Donna Hammer Takes Outreach Online

As director of education for the University of Maryland’s Department of Physics, Donna Hammer (M.E. ’95, curriculum and instruction) wears a lot of hats—supervisor for the Office of Student and Education Services, instructor, conference organizer, department ombudsman and University Senate committee member, among many others. But in all of her roles, Hammer never imagined herself as a video producer. Then COVID-19 came along, and suddenly, she had to think about things like camera angles, lighting and audio quality.

During the summer of 2020, when she would normally have been juggling the needs of nearly 200 students in four different summer camps, Hammer was directing three video shoots a day, three days a week—all the while making sure her team wore masks, observed physical distancing guidelines, and fastidiously cleaned their equipment and makeshift studio.

“We’ve had to learn a lot all at once,” Hammer said. “But we’re actually thinking we might be able to reach more people now with some of the things we’re developing to deal with the pandemic.”

As one of the college’s more active outreach programs, Hammer’s office already has a broad reach. In addition to directing the summer camps, HDonna Hammer Donna Hammer ammer oversees a free public demonstration program called Physics is Phun for high school students; Physics Discovery Days for elementary school children and parents; and the demonstration facility, which contains equipment for more than 1,600 physics demonstrations.

As the pandemic shut down in-person activity across campus, Hammer has been reimagining her programs to serve a remote audience. She started with the demonstrations, which are used by faculty throughout the college.

With the help of a small Teaching Innovation Grant from the university, Hammer hired four undergraduate students with video editing skills and began videotaping demonstrations in the John S. Toll Physics Building physics lecture hall where they would have plenty of room for the videographer and presenter to physically distance.

Her team shot 40 demonstration videos, including a Tesla coil, a magnetic track that suspends a chilled puck in the air, and an apparatus that launches two balls along separate paths to demonstrate conservation of energy and velocity. Hammer’s videos generated plenty of interest, and colleagues she discussed them with at other universities have asked if they will be publicly available.

“I’m committed to making them available, but also I think these are just the beginning,” she said. “If these are well received, we’d like to do another series focused more on public engagement, incorporating more graphics and with a more fun tone.”

That second series of videos could become a temporary substitute for Physics is Phun, one of the department’s most popular public programs that is now on hold due to COVID-19.

The pandemic also shut down the department’s popular in-person summer camps, which led Hammer to experiment with a new approach, guiding small groups of elementary school students through Zoom-based workshops on gravity and Newton’s laws. Her team donned masks and gloves to stuff baggies with take-home physics kits that parents picked up before the workshops. Over Zoom, participants conducted demonstrations for each other while Hammer guided the sessions.

Hammer’s summer camp experiment was a success and provides a model for an online version of Physics Discovery Days, which traditionally provide on-site, hands-on demonstrations and workshops. Hammer is adapting the workshops into online offerings with the help of a generous gift from Freda McCann (Lee) (B.S. '65, M.A. '70, mathematics) and her husband Kevin. Their $10,000 donation will also help support next year’s summer camps, but the online component Hammer’s building now is sure to have a lasting impact.

“I don’t think COVID is going away any time soon, and all of these things we’ve been working on are things we can use into the future,” she said. “And they’re expanding the number of people we can reach.”

In January 2021, the department will host the Conference for Undergraduate Underrepresented Minorities in Physics (CU2MiP), which Hammer helped found at UMD in 2016. As she develops virtual programming for the event, she plans to add a component for high school students—something similar to the programming she included in the annual Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) that UMD co-sponsored in previous years.

“I’ve never had a high school component to CU2MiP, and I'm hoping through this venue, I will be able to connect with some of the same families that we ended up missing this past summer after canceling the camps,” Hammer said.

Hammer is eager to reconnect with families that missed out on summer camps this year, many of whom have sent their children to her camps for years.

Hammer first joined UMD 22 years ago after meeting a faculty member who suggested she apply to be the coordinator for UMD’s National Science Foundation-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC). The job turned out to be perfect for her, and she grew with the center, eventually becoming the assistant director. After the center closed in 2013, Hammer turned down offers to lead MRSECs at other universities and instead stepped into the role of director of education in physics.

“I love working at the University of Maryland in this capacity,” she said, “I love the students. I love the university environment. It’s a very rigorous program, and seeing the students succeed is what keeps me going.”

Her energy and dedication have earned Hammer recognition at the department and university levels. She has received numerous awards, including a Staff Excellence Award from the physics department in 2019, the Outstanding Advisor for a Student Organization Award in 2016 for her role as UMD chapter advisor of the Society of Physics Students, the George A. Snow Memorial Award for advancing the representation of women in physics in 2011, and the Dean's Outstanding Staff Award in 2009.

From the moment she began working at UMD, Hammer has risen to the challenge of learning new material and stepping into new roles. Adapting a program steeped in hands-on, in-person education and outreach to a virtual world during a pandemic has pushed her yet again to learn a whole new set of skills and don yet another hat.

Written by Kimbra Cutlip

The Extraordinary Adventures of Lifelong Terp Jordan Goodman

Last summer, shortly after arriving at the cosmic ray observatory he oversees in Mexico, Jordan Goodman stepped outside to check on some equipment. No sooner had he seen the snow-covered peaks of Pico de Orizaba towering in the distance than he forgot the task at hand. Goodman knew from experience that his blood oxygen level was low, and his brain wasn’t working at full capacity, so he abruptly went back inside to write down what he was supposed to do. 

“You feel fine, but you’re really not functioning right,” said Goodman (B.S. ’73, M.S. ’75, Ph.D. ’78, physics), a Distinguished University Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland who conceived of and oversaw the building of the High-Altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory (HAWC).

Nestled in the shadow of North America’s third highest mountain, HAWC is an array of 300 50,000-gallon water tanks located 13,450 feet above sea level. When working at that extreme altitude, scientists must give their bodies time to adjust.Jordan Goodman at the South PoleJordan Goodman at the South Pole

“From the first trip to Mexico scouting out locations for HAWC in 2006, we learned pretty quickly not to make important decisions in the first few days,” Goodman recalled. 

Among the other important travel tips he has picked up over the years: While working in a Japanese mine, remember to exchange your steel-toed boots for slippers before entering an office; and don’t ignore the recommendation to bring hand lotion to Antarctica—it really is the driest place on Earth. 

“I have definitely been to some interesting and exotic places,” Goodman said. “I tell my students being a professor is like living the life of Indiana Jones. I’ve been to all seven continents for research and conferences, including places most people never get to go.” 

Goodman is one of the founders of the field of particle astrophysics. His work plays an important role in the emerging field known as multi-messenger astronomy, which seeks to understand the universe by probing signals from light, cosmic rays and gravity waves. 

The Quest for Signals from Space

For the past five decades, Goodman has been on a quest to detect cosmic rays bombarding Earth from space and trace them to their source. Cosmic rays are believed to originate from galactic bodies such as stars and supernovae. Cosmic rays consist of charged particles traveling through space at nearly the speed of light and gamma rays, which are extremely high-energy photons. When these particles reach Earth and collide with air molecules in the atmosphere, they create a cascade of secondary particles—electrons, positrons and sometimes protons that multiply and spread out until they hit the ground. 

By studying the composition, shape and arrival direction of this shower of secondary particles, scientists infer information about the primary particles that produced them and their origin.

The highest energy cosmic rays are relatively rare, and the secondary particle showers can cover wide swaths of land. As a result, the detectors scientists use to study them span acres. In addition, cosmic ray detectors work better in some of the most inconvenient places, like high in the mountains where air shower particles can be observed more clearly.

Undeterred by the challenges of building enormous detectors in remote locations, Goodman has led a number of ambitious experiments. He built the first high-energy cosmic ray detector experiment at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1986. From that experiment, he learned that submerging the detectors in water—using above-ground, backyard pools—dramatically increased their sensitivity. That led him to embark on a 10-year project to transform a football-field sized pond in New Mexico into the Milagro gamma ray detector. It was the first wide-field gamma ray detector that was sensitive enough to not only detect cosmic rays, but to trace them to their source. 

Not long after Milagro started producing data, Goodman turned his attention to building the next-generation water detector, HAWC. An order of magnitude more sensitive than Milagro, HAWC has revealed more than a dozen new sources of cosmic rays.

In addition to searching for cosmic rays, Goodman also helped develop a neutrino detector in Japan called the Super-Kamiokande (Super-K). Buried in a mine 3,300 feet below ground, Super-K showed, for the first time, that neutrinos oscillate between three different masses. The principal investigator for Super-K won the Nobel Prize in 2015 for that work, and Goodman was among the researchers awarded the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for Super-K discoveries. 

Goodman also worked on the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cubic-kilometer detector buried beneath the South Pole. IceCube has detected extraterrestrial neutrinos and likely identified the first point source of high-energy neutrinos. 

A Terp for Life

Goodman’s research has spanned the globe, but his home base has always been the UMD Department of Physics.

