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 https://home.infn.it/en/media-outreach/press-releases/4303-the-2021-galileo-galilei-medal-goes-to-alessandra-buonanno-thibault-damour-and-frans-pretorius

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

Making the Very Difficult to Understand Easy to Understand

Alan Henry is a respected tech writer at Wired who also worked for PC Magazine, Lifehacker, and even The New York Times, making his mark as a journalist covering technology and science. But years ago, long before Henry began writing articles to help people understand the role of technology in their lives—or even thinking about becoming a journalist—his sights were set on a different life mission entirely.

“When I was a child, I insisted that I was gonna be an astronaut,” Henry explained. “I always knew I was going to study space science. I wanted to be an astronomer. My parents gave me books about the stars and the planets and telescopes and the space shuttle program. I had press photos of astronauts from NASA on my wall the same way that other kids would have superheroes. That’s kind of how I was.”

In 1997, when Henry came to the University of Maryland for college, his heart was still set on a career in space. And he knew studying physics and astronomy would help get him thereAlan HenryAlan Henry.

“By then, I didn’t necessarily want to be a professional astronaut, but as I was studying physics and astronomy at UMD, I kept thinking about what it would be like to essentially run an observatory in space,” Henry said. “And I was like, that’s the future I want to work towards. I want to be a scientist who’s based on the moon and I want my telescope on the moon and that’s what I want to do with my life.”

But during Henry’s time at Maryland, things happened that began to change his thinking. He started working as a tech for UMD’s Division of IT and he took advantage of an opportunity to redesign the Department of Astronomy’s website. And after three years working as a resident assistant, he discovered an unexpected passion for video games.

“Some of my residents, people I was supposed to be supervising, they were super into video games,” Henry recalled. “I would sit in their room and just watch them play video games because I thought it was the most enchanting thing to look at. I just fell in love with video games. Up to that point, the only purpose the computer in my room had was to write papers.”

More and more, Henry found himself connecting with technology and enjoying it. And his plans for the future began to change.

“I decided maybe technology was my way to help not just everyone around me, but especially the scientists around me, do better work,” he said. “Maybe technology’s the place where my talents are best served.”

By the time Henry graduated from Maryland in 2002, he’d found a comfortable place in the world of tech. He went from working at the help desk at UMD to a challenging new position working with the National Institutes of Health.

“I was working for a contractor that had the tech contract for the National Cancer Institute,” Henry explained. “My entire job was working alongside scientists and making sure their technology needs were met, and it was an extremely rewarding job. Eventually I kind of grew out of crawling under desks and fixing computers, so I decided I wanted to do more in that field.”

In 2003, Henry went back to school at what is now called University of Maryland Global Campus to get an MBA, and then he became a project manager for Merkle, a data-driven customer experience management company in Columbia, Maryland. In his spare time, he started to write.

“The blogging craze was starting up on the internet,” Henry recalled. “People were talking about their love of technology and their love of science and the things they were passionate about. I started my own little blog about gadgets and tech and science.”

In 2006, that “little blog” led to Henry’s first real writing opportunity.

“An editor at PC Magazine reached out and said, ‘Hey, you seem to be able to communicate with people, you seem to have some interest in this, do you want to write for us?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’” Henry explained.

It was just a part-time writing gig at first, but Henry quickly realized he’d found his niche.

“It was a kind of side hustle that got me thinking about using the skills that I learned up to this point to communicate these complex ideas in tangible and understandable ways,” Henry said. “And readers could kind of take away and kind of feel more literate and feel more informed without necessarily talking down to them. And that’s kind of how I made the switch from tech to journalism.”

Freelancing at PC Magazine led to a job as an editor at Lifehacker, where Henry spent several years spearheading much of the site’s science-forward coverage and was eventually named editor-in-chief. When Lifehacker’s parent company, Gawker, went bankrupt, it set the stage for Henry’s next move.

“I had a friend at The New York Times who had been a big fan of Lifehacker and he decided they wanted that kind of energy so he just pulled me over,” Henry explained. “And I was at The New York Times for 3 or 4 years working on the Smarter Living project. Smarter Living was designed to do two things: Publish great service journalism that helped The Times’ readers make tangible improvements to their lives but didn’t necessarily fit with a specific section or area of coverage that The Times already had and also to work across the entire paper to show other editors that service journalism should be core to their beats. From politics to climate, people want to know how that news affects them, and what they can do or learn that will help them be more informed, active and fulfilled.”

In April 2020, Henry went to work for Wired, recruited by the web editor, a colleague from Henry’s Gawker days who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“He reached out to me and said, ‘We really want to do this thing that you’ve always been interested in, which is distilling complicated technology, complicated science, complicated kind of forward-thinking futurism down in a way that people feel they can relate to’ and he gave me a great opportunity to kind of build something new here,” Henry recalled.

For Henry, the service editor position at Wired, which also involves writing regularly about video games, fits perfectly with the kind of journalism he enjoys most—stories that teach people about the role of technology in their daily lives.

“Whether it’s a tangible benefit that a reader can get out of reading a piece like how to fix my computer fast, or how to find music and audiobooks to listen to fast, or we have all this great information about the COVID-19 pandemic, how do we distill this into something that a reader can look at and act on, these are the kinds of stories I like to write,” he explained.

And though Henry jokingly describes himself as a “recovering physicist,” the knowledge he gained studying physics at UMD is at the foundation of everything he does.

“There is something uniquely important about having a basic understanding of not just the physical world, but basic training in science that kind of shapes your perceptions of things around you,” Henry observed. “You can take the kid out of physics, but you can’t take physics out of the kid. My training in physics teaches me that these complex topics that people think are intractable are not that at all. You just need to break them down to poke and prod and examine them until we find things that we do understand that will kind of give us a string that we can use to unravel the rest.”

Last year, Henry took on something new—writing his first book, based on an article he wrote for The New York Times.

“It’s tentatively titled Productivity Without Privilege. The book is supposed to be an examination of productivity tips and tricks for people who are otherwise normally marginalized in the workplace,” Henry explained. “It was inspired in some ways by my own experiences where I would meet people and also work around people who were judged differently—not based on talent, but based on who they were, sometimes their ethnic background, a lot of times their class background or race or gender.”

More than just his own experiences, in many ways the book was inspired by what he saw going on in the world around him.

“When I looked around and I saw the #MeToo movement and I saw people speaking out about the conditions at their workplaces, I thought this is the time to do this,” Henry said. “And luckily, I had a wonderful editor at Random House who reached out to me after the article and said, ‘We want to make this a book.’ Really writing the book is my next big challenge.”

Now living in New York, Henry enjoys exploring the city when he has the chance and still loves playing video games as much as he did in college. And on the weekends, it’s a good bet you’ll find him in the kitchen.

“One thing people don’t know about me is exactly how much I love to cook,” Henry said. “I don’t talk too much about it because when you work side by side with people like Sam Sifton, the food editor of The New York Times, you don’t really think too much of your own cooking expertise, but I will spend hours on the weekend just poking and prodding the perfect roast. As much as I’m into physics and tech journalism, I’m also extremely into cooking. Cooking’s still science; it’s just science from a different perspective.”

For Henry, seeing science from a different perspective has fueled a successful, and sometimes unexpected, career path for nearly 20 years. What’s next?

“I’ve had so many moments when I thought my career peaked and there was nowhere for me to go that it’s hard for me to even answer that question,” Henry said. “I thought I was at a peak when I was chief of a website, I thought I was at a career peak when I was at The New York Times, and now working at Wired as well. I’ve kind of made it my mission to help people understand complicated topics, especially when it comes to technology and science. I definitely just want to continue that—making the very difficult to understand easy to understand.”

