Nastac to Receive University Medal

The path Michael Nastac set off on while watching Carl Sagan’s television series “Cosmos” as a child has taken him through some of the most prestigious laboratories in the world and led him to the cusp of a bright career in physics.

“Michael is brilliant, driven, friendly, charming, collaborative, and yet also appropriately competitive,” says physics Professor William Dorland. “Clearly, he isn’t the traditional ‘student leader’ type. He is a scientific leader, already establishing himself as a world-class intellectual force.”

Following a tremendous undergraduate record at UMD, Nastac has been selected as a University Medalist. He will be honored at the virtual commencement on Friday, May 22. The ceremony will be livestreamed starting at 1:00 pm on as well as the UMD Facebook and YouTube channels.

A Banneker/Key Scholar and a member of the University Honors program, Nastac came to UMD with a general interest in physics and mathematics before delving into nuclear fusion and its potential to revolutionize the field of sustainable energy. He began researching plasma turbulence both at UMD and at the University of Oxford, working to construct simple mathematical models that could be handled by present-day computers and help resolve one of the great conundrums of nuclear fusion: the energy input to current fusion reactors is greater than the energy put out by them.Nastac MMichael Nastac

“He never needs someone else to instill a sense of urgency in him,” says Alexander A. Schekochihin, professor of theoretical physics and fellow of Merton College at the University of Oxford. “He is clever, quick on the uptake, industrious, independent, communicative, articulate (and) extremely well educated.

Nastac is graduating with a double degree in physics and mathematics and a 3.99 GPA. He won a poster prize at the 2019 Sherwood Fusion Theory Conference; gave talks at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, the University of Oxford and the 12th Plasma Kinetics Working Meeting at the Wolfgang Pauli Institute in Vienna, Austria; and is first author of an upcoming publication in the Journal of Plasma Physics.

Next year, Nastac will be a Clarendon Scholar at the University of Oxford, pursuing a doctorate of philosophy in theoretical physics. He plans to continue pursuing solutions to the world’s energy crisis and also wants to teach; as a member of the Foundational Learning and Mentorship Experience (FLAME) program, Nastac taught after-school science lessons to students at Adelphi Elementary School.

“It feels incredibly rewarding to see how much fun these young students are having by learning about the same topics that inspired me to pursue science,” he says. “In graduate school and beyond, I want to continue mentoring others, paying forward what I’ve received from my mentors.”

Nastac is the fourth physics student to receive the University Medal in recent years. Two others--Chris Bambic in 2018 and Noah Mandell in 2014—also studied with Dorland. Bambic and Mandell are graduate students in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. In 2017, Gregory Ridgway, who studied fundamental theory with Paulo Bedaque, received the University Medal. He is now a graduate student at MIT’s Center for Theoretical Physics.  

Three Grad Students Receive SCGSR Awards

Three UMD students were among 62 recently selected for funding by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program. The SCGSR program helps students carry out thesis research in 14 DoMizrachi EEli MizrachiE national laboratories, in subjects central to the Office of Science mission areas.

Eli Mizrachi, who works with Carter Hall, was selected for the proposed SCGSR research project, "Effects of Impurities on Low Energy Electron Signals in Xenon-Based Dark Matter Searches" at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). The aim of the project is to modify an existing liquid xenon particle detector to accommodate ceramic components in place of plastic ones. The new ceramic components are expected to introduce fewer impurities into the detector, thereby improving the detector's sensitivity to single-electron signals from low energy particle interactions. An increased level of sensitivity in this regime may extend the reach of xenon-based low-mass WIMP dark matter searches, and open up new opportunities for monitoring nuclear reactors with compact, portable detectors.

Engel KL HAWCKristie Engel at the HAWC installation near Puebla, MexicoKristi Lynne Engel, who works with Jordan Goodman, was selected for the proposal, “Constraining Primordial Black Hole Dark Matter with HAWC”, to be conducted at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). One of the biggest questions in high energy physics today pertains to determining the particles that make up cosmic dark matter. Primordial Black Holes (PBHs) in certain mass ranges (<< one solar mass) constitute a possible dark matter candidate. Since the existence of stellar­mass black holes was recently confirmed during the first observational run of Advanced LIGO, there has been a resurgence in support for a PBH component of the total dark matter energy density. Engel intends to her advance her previous work from the High Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) Observatory to search for PBH bursts to further constrain the local PBH density and, consequently, the fraction of dark matter that may be made up of PBHs. Engel intends to use instrumental calibration, algorithm improvements, and better data/detector Monte Carlo agreement to improve the sensitivity of HAWC to transient searches and dark matter analyses.

Collini JohnJohn Collini

John Collini, who works in the Quantum Materials Center (QMC) with Johnpierre Paglione, will investigate properties of the topological superconductor uranium ditelluride (UTe2) using chemical synthesis and high pressure x-ray experiments. Recently discovered by QMC researchers, UTeharbors a rare form of spin-triplet superconductivity that gives rise to unprecedented properties such as survival under extreme magnetic fields and topological protection. Collini will pursue this project via a placement at Livermore, under the advisement of Jason Jeffries, leader of the LLNL High Pressure Group.

To learn more about the awards program, visit the DoE Office of Science page:

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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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: