A Physics Career Along the Path Less Traveled

Michelle Girvan’s career defies easy categorization. Currently a professor of physics at the University of Maryland, very little of her research would be immediately recognizable to a physics traditionalist. Instead, she applies her physics training to tackle discipline-spanning scientific questions that range from social relationships and cancer genetics to artificial intelligence (AI). 

When asked how she identifies herself to new colleagues, a thoughtful smile crossed her face as she pondered a reply.GirvanMichelle Girvan

“That’s a very interesting question. I often say I’m a physics professor who does applied mathematics. It’s a broader umbrella that allows me to work on nearly any problem, as long as I focus on the math that underlies it,” explained Girvan, who also has joint appointments in UMD’s Institute for Physical Science and Technology and Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. “But I still think of myself as a physicist, because physicists seek simple, cohesive explanations for complex phenomena. I’m still looking for those overarching organizing principles, even if I’m applying them to biological or social problems.”

Girvan is quick to point out that, while her approach may be nontraditional, she’s far from alone. She notes a recent meeting of the American Physical Society that featured sessions on neural networks, gene regulation and econophysics—a relatively new field that applies physical theories and methodologies to the study of economics. The common thread among these scientists, Girvan said, is that they tackle their research by first asking, “How would a physicist solve this problem?”

“I think we need more of that,” Girvan added. “A physicist’s perspective might help identify patterns and phenomena that can go unnoticed by others who focus on fine-scale details.”

Girvan’s unorthodox path began during her undergraduate studies in physics and math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a course in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences first introduced her to the concepts of chaos, nonlinear dynamics and complexity. From there, she went to Cornell University to pursue her Ph.D. with applied mathematician Steven Strogatz, then on to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Santa Fe Institute, where she now holds an external faculty position. 

During her first stint at the Santa Fe Institute, she co-developed the well-known Girvan-Newman algorithm in collaboration with Mark Newman, now at the University of Michigan. They published their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002. Broadly stated, the algorithm helps to identify relationships, connections and groupings in networks that might not be readily apparent. 

“If you were to apply the algorithm to a social media network, for example, you might logically expect to find people divided into strong social or professional groups. Among scientists, you’d expect physicists to be grouped with other physicists, biologists with biologists, and so on,” Girvan said. “Our algorithm can also help identify interesting deviations from these expected norms.”  

The Girvan-Newman algorithm can also be applied to the recommendation systems used by online retailers and streaming entertainment services like Netflix and Spotify, Girvan noted. 

“If you link two movies together, in terms of the frequency they’re watched by the same person, the algorithm can uncover groupings that might not be obvious,” Girvan said. “Action movie fans interested in science fiction might also like a third kind of movie you wouldn’t expect.”

Girvan joined UMD in 2007, drawn in no small part by the university’s strong tradition in nonlinear dynamics. She has collaborated frequently with many researchers across campus, including two world-renowned experts: Distinguished University Professors Edward Ott and James Yorke, both well known for their landmark publications in chaos theory and other aspects of nonlinear dynamics. 

Here at UMD, Girvan has applied the tools and philosophical framework of physics to investigate questions in ecology, genetics, development, cancer biology, neuroscience, social networks, machine learning and more. At the moment, she is highly interested in the interface between the human brain and artificial neural networks. 

“Living in this age of rapid advancements in AI, I want to know how our understanding of the human brain, at an abstract level, can help us develop more effective AI methodologies,” Girvan said. 

Girvan is also pursuing approaches for integrating knowledge-based models derived from physics with knowledge-free AI models. 

“So many successes in AI and machine learning have come from ‘black box’ approaches—you throw a lot of data at an AI system and it learns how to make predictions. But these black-box models don’t help us understand the natural world any better,” Girvan said. “By incorporating what we already know about the underlying physics, we can build hybrid systems that combine knowledge-based approaches and knowledge-free approaches, enabling more accurate predictions that also give us new insights into how the world works.” 

Girvan also has a strong interest in training the next generation of discipline-defying researchers. She currently serves as the principal investigator for COMBINE: Computation and Mathematics for Biological Networks, UMD’s National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Research Traineeship (NRT) program in network biology. The program immerses graduate students in research and training that integrates tools from physics, mathematics and computer science to gain deeper insights into the principles that govern living systems. 

“We’re interested in students who want to solve life science problems where network structure matters, from neurological to ecological networks,” Girvan said. “We brought in a diverse group of faculty from a wide range of disciplines to help with the effort. We have about two and a half years of NSF funding left, so we’re looking into other ways to keep it going.”

While her career path as a physicist may play fast and loose with tradition, Girvan isn’t opposed to all time-honored conventions. In her free time, she participates in one of the oldest sporting endeavors known: equestrian competition. 

“I have some of my best thoughts after I’m done riding,” Girvan mused. “I feel like it takes me out of the local landscape where I’m stuck on the small problems and clears any blockages I might have in my head.”

Written by Matthew Wright

Listen to Michelle Girvan discuss how artificial intelligence can help predict chaotic behavior. 


