Taking on Climate Change

Ellen Williams is an optimist. And she believes in the power of science and technology to help society solve grand challenges, like transitioning to clean energy and combating climate change. Williams, a Distinguished University Professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Physics and Institute for Physical Science and Technology, approaches these challenges with a broader scope of experience than most.

In addition to spending over 30 years conducting research and teaching at UMD, Williams also served as chief scientist for British Petroleum (BP), as director of the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and as a member of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which was created to make recommendations on critical issues related to the country’s nuclear strategy.

In July 2020, Williams took on a new challenge—she began a five-year term as director of UMD’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC).

The twists and turns in her career are testament to the power of hard work and a fearless approach to new opportunities. Williams filled roles she didn’t even know to dream about as a child growing up in the suburbs of Detroit.

“I didn't really understand what a scientist did or what it would mean to be a scientist,” Williams said about her career ambitions in high school. “But I enjoyed my chemistry classes, and I thought, ‘Well, I can major in chemistry and I can always go to med school because I know what a doctor does.’”

That backup plan turned out to be unnecessary. By the time she earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Michigan State University in 1976, Williams discovered an affinity for thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, and she learned there was a path for someone like her, someone who enjoyed research. 

“I was very interested in this quantification of how molecules and atoms move around and behave themselves or don't, as the case may be,” she said. “I did research through my entire undergraduate career, and I just had a sense that there was lots of opportunity and lots of interesting things there. When someone said, ‘You know you can go to graduate school for this,’ I realized there was a pathway, and if others were doing it, I could do it.” 

It was a time when not many women pursued research careers in chemistry, but looking back, Williams never really felt the gender gap. She was one of an unusually large cohort of women pursuing graduate degrees in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, so she always felt supported. And her professors encouraged her to follow her interests. 

Looking back, she may also have been more prepared than many to take on a highly technical field thanks to her father’s enthusiasm for the new technology of the time. An engineer for a car manufacturer in Detroit, Williams’ father was an early adopter of computers, and he encouraged her to take a computer science class during her senior year of high school. This was in the 1960s, the days of punch cards and room-sized mainframe computers. And although the class didn’t spark a particular interest in computer science as a career, it afforded Williams a familiarity with data and computing that would later help with her scientific research. 

“I wasn’t afraid of data processing and computers, because I started out with some rudimentary computer skills already,” she said. “I’ve watched computing evolve and become a more and more important and powerful part of research, and having some computer skills in the beginning just meant I was ready to jump in.”

At Caltech, Williams continued her research in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, earning a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1981. She joined UMD that same year as a postdoctoral fellow and rose through the ranks to become a professor in 1991. 

“My research focus was really about understanding how you can go from the properties of individual atoms and molecules to understanding how they behave in the macroscopic world, which turns out to be a totally nontrivial problem,” she said. 

Nontrivial indeed. Those questions remained her central focus for the next few decades, propelling her research program in experimental surface science to international renown. She also pioneered the use of very powerful scanning tunneling microscopes to study the surface of materials like 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. 

Then industry came knocking. 

“It kind of came out of the blue when I got a phone call from BP,” Williams recalled. “But it was the right phone call. I wanted to become engaged with energy and particularly clean energy topics, and it woke up an old longing in me.”

Williams still remembers the excitement she felt about the first Earth Day. It was 1970, and she was still in high school. 

“It was a time of so many exciting ideas—the women’s movement, anti-war protests,” she said. “And out of all of it, Earth Day really influenced my thinking. Hearing about pollution and the impact on the environment of the wanton wastefulness and carelessness with which resources were being treated deeply offended me and made me feel very eager to have the world protected, and to make it right.”

Williams, who grew up hiking and camping with her family and learned about nature in part through Girl Scouts, said the call from BP reminded her of those earlier stirrings. 

“I realized I still had a deep-seated desire to help make this right,” she said. “And this was an opportunity to do that. I said to myself, ‘I really think it's time for me to just step up and work on this social problem.’” 

Williams took the job as BP’s chief scientist in 2010 after making it clear that one of the things she wanted to do was explore the broad impacts of a variety of energy production technologies on everything from carbon dioxide emissions to land, water and mineral use. Williams’ team at BP was responsible for the review process of all of the company’s applied research activities, which included producing oil and gas as well as developing alternative energy sources. 

 “That was such an amazing learning experience for me to really understand how the energy industry works,” Williams said. “It gave me a lot of confidence to think and speak about the transitions that we're facing and the realities of what's difficult, what's not difficult and what's more important versus what's less important.”  

Her passion and expertise on those subjects attracted the attention of long-time colleague Ernest Moniz. As the U.S. Secretary of Energy under President Obama, Moniz tapped Williams to run ARPA-E, which has a mission to advance high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early in development for private-sector investment. 

“This was a dream job,” Williams remembers, despite a grueling yearlong Senate confirmation process that culminated in her appointment in late 2014. “The administration's policy was to explore ‘all of the above,’ that is all approaches to low-carbon energy production. ARPA-E was founded on the same kind of principles as DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is to go out, look for high-risk, high-impact technologies, and provide support and resources to help them develop. If it doesn't look good, cancel the work quickly and move on. If it does look good, give it a good, hard push and see what you can do.” 

One of Williams’ goals while at ARPA-E was to establish a documentation process for research outcomes, so that every project, whether it succeeded or failed, would have a record of what worked or didn’t and a detailed explanation of why to help guide any future explorations in similar areas. 

The experience of running ARPA-E gave Williams a new appreciation for government work and all the elements that go into successful new technologies beyond the science-based research and development—the financing and business aspects, the market forces and the policy that impacts a new technology’s success or failure.  

In 2017, with a shift in administration, Williams returned to UMD, and it wasn’t long before she was asked to lead ESSIC, which supports research that explores interactions between land, ocean, and atmospheric processes and the influence of the human imprint on our planet. As the largest research center at UMD, ESSIC provides the perfect opportunity for Williams to address issues of climate change in a multidisciplinary, collaborative setting. And she brings plenty of experience working with satellite data at both ARPA-E and as a consultant on nuclear disarmament issues for the U.S. government. 

Williams sees an important role for ESSIC in informing various sectors of society as they adapt to a rapidly changing climate, from helping farmers understand shifts in climate zones and crop tolerances to informing infrastructure planners about water availability. 

“We have amazing Earth system data coming to us from satellites, and the fact that we can make choices about what data we collect makes it possible for us to help people prepare to adapt to and deal with the climate change issues that we can't stop immediately,” Williams said. “If we stop burning so much fossil fuel, we will certainly slow down the process, but the train is moving and some of these changes are still going to happen and have to be reversed later.”  

Bridging the gap between science, technology and policy has become a central focus of Williams’ work. Shortly after returning to UMD, she took the lead on a report mandated by the Maryland legislature that provided in-depth analysis of the state’s support of clean energy and offered recommendations to elevate Maryland’s leadership in clean energy innovation with economic benefits to its citizens. 

Building bridges between sectors was also the subject of a course Williams developed and taught when she returned to UMD in 2017. The course, PHYS 662/PLCY699B: Intersections of Technology and Policy in Modernizing the Energy System, brought together public policy, science and engineering students to develop workable ideas for technologies to mitigate climate change. Although she has taken a break from teaching while she settles in at ESSIC, Williams hopes to offer the course again soon, because building partnerships across sectors and inspiring young researchers to collaborate is important to Williams.  

It was also very important to her late husband, Neil Gehrels, who was a College Park Professor of Astronomy at UMD and chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. When Gehrels was awarded the prestigious Dan David Prize shortly before his death from cancer in 2017, Williams donated his share of the prize money to UMD to establish the Neil Gehrels Memorial Endowment in Astrophysics. The endowment provides postdoctoral fellowships to support collaborations between UMD and NASA Goddard scientists.  

Supporting young scientists is something Williams knows about on a personal level as well, having raised a son who is an electrical engineer and a daughter with a Ph.D. in applied physics. Williams described having a household full of scientific minds as “phenomenal” and said it was thrilling to have such a profound sense of intellectual engagement in her home life as well as her professional life.  

On the professional front, Williams said she feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to pursue basic scientific questions in her earlier career and then to address important solutions to societal challenges as she’s doing now.  

“Basic science has played a huge, huge role in our ability to understand what's going on with the Earth and what's likely to happen in the future,” she said. “I think we're in an amazing place right now to be able to apply some of that understanding to real-life issues and to help address what’s happening in a meaningful way.”  

Wherever her career takes her next, Williams will surely be working hard to bring meaningful, intelligent change that makes the world a little better.

Written by Kimbra Cutlip

Faculty, Staff, Student and Alumni Awards & Notes  

We proudly recognize members of our community who recently garnered major honors, began new positions and more.

Faculty and Staff 
  • Ezra Bregin was quoted in a Diamondback article about adapting to online classes. 
  • Aaron Green quoted in a Diamondback article about peer counseling.  
  • Will Heffernan was quoted in a Washington Post story about classes in a pandemic. 
  • Tsung-Sheng Huang received the Kapo-Barwick Award.
  • Brandon Johnson's band was featured in the Diamondback. 
  • Daniel Levy spoke to the Diamondback about starting his UMD experience at home.
  • Venkata Sai Saketh Muddu received the Richard and Anna Iskraut Scholarship.
  • Alireza Seif, with Mohammad Hafezi and Chris Jarzynski, published a Nature Physics cover story that was also highlighted at Phys.Org
  • Yukari Yamauchi received a graduate fellowship to conduct research at Jefferson Lab.
  • Ina Flood, Yonatan Gazit, Scott Hurwitz, Emily Jiang, Zachary Metzler, Anthony Munson, Dhruvit Patel, Nathan Zimmerberg, Batoul Banihashemi, Joseph Hayden, Shams Mehdi, Deepak Sathyan, Jiashen Tang and Shuyang Wang were honored as exceptional TAs with the Ralph Myers Awards.
Department Notes 
  • The US News Best Global Universities index rated the department #9 in physics among US universities and #13 in the world.  
  • The University of Maryland chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) has won an Outstanding Chapter Award from the SPS National Office. This is the eighth time the chapter has been recognized for its excellence as a top-tier student-led physical sciences organization, a designation given to only 15 percent of all SPS chapters..The SPS chapter is advised by Donna Hammer and is led by student officers.
  • UMD will lead a $1 million NSF effort to connect quantum computers.
  • Joe Weber's pioneering ideas were cited in an Inverse magazine article about LIGO.
In Memoriam

Tom McIlrath of IPST died in December at the age of 82. In addition to a long and successful career in atomic and laser physics at Maryland and in collaboration with colleagues at NIST, he served as the APS Treasurer from 1997-2006, overseeing the successful transition of APS journals from primarily print to an electronic base, a significant service to our community.

Michael Moses, (M.S. '77) died in January at the age of 67. After serving as a computer scientist for the U.S. Army, Moses worked for Raytheon and for NASA's Chandra project.

Ph.D. Student Batoul Banihashemi Excels at Leading the Class

For some graduate students, being a teaching assistant is seen as a bit of a chore. Batoul Banihashemi Batoul Banihashemi Teaching classes and grading assignments can take time away from the research they enrolled in the program to do. But for Batoul Banihashemi, the opportunity to teach has been a highlight.

“Usually teaching is looked at as an extra thing that grad students are required to do, or they have to do it because they couldn't find a research position, but it has been very fruitful for me,” she said.

Banihashemi, a physics Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland, understands the importance of being a great teacher, because the teachers in her own life inspired her to take on the challenge of studying physics.

“I first became interested in physics when I was in high school and first learned about electromagnetic fields. A great teacher that I had did a great job at conveying the beauty of it to me, and I was fascinated by the concept,” she said. “Once I began my undergraduate studies, I became especially interested in theoretical physics, Einstein's general theory of relativity and the topic of gravity. My professors did a great job teaching the subject, which made me excited to pursue a career in it. I should also emphasize the role of my parents in encouraging me to pursue science and making me very fond of books since my early childhood.”

Banihashemi, who is in the fifth year of her Ph.D., received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Tehran in Iran, her home country. She was attending a conference in Tehran in 2015 when a speaker mentioned a research group studying fundamental physics at the University of Maryland.

“I was applying to different universities at that time and the presentation led me to consider Maryland,” she said. “Once I researched the university online, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is one of the best places that I can go.’” 

While researching UMD, she came across the work of Distinguished University Professor of Physics Theodore Jacobson. His research on gravitational theory was just what Banihashemi was interested in studying.

“I am very grateful to work with Professor Jacobson, who is a renowned and distinguished physicist in the field of quantum gravity,” she said. “I was always interested in knowing about black holes and other cosmological systems that can be found as solutions to the Einstein equations, and Jacobson’s work is focused on these exciting subjects.” 

Since beginning her studies at Maryland, Banihashemi co-authored a paper in the journal Physical Review D on gravitomagnetic tidal effects in gravitational waves from neutron star binaries, and she is working on another paper with Jacobson that she hopes will be published soon.

And though Banihashemi has seen success in her research, being a TA has been just as fulfilling for her.

“I really enjoy teaching because I love interacting with the students and helping them see the beauty in physics that I see,” she said. “And I know that if I can’t explain a topic to someone else, then it means I haven’t learned it well enough myself. So it has been helpful in that regard as well.”

Banihashemi’s teaching skills shine through in the classroom, earning her multiple accolades. She won the Graduate School’s Outstanding Graduate Assistant Award in 2018, which honors the top 2% of campus graduate assistants. She also won the Ralph Myers & Friends of Physics Award in 2018, 2019 and 2020, which is given annually to support outstanding graduate teaching assistants in physics.

“I’m very thankful to have been nominated for these awards, and I appreciate all the opportunities that I've been granted to serve as a TA,” she said. “My experience in this area is going to help me in my future career, too.”

Once she graduates from Maryland with her Ph.D., Banihashemi plans to do a postdoctoral research fellowship, hopefully in the U.S., and then eventually work in academia.

“My dream job is to become a professor,” she said. “I’d like to continue to do research and teach, and I’m glad to have experienced both during my time at Maryland.”

Written by Chelsea Torres

JQI Summer Student Named Regeneron Science Talent Search Finalist

Timothy Qian, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School, has been named a finalist in the Regeneron Science Talent Search (STS) 2021 competition(link is external) for the research from his summer internship at the University of Maryland. He performed the work with the mentorship of Adjunct Associate Professor Alexey Gorshkov and graduate student Jacob Bringewatt. Gorshkov, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI) and of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science (QuICS).

“Researching at JQI and QuICS was a new and interesting experience,” Qian says. “My mentors showed me how the research process worked and helped me immensely throughout my project. Being named a finalist is a huge honor, as well as a recognition of the research my mentors and I conducted.”Timothy Qian (credit: Feng Qian)Timothy Qian (credit: Feng Qian)

The Regeneron STS competition is designed to acknowledge original research by high school students in a topic related to science, technology, engineering or math. As a finalist, Qian is one of the top 40 students out of 1,760 entrants and will receive at least $25,000.

“Timothy was super impressive and fun to work with,” Bringewatt says. “He worked really hard and showed a lot of creative independence–in fact he arrived at the essential mathematical insight that broke open the problem for us by making clever use of a beautiful duality theorem he found in the mathematics literature.”

In Qian’s project, titled “Optimal Measurement of Field Properties with Quantum Sensor Networks,” he developed, with the aid of Gorshkov’s lab, a procedure for using networks of quantum sensors to perform optimal measurements of field properties—things like the electric field generated at a particular point by a distribution of electrons or the magnetic field produced by atomic nuclei. The procedure can be used to get the best accuracy that is possible in a limited amount of time or to take the shortest amount of time possible to get a needed level of accuracy. This optimized procedure should help people design quantum technologies that can efficiently work together to gather information about the surrounding world.

“As quantum computers and quantum networks are developed, the global internet of computers and things will inevitably include quantum computers and other quantum devices, such as quantum sensors and quantum clocks,” Bringewatt says. “The protocol that Tim discovered will be a crucial ingredient for allowing us to fully take advantage of this inevitability.”

Gorshkov has mentored other high school students who expressed interest in his lab’s work, including Qian’s older brother, Kevin. Kevin Qian was also acknowledged for his work in Gorshkov’s lab; he was selected as a 2019 Regeneron STS Finalist and placed second in the physics and astronomy category at the International Science and Engineering Fair 2019.

Timothy Qian and this year’s other finalists will have the opportunity to present their work to the public and to compete for the top 10 awards—including a $250,000 prize for the overall winner—in a virtual competition scheduled for March.

Original story by Bailey Bedford: https://jqi.umd.edu/news/gorshkov-summer-student-named-regeneron-science-talent-search-finalist

Taylor Receives Department of Commerce Gold Medal

Adjunct Professor Jake Taylor has been recognized by the federal government for his role in expanding U.S. policy and efforts in the fiercely competitive field of quantum information science.

Taylor, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology(link is external) (NIST), is the recipient of the 2020 Gold Medal Award from the Department of Commerce.

This is the highest award given by the department, which oversees activities at NIST. It recognizes individuals or groups that provide extraordinary, notable or prestigious contributions that reflect favorably on the department and impact its mission.

Taylor was specifically cited for his work in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), where he served from 2017–2019 and spearheaded an initiative to expand and coordinate federal efforts involving quantum computing, sensing, and communication research and development.

While at OSTP, Taylor interacted with a multitude of federal agencies and external stakeholders to craft a comprehensive U.S. policy in quantum science, organized the quantum information science (QIS) community, and worked closely with policy teams both within and outside the White House to integrate administration approaches with legislative efforts and enable effective execution of the nation’s expanded QIS research agenda.

The result was the National Quantum Initiative Act(link is external), passed unanimously by the U.S. Senate and signed into law on December 21, 2018.

The legislation commits the federal government to providing $1.2 billion to fund activities promoting quantum information science over an initial five-year period; additional funding was also approved by Congress in its session ending January 1, 2021, leading to more than $350 million for FY 2021 alone.

One important aim of the plan is to create new research centers that bring together academics from different disciplines—such as computer science, physics and engineering—to help conduct experiments and train future quantum researchers. Eight of these centers were launched in 2020, led by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

The law also encourages large companies and startups to pool some of their knowledge and resources in joint research efforts with government institutes. It also supports the Quantum Economic Development Consortium(link is external), which Taylor helped lay the groundwork for while at NIST in 2017 and at OSTP in the following years.

Finally, the legislation calls for coordination of activities and outreach, both areas that Taylor actively engaged in. This included the creation of the National Quantum Coordination Office(link is external), in which Taylor served as the first director; the launch of the Q–12 education partnership(link is external) to enable middle and high school curriculum development and teaching of quantum concepts; and the launch of quantum.gov(link is external), which serves as a central home for federal QIS research and development.

“I am honored to receive the Gold Medal Award from the Department of Commerce, and feel a tremendous sense of gratitude to the quantum information science community for coming together to focus on a positive approach to change,” says Taylor.

Many voices in concert have enabled the U.S. to expand its resolution to advance new discoveries in quantum computing and quantum information science, Taylor adds.

“But there’s no sleeping on the job,” he says. “The national quantum coordination office and the federal, academic, and private sector teams all have a tremendous amount left to do. Still, I believe the foundation laid by myself and others at the start of this decade have put us in a place where the work moving forward will have the most impact—from enhancing middle school curriculums to building large-scale quantum computers.”

Taylor is a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute and of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science. He reseasrches  hybrid quantum systems, applications of quantum information science, and fundamental questions about the limits of quantum and classical behavior.

A Fellow of the American Physical Society and the Optical Society of America, Taylor is also the recipient of the Department of Commerce Silver Medal, the IUPAP C15 Young Scientist Award, the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal: Call to Service, the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, and the Newcomb Cleveland prize of the AAAS. He has published more than 150 scientific papers, several book chapters, and holds numerous patents in quantum technologies.

Adapted from a story originally published by QuICS