“I like to say I have held every academic position here from freshman to Distinguished University Professor,” Goodman said. 

A Terp through-and-through, Goodman also chaired the physics department from 1999 to 2006 and chaired the University Senate in 2016-17. He is the longest serving member of the Alumni Association’s Board of Governors and has served on the University of Maryland College Park Foundation’s Board of Trustees. 

A native of Washington, D.C., Goodman was a child of the Apollo space exploration era and grew up with an interest in space, but he wasn’t sure what career path he wanted to follow. During Goodman’s sophomore year, Physics Professor Gaurang Yodh (1928–2019) invited him to work in his lab, which was investigating high-energy cosmic rays. Goodman began writing computer code for the team, and two years later he was still working in Yodh’s lab and committed to pursuing astrophysics in graduate school at Maryland.

“I stayed at Maryland in part because I had a girlfriend who was here, and in part because it was a great program,” Goodman recalled. “It was the largest physics department in the country. Back in the late ’60s and early ’70s, there weren't very many nationally top-ranked programs at the University of Maryland, but our physics department was one of them.”

His girlfriend, Carole Chansky (B.A. ’73, art education; M.A. ’78, secondary education), would eventually become his wife and mother to their two children. Together, the family has nine degrees from UMD: eight from College Park and one from the medical school. Two Terps: Jordan Goodman on the right.Two Terps: Jordan Goodman is on the right.

Having arrived at UMD as a freshman in 1969, Goodman said he can’t help but feel the parallels with his students of today. He met Chansky while photographing anti-war protests on campus as National Guard troops were marching up Baltimore Avenue. Goodman and Chansky were pepper sprayed that day, and he laments that many of the issues on their minds then remain unresolved today.

“The good thing is, people are once again engaged and active,” he said. “But we haven’t done enough to make a difference in this country. We have to do more, and we have to do better.” 

Goodman understands that the challenges are large and the work ahead is long term, but he said he is encouraged by the global interest in moving the needle on social justice issues. And he knows from experience that big challenges are often junctures for opportunity. 

Trial, Error and Perseverance

Goodman’s first big project ended in failure. It was his Ph.D. research.

“I was working with Goddard Space Flight Center to build a balloon experiment for measuring primary cosmic rays,” Goodman recalled. “I worked with them to build the detectors and all the equipment. This thing was going to be the heaviest balloon payload NASA had ever launched.”

Intended to rise 120,000 feet into the atmosphere, the balloon failed at 60,000 feet, leading to a NASA moratorium on heavy payload balloons. Needing a rapid shift, Goodman turned to an experiment in the mountains of New Mexico that he had been working on analyzing with Yodh. 

“You know, a lot of times in physics the biggest, most important discoveries you make are not the things you set out to look for,” he said. “We were looking for new high-energy particles entering the atmosphere behind cosmic rays. But what we were seeing was a lot of low-energy particles, and I wanted to know why.” 

At the time, scientists believed cosmic rays were composed of primarily lightweight particles, such as protons, but Goodman discovered that the low-energy particles Yodh’s team observed were produced by heavy primary particles, including iron. This discovery became the basis of his Ph.D. research. It took many years for other researchers to confirm and validate his findings, but that work helped set the trajectory of Goodman’s career and eventually led him to Mexico to build HAWC.

“One of the most exciting things for me has been that HAWC has actually sort of revolutionized our view of a lot of the stuff in the sky,” he said. “We've discovered new classes of objects that no one had really seen before. And now the community realizes that there should be another detector in the Southern Hemisphere.”

With an international effort now underway to build the Southern Wide-field Gamma-ray Observatory in South America, Goodman said it is satisfying to see the scientific community moving forward with ideas he spearheaded so many years ago.  

“My job has afforded me the chance to really pursue what I’m passionate about, and it has been rewarding on so many levels: the science, of course, but also the travel has meshed well with my other passions in art, photography, hiking and skiing,” Goodman said. “Not to mention teaching. I love to teach.” 

Goodman’s passion for education shines through in the multiple awards he has received, including the Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Award, the Kirwan Undergraduate Education Award and the American Physical Society’s Richtmyer Memorial Lecture Award, among others. 

“I’m looking forward to teaching Physics 105: ‘A Global Challenge: Energy and Climate Change,’ this fall,” he said. “It’s going to be different this year, with so much being done online, but that’s OK, I’m good with technology.” 

And his 51 years at UMD have taught him that another adventure is always just around the corner. 


Written by Kimbra Cutlip

In Memoriam

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

  • David Falk (1932–2020) was a professor emeritus who made multitudinous contributions to the department, senate and entire campus in his years at UMD. More
  • Arnold Glick (1931–2020) was a condensed matter theorist, artist, folk dancer and active citizen in Greenbelt. More 
  • Gloria Becker Lubkin (1933–2020) was a visiting senior research scholar and a former editor of Physics Today. More
  • Phillip Warren Mange (1925–2020) was a Naval Research Lab physicist and Slawsky Clinic tutor.  More
  • Bob Park (1931–2020) was a solid state physicist, author, former department chair, and forceful voice for science and rationality. More
  • Gregory Ruchti (1980–2019) received his B.S. in 2003 and was a data scientist at Veracity Forecasting and Analysis in Alexandria, Va. 
  • Akash Jani “AJ” Shah (1997–2020), a biology major and aspiring doctor who worked as a technician on the Physics helpdesk, died in an accident while vacationing in Puerto Rico on spring break. 
  • Lila Snow (1927–2020) was an accomplished artist and the founder of the George A. Snow Award. More
  • Lincoln Arthur Watkins (1927–2020) received his B.S. in 1951 after serving in the Navy during World War II. He designed hovering missile compensation systems for submarines at Electric Boat until he retired in 1992.
  • Leepo Cheng Yu (1939–2020) received her Ph.D. in 1969, spent her career at the NIH and retired as a section chief in its muscle biology laboratory. Dr. Yu established the Elliott W. Montroll Fund to support undergraduate physics students. More

Neural Networks and Hidden Figures

For physics Ph.D. student Amitava Banerjee, coming to the University of Maryland was a giant step—literally. Banerjee grew up more than 8,000 miles away in Amitava BanerjeeAmitava BanerjeeKolkata, India, with a strong interest in science early on. Both of Banerjee’s parents are physicists, and when he did his undergraduate and master’s work at Presidency University in Kolkata, his own future in physics started coming into focus.

“As I learned more and more, I saw that physics claims it can solve anything in the universe starting from small atoms up to the scale of the full universe and that kind of mission is very, very grand,” Banerjee said. “I feel that if I want to pursue any particular interest, physics will actually help me do that.”

By the time he was ready to begin his doctorate in fall of 2018, Banerjee had done his homework. Though he’d only left India once before, distance was no obstacle. He knew exactly where he wanted to go.

“I was already following the work of many UMD faculty members and I also knew many alumni personally,” Banerjee said. “I felt like I had a connection with them right from the beginning.”

That connection inspired Banerjee and his research, almost from the day he arrived.

“Before coming to UMD I thought that I would be doing work in atomic, molecular and optical physics,” Banerjee recalled. “But I got into working with the Chaos Group led by Professors Edward Ott and Rajarshi Roy and others, and they gave me some problems that I found were too interesting to ignore. So, I started working on them and Professors Ott and Roy became my advisors.”

Now, Banerjee is working to understand real physical systems via computer models made with artificial neural networks that learn to behave like those systems. 

“As of now, we have developed a theoretical framework using machine learning that can tell you how different components of a big system are influencing each other, just by looking at their behavior over time,” Banerjee explained. “Examples of such tasks can be very broad. They include understanding how neurons in the brain are wired together just by observing their firing patterns, or how different genes in some unknown biochemical circuitry turn each other on or off, or understanding how different elements of global climate affect each other only by looking at the weather of several days.”

Banerjee’s hope as he continues to test this framework is that by looking inside neural networks or similar computer models, we may one day be able to better understand, or even predict, useful information about real systems in the physical world.

His research is ongoing, but in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything stopped. Labs were off limits and Banerjee had to improvise, recruiting his housemates—physics classmates and an alumnus, Wrick Sengupta (Ph.D. ’16, physics)—and taking his work in a different direction. In a letter to the online magazine Physics, he described the experience.

“We have been able to uncover connections between concepts in vastly different areas of physics,” Banerjee wrote. “When we are not busy collaborating, we share in the housekeeping and eat free-delivery or buy-one-get-one-free pizzas. It also helps to have a Netflix subscription, a good stock of red wine, and someone who can bake cheesecakes.”

While Banerjee was working from home, his focus shifted to trying to create a simplified model for a certain class of plasmas, often difficult to deal with computationally because of their complex interactions. The idea was to map the plasmas to a very different set of systems.

“These systems have traditionally been employed to describe synchronization in the natural world,” Banerjee said. “You have synchronization all around in nature, like fireflies flashing in concert in the evening or crickets chirping together or frogs croaking. We have very nice analytical theory describing synchronizations and we have simple models predicting the emergence of synchronous behavior as seen in nature, so I tried to map plasmas onto those models in order to get a simplified model of plasmas. We’ve been able to take this stuff to a point where it’s too interesting to discontinue.”

