Anna Grafov's Unexpected Challenges

This spring, Anna Grafov received news that many graduating seniors only dream about—that she was awarded a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship. Just two days later, she learned that she was also accepted into the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship program.

grafovAnna Grafov

“I really couldn’t believe it,” said Grafov, who graduated in May 2020 with her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Maryland. “They’re such competitive programs and I put in my best effort into my applications, but I had no way of knowing that I was going to get them. I was very excited and proud.”

After learning she had been accepted to both programs, Grafov began planning how she could take advantage of both opportunities. Her plan was to begin her Fulbright research in Belgium this fall, and then use her NSF Fellowship when she started graduate school in fall 2021.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of the Fulbright program and shortened its length, which left Grafov with a difficult decision: Should she pass up the Fulbright Scholarship or the NSF Fellowship? 

“It was frustrating having to sort everything out,” Grafov said. “I spent weeks writing emails every day and waiting for responses to figure out what my options were, what sort of policies were in place and what flexibility I would have.”

After speaking with multiple academic advisors and representatives from both programs, Grafov decided to decline the Fulbright Scholarship and move forward with the NSF Fellowship and graduate school this fall.

Grafov will pursue her Ph.D. in physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

“The research culture there is really incredible,” she said. “They have some absolutely fascinating projects, and I'm really excited to get involved in the research.”

For the past two years, Grafov has been working with Professor John Fourkas in UMD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to use light to study materials. She has been studying a phenomenon called multiphoton-absorption-induced luminescence (MAIL). Through MAIL, when scientists irradiate silver or gold nanoparticles with pulsed laser light at one wavelength, highly efficient, broadband light is emitted by the structures.

Grafov has focused on studying how different shapes and structures impact the resulting MAIL signals. If she can determine how structures affect MAIL signals, then she can develop nanoparticles with structures specifically suited to creating the best MAIL signals for a variety of applications, such as generating white light efficiently. Grafov plans to continue using light to study materials as she pursues her Ph.D. 

As a UMD undergraduate, she was also active with physics student committee, and was a key organizer of the Conference of Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP).

As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Grafov will receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 along with $12,000 for tuition and fees.

“As long as I've planned on applying to grad school, the NSF Fellowship has been on my radar,” Grafov shared. “Pretty much everyone who applies to grad school in science applies for it because it's such a broad fellowship. It's one of the biggest and most prestigious fellowships in the country.”

Though it took some tough decisions, and some disappointments, to get her to this point, Grafov is happy with her decision and excited about her future.

“I think I made the best decision for myself and for my career,” she said. “When I visited the campus and met with professors, I was really blown away by how much I liked the university and how cool the research there was. It was the exact sort of environment that I want for grad school. I am definitely very happy with my decision and I'm really looking forward to this coming year.”


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CMTC Launches Blog

The Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) recently launched a blog, and the first entry was written by CMTC Director Sankar Das Sarma, who holds the Richard E. Prange Chair and is a Distinguished University Professor.  Das Sarma writes about the interplay between the covid-19 pandemic and the physics community. This is the first of a series of blogs Das Sarma plans on writing on covid-19, covering different aspects of this earth-shattering crisis of the century. dasarmaSankar Das Sarma

Das Sarma, who has been a member of the Maryland physics department since 1980, has very broad research interests, covering the whole gamut from topological quantum computation to fluctuations in financial markets. He publishes regularly in Physical Review Letters, Physical Review A, B, E, X, Physical Review Research, and Physical Review Applied, with over 700 publications in APS journals over a 42-year period. He has also published three highly cited review articles in Reviews of Modern Physics on spintronics, topological quantum computation, and graphene.

Second entry, June 3:


Paul Named Princeton Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Recent alumna Elizabeth Paul has been selected as a Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Princeton University. 

While a student at UMD, Paul was named a UMD Grad School Outstanding Research Assistant and received a $15,000 award from the Metro Washington Chapter of the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) Foundation. She twice received the IREAP Graduate Student Seminar Best Speaker Award.Paul ElizabethElizabeth Paul

In her research, Paul worked with Bill Dorland and Matt Landreman studying stellarator theory and optimization, neoclassical physics, and coil design. She defended her thesis, Adjoint methods for stellarator shape optimization and sensitivity analysison May 6. 

With the Princeton fellowship, Paul will return to the campus where she earned an undergraduate degree in astrophysical sciences in 2015. She graduated magna cum laude and received certificates in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Applications of Computing.

Paul will continue her research with plasma theorist Amitava Bhattacharjee. 

To learn more about the program:


Nastac to Receive University Medal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Grad Students Receive SCGSR Awards

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

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

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

Collini JohnJohn Collini

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

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