Faculty, Staff, Student and Alumni Awards & Notes

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

Faculty and Staff Awards

  • Steve Anlage – Graduate Advising Award 

  • Maissam Barkeshli – Richard A. Ferrell Fellowship

  • Mark Conners – Chair's Award 

  • Janet Das Sarma – Chair's Certificate of Excellence 

  • Sankar Das Sarma – Clarivate Analytics’ Highly Cited Researcher

  • Zohreh Davoudi – DOE Early Career Research Funding and 2019 Sloan Research Fellowship

  • Dennis Drew – American Physical Society Outstanding Referee

  • Alexey Gorshkov – Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

  • Mohammad Hafezi – Blavatnik Award Finalist

  • Donna Hammer – Chair's Certificate of Excellence 

  • Daniel Lathrop – Distinguished Scholar-Teacher 

  • Vlad Manucharyan – Google Faculty Research Award and DOE Early Career Research Funding

  • Howard Milchberg – American Physical Society Outstanding Referee

  • Chris Monroe – Willis Lamb Award and Clarivate Analytics’ Highly Cited Researcher

  • Jay Deep Sau – American Physical Society Outstanding Referee

  • Peter Shawhan – American Physical Society Fellow

  • Ian Spielman – Clarivate Analytics’ Highly Cited Researcher

  • Kristin Stenson – Chair's Certificate of Excellence 

  • Samantha Suplee – Sibylle Sampson Award 

  • Ellen Williams – Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Michigan State Distinguished Alumni Award

 Student Awards

  • Batoul Banihashemi – Ralph Myers Award

  • Dawid Brzeminski – Ralph Myers Award

  • Leonard Campanello – Monroe H. Martin Graduate Research Fellowship

  • Daniel Campbell – Ann G. Wylie Semester Dissertation Fellowship 

  • Liz Friedman – Leon A. Herreid Science Fellowship

  • Hong Nhung Nguyen – Ruth M. Davis Fellowship

  • Pranava Jayanti – Kulkarni Fellowship

  • Soubhik Kumar – Monroe H. Martin Graduate Research Fellowship

  • Jillian Kunze – Merrill Presidential Scholarship

  • Kungang Li – Ralph Myers Award

  • Fangli Liu - Ann G. Wylie Semester Dissertation Fellowship

  • Dalia Ornelas Huerta – Monroe H. Martin Graduate Research Fellowship

  • Spandan Pathak – Ralph Myers Award

  • Abu Saleh Musa Patoary – Ralph Myers Award

  • Nicholas Poniatowski – Barry Goldwater Scholarship, Merrill Presidential Scholarship and Ralph Myers Award

  • Andrew Shaw – Joseph and Dorothy Sucher Graduate Prize in Relativistic Theoretical Physics

  • Ana Valdes-Curiel – Ruth M. Davis Fellowship

  • Yidan Wang – Ruth M. Davis Fellowship

  • Zhiyu Yin – Leon A. Herreid Science Fellowship and Thomas G. Mason Interdisciplinary Physics Fund

  • Mark Zic – Barry Goldwater Scholarship

 Group Efforts

  • LHCb’s discovery of CP violation was named a Physics World Breakthrough of the Year finalist. More

  • The European Physical Society High Energy and Particle Physics Prize went to the DØ and CDF collaborations, which include Nick Hadley, Sarah Eno, Drew Baden, Greg Sullivan, and Kara Hoffman. More

  • The Society of Physics Students won an Outstanding Chapter Award from the SPS National Office. More

  • A team led by Chris Monroe won the overall Invention of the Year Award at Innovate Maryland 2019 for “Cryogenic Ion Trapping and Storage System for Quantum Information.” Monroe’s early-stage quantum computing company IonQ also took home the prize for Startup of the Year. More

Alumni Notes

  • Damian Blazy (B.S. ’02) was named a principal in the Los Angeles office of OpenGate Capital.

  • Joel Dahlin (Ph.D. ’15) received the AIP Publishing Ronald Davidson Award.

  • Alexei Fedotov (Ph.D. ’97) received the Science & Technology Award of Brookhaven National Lab.

  • Mark Harley (B.S. ’07) joined the faculty of Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, N.J., as a physics teacher. 

  • Ruth Kastner (B.S. ’82, M.S. ’92) published Corralling quantum cats: from Cheshire cat to Schrodinger's cat, World Scientific Publishing Company, 2019.

  • James P. Lavine (Ph.D. ’71) published Time-Dependent Quantum Mechanics of Two-Level Systems, World Scientific Publishing Company, 2019.

  • John Martyn (B.S. ’19) received the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Ralph Myers Award.

  • Thomas Mason (B.S. ’89) was named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

  • Ana Maria Rey (Ph.D. ’04) was named Blavatnik National Laureate in Physical Sciences & Engineering.

  • Gareth Roberg-Clark (Ph.D. ’19) received a NERSC Early Career HPC Achievement Award.

Summer Camps Introduce High School Girls to Physics

Since its inception in 1988, over 1,500 students have participated in the University of Maryland’s Summer Girls physics program for rising 9th through 12th graders. Last summer alone, more than 50 young students came to campus for one or two weeks to explore concepts from classical and modern physics, conduct hands-on laboratory experiments, and learn about careers in physics. The students also met and spoke with physics professors and graduate students, listened to interesting lectures, and toured research laboratory tours. 

The program is mostly funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation through the Physics Frontier Center at the Joint Quantum Institute. Students paid only $25 to participate last year. Participants of the program, which is directed by Donna Hammer, have come not only from Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., but also from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and all over the world. Graduates have gone on to become engineers, doctors, computer scientists and, of course, physicists. 

Registration for the 2020 Summer Girls program will open shortly at https://umdphysics.umd.edu/events/summer-programs/summer-girls.html


In Memoriam

It is with much sadness that the Department of Physics announces the passing of several members of our community.

Janet Das Sarma (1971-2019) managed the Condensed Matter Theory Center for the last decade. She received the department’s Staff Excellence Award in October. More

Leona Dunklee (1926-2019) was an account clerk in the Department of Physics who supported the electronic development group and was active in planning departmental events.

Hans R. Griem (1928-2019), a noted expert in high-temperature plasmas and spectroscopy, served on the UMD faculty from 1957 to 1994. He was a consultant with Los Alamos National Laboratory. More

Udayaditya “Yudi” Konwar (1997-2019), an international student from Assam, India, would have been a junior physics major this year.

Don Langenberg (1932-2019) was a physicist, the Chancellor of the University System of Maryland from 1990 to 2002, and in recent years an active voice for education at the National Academies. 

Susanne Misner (1933-2019) is survived by her husband, Professor Emeritus Charles Misner. The couple donated proceeds from the sale of correspondence with Stephen Hawking to establish the department’s Weber Endowment for Gravitational Physics.

Lawrence A. Schmid (1928-2019) was a longtime NASA physicist who contributed to the Apollo Lunar Landing. He was a generous donor to undergraduate education in UMD’s Department of Physics.  

Joseph Sucher (1930-2019) was a Distinguished Scholar-Teacher and the poet laureate of the department. He established the Joseph and Dorothy Sucher Graduate Prize in Relativistic Theoretical Physics. More

Peter Hawley Walpole (1947-2019) was a physicist who worked on the Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (CREAM) and Boron And Carbon Cosmic rays in the Upper Stratosphere (BACCUS) experiments. 

Gaurang Yodh (1928-2019) was a UMD Physics Professor from 1961 to 1988 before moving to the University of California, Irvine. More

Recent Alumnus Zachary Eldredge Studies Solar Energy as ORISE Fellow

As a student, Zachary Eldredge (Ph.D. ’19, physics) examined the use of quantum mechanics to improve measurements.

“If you nEldredge 2020Zach Eldredge. Photo by Faye Levine.eed to know the difference in some quantity between two points, a common method is to measure the quantity at each point and then subtract,” Eldredge explained. “Instead, we developed methods to measure the difference directly. Our methods are more accurate because we only measure once, not twice.”

After graduating last May, Eldredge took this expertise and his strong physics foundation to the Department of Energy’s Solar Technologies Office, which aims to make solar energy less expensive and more accessible and increase the amount of renewable energy in the United States. He spent seven months working in the office as an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) Fellow and is now a technology manager.

“The process of how technologies progress from lab science to usable products is really interesting to me and was important to my quantum research, as quantum technology is trying to make that same leap at the moment,” he said. “In addition, physics has been a wonderful foundation. A good physics education prepares you to pick out the relevant patterns and generalize knowledge really quickly, and it's been a great help in giving me the background to get up to speed on all kinds of other technologies.”

Eldredge knew early on in his studies that he was interested in finding a science policy job to align with his interests in climate, renewable energy and technology development. 

“I really wanted to shift gears from my academic work into something more climate focused, and the ORISE fellowship provided a great opportunity.”

During his time at Maryland, Eldredge co-authored nine publications, including three first-author papers published in the journals Physical Review A and Physical Review Letters. 

“I’m proud to say that two of Zach’s papers are the highlights of my own research over the past few years,” said Alexey Gorshkov, Eldredge’s advisor who is an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Physics and a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. “In fact, these two papers are so promising that we filed patents for the corresponding ideas, all having to do with the harnessing of the peculiarities of quantum mechanics for technologies such as powerful computing, secure communication and superior sensing.”

In addition to his work in the lab, Eldredge served as president of the social activism group Science for the People UMD and as a member of the Graduate Student Government. 

“Not only is Zach an excellent physicist, he was also an excellent citizen of the department,” said Steve Rolston, professor of physics and department chair. “He was one of the most active members of our self-organized graduate student committee, which strives to make graduate school as positive an experience as possible.” 

Eldredge also participated in public outreach activities, such as the American Physical Society’s Congressional Visits Day, the USA Science & Engineering Festival, and UMD’s Maryland Day. 

“I felt I had a duty as a publicly funded scientist at a major public university to reach out and talk to people, because the knowledge I gained there belongs to everyone,” Eldredge said. “When we discover amazing things, it is on us to communicate about them to the public.”

Written by Chelsea Torres