6 years old and she started wrestling in eighth grade, competing as one of the only female wrestlers in the league for the next five years. Rockafellow is also a talented artist and painter.

After graduation, she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics and continue her work in experimental intense laser/matter interactions. 


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NSF Fellowships Awarded to 4 Students, 1 Alumnus

Four graduate students and a recent alumnus of the Department of Physics have received prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships, which recognize outstanding graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Across the university, 21 undergraduates and recent alumni were among the fellowship winners announced by the NSF. Thirteen were from the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS).

CMNS graduate student fellowship recipients:

  • Richard Barney, physics graduate student
  • Joshua Chiel, physics graduate student
  • Robert Dalka, physics graduate student
  • Karen Gu, biological sciences graduate student
  • Jameson O’Reilly, physics graduate student

CMNS undergraduate student fellowship recipients:

  • Tyler Hoffman, mathematics major
  • John Lathrop, mathematics and mechanical engineering dual-degree student
  • Jesse Matthews, mathematics and chemical engineering dual-degree student
  • Madison Plunkert, biological sciences major 

CMNS alumni fellowship recipients:

  • Samantha Litvin (B.S. ’16, chemistry)
  • Elissa Moller (B.S. ’20, biological sciences)
  • Scott Moroch (B.S. ’20, physics)
  • Anna Seminara (B.S. ’19, biological sciences)

NSF fellows receive three years of support, including a $34,000 annual stipend, a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance for tuition and fees and access to opportunities for professional development available.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.

Since 1952, NSF has funded more than 60,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Currently, 42 fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates, and more than 450 have become members of the National Academy of Sciences.


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Buonanno Receives Galileo Galilei Medal

Alessandra Buonanno has been awarded the Galileo Galilei Medal by the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN). Buonanno was cited with Thibault Damour of the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques in Paris and Frans Pretorius of Princeton University “for the fundamental understanding of sources of gravitational radiation by complementary analytic and numerical techniques, enabling predictions that have been confirmed by gravitational wave observations and are now key tools in this new branch of astronomy”.  

Stefania De Curtis, director of the Galileo Galilei Institute, wrote that "Professors Buonanno and Damour, and professor Pretorius proposed two complementary approaches, analytical and numerical, to describe the behavior of two black holes spiraling around each other until they collide. Their description was used for the analysis of experimental data that, in 2015, led the LIGO and VIRGO scientific collaborations to the observation of the first gravitational waves emitted by the collision of two black holes". 2021 Galileo Galilei medal2021 Galileo Galilei medal

Buonanno is the director of the Astrophysical and Cosmological Relativity Department at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam and a Research Professor at the University of Maryland. She joined the UMD 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. 

In discussing the work that led to the Galilei Medal, Buonanno explained that "To identify the source that generated the gravitational waves we observe on Earth, we need hundred thousand of waveform models. To achieve this goal about 20 years ago we introduced a novel approach to solve analytically the two-body problem in general relativity. This approach paved the way to develop the highly precise waveform models that today are routinely used by LIGO and VIRGO to detect binary systems composed of black holes and neutron stars and infer unique information about astrophysics, cosmology and gravity”. She offers futher discussion in this video.  

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


This story was adapted from the INFN website; for further information on the award, see

CU²MiP: Online and Expanded

In January 2021, the University of Maryland’s Department of Physics and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hosted the third Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU²MiP). The conference launched in 2016 to address the historically low representation of minorities in the physics community.

This year, UMD President Darryll J. Pines gave a welcoming and encouraging address. UMD College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences Dean Amitabh Varshney, NIST director Walter Copan. Physics Chair Steve Rolston, Rowan University’s Tabbatha Dobbins and Howard University Thomas A. Searles were among many speakers, workshop leaders and panelists.

Though COVID-19 required an online gathering this year, organizers adapted and expanded the program in significant ways, offering a research panel on quantum science, helpful videos and an entire slate for high school students.

“The quantum panel and quantum speakers for both undergrad and high school were very well received,” said Donna Hammer, director of education for the Department of Physics. Among the speakers at the quantum panel was alumna Ana Maria Rey (Ph.D. ’04), recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant.

CU²MiP videos included several lab tours, as well as interviews with UMD students explaining their choice and enjoyment of physics.CU2MiP Collage

Other CU2MiP highlights included a fireside chat where College Park Professor Sylvester James Gates Jr. was interviewed by his daughter, Delilah Gates (B.S. ’15), who is now a physics Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University. The elder Gates mentioned events in his life that helped him succeed as a physicist and contribute to society. He also addressed “imposter syndrome,” which is a sense of not belonging or being good enough, and discussed ways that students might overcome it.

Jorge Ramirez Ortiz and Daniel Serrano of UMD gave a presentation on Rostros Físicos, a new multimedia celebration of the successes of Latinx/Latin American physicists across all stages of the scientific career path.

Fostering collegiality has always been a primary CU²MiP goal, and this year’s virtual gathering continued this emphasis.

“Adding mentoring chats throughout the conference fostered meaningful networking beyond the breakout rooms associated with the panels and workshops,” Hammer said. “Drop-in mentoring provided shared stories, guidance and collaboration in real time.”

Undergraduates responded positively.

“It was great to meet people and I found all of the speakers inspiring and engaging!” wrote one participant. Another expressed gratitude for the conference, noting, “I spoke with a lot of supportive people on the prospects of research.” 

The high school conference featured a plenary talk by Professor Willie Rockward, the physics department chair at Morgan State University, on “Your Pathway in Physics using Passion, Purpose, and Problem-solving.” High school student Anisha Musti discussed founding Q-munity, a group of high school students working together in quantum computing. College Park Professor and Nobel Laureate Bill Phillips, along with NIST’s Angie Hight Walker, held a Quantum Science Showcase. 

Erin Lukomska-Schlauch, chair of the science department at Charles Herbert Flowers High School in Prince George’s County, helped to organize the conference, and found the experience memorable.

"As an educator, I will be taking a lot of what I learned back to my students, especially from the diversity workshops,” she said. "All the sessions that I attended were all really engaging, well planned and well executed."

Cindy Hollies, a teacher who has led many UMD physics summer programs, wrote, “I logged out of the conference on Sunday evening feeling proud and impressed with the young people leading the future of physics and amazed at the inspiring opportunities this conference presented for high school students. May there be many more such conferences.”  

Hammer observed that high school students learned about the many career opportunities opened by degrees in physics. As one student wrote, “…although I have taken a physics class, I didn't know much about its applications. I am very excited to take more related classes in college.”

Rolston, the department chair, was pleased with the undergraduate program and the extended efforts for high school students.

“We are grateful to everyone who contributed to CU²MiP,” he said. “Studying physics is a great path, not only to research and teaching careers, but to an extremely wide range of interesting professions. And the discipline itself helps develop a discerning way of seeing the world.”

"CU²MiP is a catalyst for change,” summarized Hammer. “The outcomes of each conference inspire me to keep moving forward and to know, not just believe, that real, positive change is possible and happening right now. As one student said to me, ‘This conference showed me that with each day I study physics, I'm part of the solution.’”

Despite Pandemic, Physics Lab Courses Go On

Lab courses are where physics students learn firsthand that reality, even the one carefully curated by their instructors, is messy. Scales need to be recalibrated, projectiles hit lab benches instead of completing perfect arcs, and there’s always a mysterious source of issues popularly known as human error. Students traditionally tackle experiments in person, either individually or in pairs, on pre-arranged experimental stations. These are difficult things to replicate online or even in a physically distanced environment.

Nevertheless, when the pandemic hit, the UMD Department of Physics’ lab courses moved online for spring and summer 2020. And after the campus reopened in the fall, many of the lab courses were offered in person again, with a multitude of safety precautions and—perhaps most importantly—without any known spread of COVID-19.

A small cast of dedicated department staff members worked hard to pull it all off. One key figure is Allen Monroe, the assistant director of physics instructional labs, who has been at UMD for 43 years. Monroe first started working for the department in 1978 while he was still in high school.

“They called me a gopher,” said Monroe, “because I would ‘go for’ this and ‘go for’ that.”

He was hired to run the labs for classes taken by physics majors in 1984 and has remained here ever since. During this time, he went from lab manager to lab coordinator to assistant director, and he earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial education in 1994 from UMD.

Monroe says remaining at the university for this long has been easy.

“There's always something new to learn,” Monroe said. “And it's always something different. It’s fascinating. And at this point, I’m seeing the whole picture.”

The whole picture can be pretty overwhelming.

“During a typical semester up here, I've got 2,000 students roaming through these hallways going through these labs every week,” Monroe said.  

When the university moved to online classes in March, each instructor handled the situation differently: some asked students do simulations, while others provided students data to be analyzed. But this wasn’t going to work for an entire course. Monroe needed to begin planning for summer classes, which would be taught entirely online. Migrating the whole operation to Zoom was an enormous and time-sensitive undertaking—there were lab courses starting in under two months.

“We had to work very quickly,” said Monroe, “because, you know, this was early April and we had to have this stuff ready for June 1.”

But even with his decades of experience, Monroe says he could not have done it alone. He relied on Physics Professor and Joint Quantum Institute Co-director Frederick Wellstood, who has been a mainstay of the department’s labs for decades. Wellstood first began designing lab courses in the mid-1990s with Distinguished University Professor of Physics Jordan Goodman and continued to do so after he became associate chair of undergraduate education in 1999. After he left that post in 2004, he remained the go-to physicist for all lab-related things.

“This is my secret side job, this is my night job,” Wellstood said.

For more than 20 years, he designed and reinvented much of the UMD physics lab curriculum. So last spring when Monroe needed help, Wellstood stepped up to the plate.

Not only did Monroe and Wellstood have to work quickly, they had to thread a fine needle. Students needed to be able to follow the experiment without actually being in the lab, and they also needed to stay engaged and not simply watch projectiles being thrown for them.

“You don't want the students to sit there and for their first thought to be ‘This is stupid,’” Monroe said. “So you have to kind of make it interesting.”

Wellstood and Monroe decided to go for an amalgam approach wherever possible. Wellstood filmed himself doing several versions of data collection, like sending projectiles along a few different paths. The students would choose one of the experiments, watch their chosen video and analyze the corresponding data themselves. 

Once the summer courses were humming along, Wellstood and Monroe immediately started preparing for the fall. They had to figure out how to quickly convert a lot more courses to online versions, as well as how to prepare for safe if partial, return to campus.

“We were in major survival mode, or firefighting mode,” Wellstood recalled.

A team headed by Professor and Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies Carter Hall, Director of Student Services Donna Hammer, and professors Sarah Eno, Dan Lathrop and Kara Hoffman pitched in, obtaining a grant from the Provost’s office that allowed them to hire physics graduate student Brandon Johnson and undergraduate physics major Robert Wolle to record videos of themselves doing experiments and create online versions of the lab instruction manuals.

For the courses that were small enough to be held in person, Monroe wrote up safety protocols that were approved by the university. He put fans in all the windows, spaced out the experimental stations as much as possible, and converted some of the courses to a partial schedule, with alternating halves of the class coming in each week. If students ran into trouble doing one of the in-person labs, they would call their teaching assistant via Zoom, from their station to the front of the class, to avoid putting either the students or teaching assistant at risk.

Even with all the preparation, unpredictable problems arose.

“We used to run from 8 or 9 in the morning until 10 at night,” Monroe said. “In between every one of these sections, we had to go in and sanitize the room. And that all worked pretty good until we found that we were wiping the lettering off of keyboards.”

They did some research and switched to a less-abrasive cleaning product.

By putting in many extra hours and taking advantage of everything at their disposal, including online lab manual distribution tools, partial schedules and physically distanced in-person protocols, they pulled off a successful fall semester.

“It worked reasonably well,” said Wellstood, “which means it didn't catch fire and burn down. You know, we actually got through it.”

Both Wellstood and Monroe also credit the ensemble of people that made it all possible. Labs are staffed by Omar Torres, Greg Wolter and Catherine Owens.  

“We’ve tried to make sure that we can offer in-person experiments where it's possible,” said Wellstood, “and I think it’s a credit to the university that they let us try. And it’s a credit to the instructors.”

Monroe and Wellstood were ready when in-person spring classes began this week, and they’re proud of what they’ve pulled off thus far, but they both agree this past year has been extremely tough.  

“I'm looking forward to being able to open up again someday,” said Monroe, “because oh boy, it's exhausting.”

Written by Dina Genkina