Written by Leslie Miller

Senior Jorge Ramirez is Passionate About Inspiring Future Latinx Physicists

 As a child of immigrant parents, Jorge Ramirez learned very early on the importance of education. And not just any education—a U.S. education.Jorge Ramirez OrtizJorge Ramirez Ortiz

“My family was heavily burdened by the economic crises happening in Honduras during the ’90s, so my parents immigrated to the United States with my siblings and me,” he shared. “My parents were illegal immigrants my entire life, so despite having college experience and a lot of skills, they were deemed not worthy in the U.S. Seeing my parents having to work menial labor jobs despite all of their skills made me dead set on getting a U.S. education.”

Ramirez, a senior physics major at the University of Maryland, developed an interest in science at an early age. He participated in the Science Bowl—a weekly game show hosted by the Prince George’s County Public Schools where students from different schools compete against each other to test their science IQ—for the first time when he was in fifth grade. In sixth grade, he competed again and won, which solidified his love for science. When he went to high school, he began to focus on physics.

“When I was a senior in high school, I was a part of an internship program where I met my current mentor, [UMD Physics Professor] Dan Lathrop,” Ramirez said. “During that internship, I had my first research experience and I designed my own experiment where I identified the resonant modes of suspension bridge cables of a bridge near the Baltimore Harbor. It was my first experience in academia that helped me realize that I liked doing experimental design and data analysis.”

Part of what Ramirez loves about physics is that it provides a foundation for so many things, and it is knowledge that he’ll always be able to use in his day-to-day life. 

“Physics is the foundation for everything, so if I ever have an interest in another field, I can build on my foundations of physics,” he said. “Knowing physics means that I can learn anything else as long as I work with my roots. And if I ever end up in a situation like my parents where my degree isn’t accepted, everything that I know about physics is real and I can assert that no matter what.”

Helping others see themselves in the world of physics is one of the things Ramirez is most passionate about. That’s why he’s a member of the Department of Physics’ Climate Committee, which launched last year to ensure that the department is welcoming to everyone, and why he serves as the president of the Society of Physics Students, which aims to help physics students and those interested in physics connect with one another.

He is also working on a very special multimedia project called Rostros Físicos, which is aimed directly at the Latinx community. Led by Daniel Serrano, who works in UMD’s Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics as a senior faculty specialist, the project is a video series that focuses on the experiences, backgrounds and expertise of Latinx physicists from all stages of the academic path.

“The point of Rostros Físicos is to create a platform in which Hispanic and Latinx-identifying physicists can not only give an example of their work and serve as role models, but also explore their backgrounds and their perceptions of physics, where they came from and how they got to where they are,” Ramirez said. “We made Rostros Físicos to be a resource for the future generation to say, ‘Okay, this person looks like me, sounds like me, has a similar upbringing to me, and is a successful physicist, so I think I can be one, too.’” 

In January 2021, when the Department of Physics and the National Institute of Standards and Technology hosted the Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics, Ramirez and Serrano had the opportunity to host a workshop and show video clips from Rostros Físicos. They engaged in a discussion about the videos and how the representation of Latinx physicist role models can impact the future of the field.

“The people at the workshop were jumping at the opportunity to discuss what they saw during the videos and tie it into what they learned during other panels at the conference about representation in physics,” Ramirez said. “Everyone involved with the workshop was super happy with the feedback that we received and the impact that we had. I'm really glad we had the opportunity to be a part of it.”

In the future, Ramirez and Serrano hope to expand Rostros Físicos into a database where people who are interested in Latinx physicists can easily look up all of the people in the project and learn more about them.

As far as Ramirez’s personal future goes, inspiring other Latinx people to become physicists is at the center of his goals. He is currently applying to graduate schools to study quantum information and quantum computing, and he hopes to eventually become a professor. 

“I want to be a professor because, frankly, there are not very many Latinx professors,” he said. “I want the ability to inspire Latinx students by saying, ‘I grew up in the exact same situation as you and now I'm a professor of physics, so you can do it too.’” 

Written by Chelsea Torres