Though science and physics drive Banerjee’s research, he also has a strong creative side. When he missed his mother’s cooking after coming to the U.S., he taught himself how to prepare the traditional dishes he grew up with. 

“When I came here, it was kind of a challenge,” he said. “I took it as a challenge, cooking simple foods like rice and curries, and now I can cook fairly good stuff.”

And although he won’t call himself a photographer, Banerjee’s Instagram account features a colorful patchwork of cellphone images, reflecting the simple beauty he sees around him.

“I like capturing simple things in nature, the little things,” he said.

Banerjee’s creative side is also reflected in one of the studies he’s most proud of. Published in 2019 in the journal Chaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science, this work used a neural network model of systems to infer their underlying interaction network—in the form of a picture of meteorologist and mathematician Edward Lorenz.

It was Lorenz’s simple model for atmospheric convections, and computer simulations of that model in the ’60s, which eventually led to a paradigmatic system of chaos theory. And they have been applied to model a variety of other systems since then, like lasers and electric circuits. 

In a sense, Banerjee’s research connected the dots.

“In my work, I have a large number of interconnected Lorenz systems and I try to know how they are interacting using a neural network model of the system,” BanerEdward LorenzEdward Lorenzjee explained. “To make things more interesting, we used a pixelated portrait of Edward Lorenz to construct the interaction pattern for the Lorenz systems. So now our task of recovering those interactions is equivalent to the reconstruction of the portrait of Lorenz. You can readily see how well our technique works for this case.”

Banerjee later learned about an untold part of the Lorenz story—a woman named Ellen Fetter did many of the major calculations for Lorenz’s theories but wasn’t recognized for her work until decades later. To honor Fetter, and others like her, Banerjee repeated the process he tested with the Lorenz image, but used Fetter’s picture instead. fetter copy

“Just as we saw in the movie ‘Hidden Figures,’ many women were involved in the huge computations behind major scientific discoveries, but were never recognized,” Banerjee said. “I thought that with an increasing general interest to diversify physics and recognize the hidden faces behind many famous discoveries, now is a good time to tell the stories of underrepresented people through our ongoing research.”

For Banerjee, sharing these stories feels personal, because it is.

“My mother had a Ph.D. in physics but she had to leave academia when I was born,” Banerjee explained. “At those times it was harder, because in India I don’t think that we had really good childcare facilities. Knowing my mother had to quit academia makes me feel like it’s my obligation to make physics more diverse and more welcoming so more people can join us.”

Promoting gender and racial inclusion and equality in physics and all the sciences is as important to Banerjee as his research. Involved in groups like Women in Physics and inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, he sees opportunities for change.

“Recently I became interested in working toward making physics more inclusive and also learning about what I should do or should not do to contribute more toward that,” he said.

Where will Banerjee be five years from now? He’s not certain. But he believes with his love for teaching and mentoring, it will probably be somewhere in academia. One thing he knows for sure—he wants to be part of a different kind of future, and not just for physics.

“If you ask people what’s the biggest open problem in physics, they’ll probably tell you it’s quantizing gravity or understanding the nature of dark matter or something like that,” Banerjee said. “But I would say the biggest open question in physics and society at large is how to make us more diverse—because we can’t advance without answering that.”

Written by Leslie Miller

Related: Neuromorphics for Network Discovery

Undergrads Highlight High Energy Physics COVID-19 Relief Efforts

The University of Maryland’s First-Year Innovation & Research Experience (FIRE) program encourages students to delve into research. In one of the FIRE streams, Simulating Particle Detection (SPD), the students explore high-energy physics under the tutelage of Dr. Müge Karagöz, with advising contributions by Prof. Sarah Eno and Associate Prof. Alberto Belloni.  The curriculum focuses on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment of CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is also home to the LHCb experiment; UMD physicists collaborate in both.

The 2020 SPD Summer Scholars were Ojo Akinwale, David Bour, Fred Angelo Garcia, Kevin Liang, Drew Melis, Norman Moon, Joao Pereira and Kate Sturge. While the primary focus of the summer program was assessing the performance of the High-Granularity Calorimeter as part of the CMS detector upgrades, the group also wanted to acknowledge the COVID-19 relief efforts made by CERN personnel and the wider high-energy community. Collaborating remotely, they  produced a video describing such efforts.

Watch the video here: