Recent Physics Grad Sees Many Roads Ahead

As Jeffrey Wack (B.S. ’22, physics; B.S. ’22, mathematics) walked across the graduation stage in May 2022, he carried with him a lot of uncertainty about where to go next. His trepidation came from his voracious curiosity for a broad range of things, primarily within physics and math—the subjects of his two degrees—but also from his interests in teaching, outreach and music. The prospect of having to pick just one path forward felt confining to Wack. But that same curiosity served him extremely well during his time at the University of Maryland, and it left him with many opportunities for next steps.Jeffrey Wack (courtesy of same)Jeffrey Wack (courtesy of same)

Wack collected an impressive resume at UMD. He taught an introductory course on nuclear physics and reactor operations, studied physics in Florence, participated in an optomechanics research project that resulted in a publication, made significant contributions to experimental research with coplanar waveguides, and co-taught a self-designed course on music theory and math. Since graduating, he began working as a fellow at the Museum of Math in New York City, sampling the working world while contemplating graduate school.

“The four years I spent at UMD were the best four years of my life this far,” Wack says. “I’m already having a blast living in New York, but I’m going to miss all the great people I met in College Park.”

Born and raised in Carroll County, Maryland, Wack attributes his broad scientific curiosity to his upbringing and the influence of his father.

“My dad is a pediatrician, but he's very interested in all sorts of science,” Wack says. “I have memories of playing the ‘why’ game with him and just asking him why. You know, you ask why, and then no matter what the answer is, you can always ask why again, and you sort of end up down this rabbit hole.”

Although the younger Wack asked questions about everything, from why fruit grows to what an immune system is, his earliest fascination orbited around astronomy. Then, during high school, his curiosity shifted gears, landing on the curiously strong connection between physics and mathematics.

“There was something about physics and calculus in particular that I really enjoyed,” says Wack. “Those relationships between position and velocity and acceleration, there's something about them that really caught me. Like ‘that's awesome!’”

Following in his older sister’s footsteps, Wack chose to attend UMD, drawn in by the opportunities for learning all things physics and math at a large university. In the fall of 2019, Wack studied abroad in the Maryland-in-Florence program, specifically designed for physics students to continue taking required courses while exposing themselves to a foreign culture and language. He was particularly inspired by the instruction of Luis Orozco, now professor emeritus at UMD and a Fellow at the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI). After the semester abroad ended, Wack reached out to Orozco to see if he could work with him on a research project. Orozco agreed, and during the summer of 2020 invited him to join a nanofiber project. 

Orozco’s research interests include optomechanics, the study of interactions between mechanical systems and electromagnetic waves. The project Wack joined was a multi-national collaboration, with an experimental group at Shanxi University in China and a collaborator at the University of Conception in Chile. The goal was to use light to cool an optical fiber as it travels through it.

Optical fibers are used to confine and direct light, whether it’s for carrying internet signals to homes or aiding in research. The fibers Orozco’s team used are stretched incredibly thin, about a hundred times thinner than human hair. These nano-fibers guide light, but they hardly confine it—some of the light actually travels outside the fiber. This is particularly useful for studying the interaction of light with atoms and ions, which can be brought close to (but remain outside of) the fiber. The downside is that the fiber is quite fragile and prone to tiny vibrations that shake and twist it, disturbing the light as it travels.

To minimize these tiny twists, the team sent in a laser beam of a particular intensity. The interaction of the beam with the material inside the fiber counteracted the fiber’s twisting, minimizing that particular vibration and thus cooling down the fiber overall. To detect this cooling, the team sent a second, probing laser beam and observed how much the fiber’s twists and turns perturbed that beam.

Wack’s role was to analyze the raw photodetector data from the probing laser and use it to extract information about the fiber twists. He analyzed the data and concluded that the method was successful, as detailed in a recent paper published in Photonics Research. But Wack wasn’t satisfied with simply analyzing data. He played the ‘why’ game, trying to understand the deeper physics of what was going on. He made his own, simplified model of the cooling mechanism—not to put in the paper, but enough to model the system to his own satisfaction. “I did that just to entertain myself,” Wack explains.

"Jeffrey contributed crucially in understanding the cooling process, thanks to his analysis of the distribution of the temperature fluctuations,” Orozco says. “The plots he produced made it into figure two of the publication."

By the summer of 2021, COVID-19 restrictions were easing up, and Wack was itching to try hands-on lab work. He joined the group of one of UMD’s most mathematically minded experimentalists, Chesapeake Assistant Professor of Physics and JQI Fellow Alicia Kollár. Kollár’s research concerns coplanar waveguides—little paths printed on a circuit board that microwaves can travel through—to create never before seen geometries and interaction patterns between bits of quantum information known as qubits.

Kollár’s creation of novel geometries relies on a peculiar theoretical property of coplanar waveguides: that stretching or scrunching them up does not change the frequency of microwaves they carry. Wack’s role was to make careful measurements to test how well this property holds in practice.

To investigate this, Wack had to get his hands dirty with several different lab skills. He had to learn to solder and assemble electronics, work with graduate students to create coplanar waveguides of different lengths, analyze data, and model the system using purpose-built software.

“Jeff did really phenomenal work,” Kollár says. “He was really just sort of diving into research, almost like a senior graduate student.”

Wack automated some simulation steps that had previously been done manually and used the new process to quantify a confounding effect—that the frequency change depended on the number of times that the waveguide was bent. If this pattern is confirmed experimentally, Kollár says, it will be used in many future experiments and theoretical studies alike.

On top of his studies and research, Wack also found ways to participate in outreach and teaching throughout his time at UMD. He volunteered to film a slinky demonstration of wave propagation. He taught an introductory course on nuclear physics and reactor theory to undergraduates for the Maryland Undergraduate Training Reactor (MUTR) program, where undergrads can become certified reactor operators. He also has an interest in music, having sung and performed in musicals in high school and having picked up electric bass during his college years. “And also, because I'm such a geek for computers, I do some digital synthesis,” Wack says. He found a way to weave this in with his math interest by creating a co-teaching a course on the math of music for the Student Initiated Courses (STIC) program.

Upon graduating last spring, Wack decided to take a gap year. This summer, he started a fellowship at the Museum of Math, combining his passion for mathematics and outreach. As a docent there, he talks to visitors about the exhibits and thinks a lot about math. As part of the fellowship, he’s also pursuing a personal project: planning a live performance that combines music, physics demos and lectures on math and music theory.

“So many of the paths forward seem appealing to me,” Wack says. “I'm going to go to grad school at some point, but this is part of why I wanted to do a gap year. I'm hoping that over the next two years, it'll come to me like ‘Aha! This is exactly what I want to do.’”

 

Written by Dina Genkina

Women in Physics Group Changes its Name to Physicists of Underrepresented Genders

Women in Physics (WiP) has officially been renamed Physicists of Underrepresented Genders (PUGs) at the University of Maryland.

According to UMD physics graduate student Ina Flood, the group’s new president, the change reflects the organization’s ongoing commitment to fostering a supportive and encouraging community for all.

“Changing our name was a group decision initiated under Mika Chmielewski, our previous president,” Flood said. “The rationale behind this decision was to make it obvious that we’re committed to supporting people who might feel like they are underrepresented in the physics community. The name change is to help people feel that they’re included and welcome from the get-go.”

For more than a decade, WiP has provided physics undergraduate and graduate students with resources such as a mentoring program and networking opportunities. In addition to professional development events led by physics faculty members and professionals, the club also offered social programming like group study sessions, where members mingled and made new friends.PUGs (Physicists of Underrepresented Genders)PUGs (Physicists of Underrepresented Genders)

PUGs plans to continue the group’s ongoing programs and opportunities while taking a more proactive approach to supporting all members of the physics community. 

“As a university club, we’re already open to all people and sincerely welcome anyone who is interested in physics,” said incoming physics graduate student Kate Sturge (B.S. ’22, physics; B.S. ’22, astronomy), who was an active undergraduate member of WiP and is currently the PUGs webmaster and social media manager. “But this name change is our way of making ourselves more deliberate and explicit in supporting everyone in physics.”

Physics Chair Steve Rolston echoes the sentiment: "We value the contributions of everyone who shares our love of physics. We appreciate PUGs’ efforts to make that crystal clear."

Flood, Sturge and other PUGs members plan to do more to coordinate with other LGBTQ+ student organizations on campus. Flood said she hopes increased communication and collaboration will also help PUGs connect mentors with mentees and share more institutional knowledge about STEM and physics. The group also plans to develop more opportunities for safe in-person gatherings, including “study hours,” during which physics students gather to discuss and do homework together.

“Our biggest goal after our name change is to expand our accessibility and availability to members who may need guidance or community support during the school year,” Flood said. “It’s really important to our organization that we get people together, facilitate meaningful conversations and celebrate our shared identity as physicists.”

Blessing the World With More Leons

On a warm June afternoon in 2022, a group of friends, family members and former coworkers gathered around a Bradford pear tree outside NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to remember a physicist named Leon Herreid. Herreid studied physics as a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland and worked at NASA Goddard for 16 years before he died suddenly at age 40 in 1994.

Months after Herreid’s death, his widow Judy created the memorial, planting “Leon’s tree” and placing a brass plaque below it in one of the couple’s favorite spots—the baseball field where they used to play and drink beer in the summertime with NASA Goddard’s co-ed softball team. Along with the memorial, Judy launched a quirky tradition inspired by Leon himself.

“Years ago, I said to my sister-in-law, ‘I’m going to the tree, do you have any beer?’ What she had was something called Dead Guy Ale, so that’s what I take every time,” Judy explained. “Leon liked beer and he would think this was the funniest, most appropriate thing ever. I always tell any friend, ‘When you go to the memorial, be sure to pour a beer on him.’” 

Meanwhile, at the University of Maryland, Judy and her family have been honoring Leon’s legacy in a very different way. In 1995, Leon’s father, Paul Herreid, launched the Leon A. Herreid Science Graduate Fellowship Award for physics graduate students at UMD working in space science, with preference given to those affiliated with NASA Goddard.

“Paul was a giving philanthropist who really believed in education,” Judy explained. “He said he started those scholarships so we could create more Leons.” 

In 2021, Judy took her father-in-law’s mission a step further, establishing the Leon A. Herreid Current-Use Undergraduate Student Support Fund in Physics, a scholarship to support summer internships for undergraduate space science students at UMD, again with preference for those working with NASA Goddard. 

“Someone else came up with this idea and I liked that,” Judy said. “It was just another way to bless the world with more Leons.”

 

“A True Geek” 

Judy—she was Judy Schwartz back then, also an employee of STX—still remembers the day she met Leon at a work event three decades ago. 

“I remember seeing him in the kitchen and he was eating an anchovy sandwich and I thought, ‘Ugh, how disgusting. Who is this person?’” she laughed. “He had a rat tail and he was a bad dresser, people knew him for that. So, I wasn’t all that impressed.”

But as she got to know Leon better, she realized there was much more to this space scientist than she ever could have imagined.

“He was a true geek. I loved that. He was brilliant and also well rounded,” Judy recalled. “It wasn’t just space that he loved most—it was the computers, the problem-solving. I’d say, ‘Talk smart to me’ and he’d tell me about the universe. He just had a passion for science and that world.”

The couple married and had two children, Hannah and Noah. And like everything else Leon did, his parenting style was grounded in science.

“Leon would stand in the closet when Hannah was a baby trying to get her to go to sleep. He’d be in there holding her and reciting the periodic table,” Judy explained. “He didn’t know nursery rhymes or anything, so this is what he would do, and it would calm her every time. Best dad ever.”

Meanwhile, Leon was climbing the ladder at NASA, working on major missions including Landsat COBE and XTE gaining the respect of those around him. That included Nobel Laureate John Mather, a College Park Professor of Physics and senior scientist at NASA who has remained friendly with Judy and her children for more than 25 years.

Meeting the Future “Leons”

Hannah and Noah are adults now. And thanks to events like the June memorial for Leon, Judy is getting to know another inspiring group of young people—the recipients of her family’s scholarships and fellowships. That includes physics Ph.D. student Lucas Smith, who received the Leon A. Herreid Science Graduate Fellowship in May 2022. 

“Lucas reminded me so much of Leon,” Judy said. “The science thing was kind of how he breathed, and he was just so appreciative of the fellowship.”

For Smith, whose research centers on developing the next generation of gamma-ray telescopes, the Herreid Fellowship provides welcome support as he continues to work toward his Ph.D.  

“I am incredibly grateful to have had this opportunity. Any amount of financial assistance goes a long way to alleviate the cost-of-living expenses that graduate students have,” Smith explained. “It is really touching to know that the Herreid family is willing to extend their support.”

Like Smith, Emma Kleiner (B.S. ’22, physics and astronomy) attended the June memorial as well. Kleiner is the first student to receive support from the Leon A. Herreid Undergraduate Student Support Fund in Physics. The funding allowed her to spend the summer of 2022 completing her research with NASA astrophysicist Antara Basu-Zych.

“My work at NASA Goddard involves studying interacting and colliding galaxies using Swift X-ray data,” Kleiner explained. “By observing and identifying X-ray sources we can better understand the triggering or quenching of star formation in galaxies. Receiving this support from the Herreid scholarship has meant the world to me.” 

For Judy, supporting these future “Leons” is the kind of tribute she thinks her late husband would truly appreciate, keeping his spirit and his love for physics alive now and for many years to come.

“Talking about him and the scholarship, it keeps him alive,” she reflected. “Leon and his siblings didn’t have a dime in student loans; their father Paul helped them and kept giving to education to support others, and I think Leon would be proud to continue that, to give people that opportunity.”

 Written by Leslie Miller

Greene Named Distinguished University Professor

Richard Greene has been named a Distinguished University Professor—the highest academic honor bestowed by the University of Maryland. He will be recognized at the university’s annual Faculty and Staff Convocation on September 14, 2022.

Greene joined UMD as a professor in 1989 to lead the Center for Superconductivity Research (now called the Quantum Materials Center) in the Department of Physics as its founding director.

He is a pioneer in the study of superconductivity and the synthesis and study of advanced quantum materials. He discovered the first superconducting polymer, discovered several new quantum phenomena in complex materials and detected magnetic spin waves optically for the first time. Greene’s work has had a large impact on the fields of both materials science and physics.Rick Greene and advisee Nick Poniatowski (B.S., '20)Rick Greene and advisee Nick Poniatowski (B.S., '20)

He has published 435 articles that have been cited more than 33,000 times, mentored more than 20 students and postdocs, and received continuous funding from the National Science Foundation since 1993. Before joining UMD, Greene was a researcher at IBM.

He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The APS named its dissertation award for experimental condensed matter physics in his honor.

Greene earned his B.S. in physics from MIT in 1960 and his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1967.

Greene was honored along with six other UMD professors, including two from the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS): Dmitry Dolgopyat of Math and  Zhanqing Li of Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science and the Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center.

“These faculty members are exceptionally deserving of being named Distinguished University Professors,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS). “I was proud to nominate them for consideration, and I celebrate and honor their inspirational commitment to CMNS and our students through their teaching, research and service.”

Dolgopyat, Greene and Li join more than 50 colleagues in CMNS who have been named Distinguished University Professors since 1980. Distinguished University Professors are faculty members who have been recognized nationally and internationally for the importance of their scholarly achievements. UMD’s president, along with a committee composed of the provost and seven faculty members—including several Distinguished University Professors—from diverse disciplines select the honorees each year.

Gates to Receive Oersted Medal

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. has been named as the 2023 recipient of the prestigious Hans Christian Oersted Medal, presented by the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). The Medal will be awarded at a Ceremonial Session of the 2023 AAPT Winter Meeting. The Oersted Medal recognizes his outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics through his national leadership in physics education, his exceptional service to AAPT, and his mentoring of students and in-service teachers.  The year of 2022 marks the fifty-first consecutive year of his service as a university instructor in mathematics and physics.

Gates is the Clark Leadership Chair in Science in the Department of Physics and School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland at College Park (UMCP). Prior to July of 2022 he spent the previous six years at Brown University where he held appointments as the Brown Theoretical Physics Center Director, Ford Foundation Professor of Physics, an Affiliate Mathematics Professor, and a Faculty Fellow of the Watson Institute for International Studies & Public Affairs.  In addition he was the 2021 President of the American Physical Society (APS).

Gates has had a very long and successful career as a theoretical physicist and an educator. He is well known for his work on supersymmetry, supergravity, and superstring theory. From 1985 - 2016 he was a faculty member at University of Maryland, College Park as a University System Regents Professor, the John S. Toll Professor of Physics, the Director of the String and Particle Theory Center, and Affiliate Professor of Mathematics. He also served on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under President Barack Obama. In he served on the Maryland State Board of Education from 2009-2016, and the National Commission on Forensic Science from 2013-2016. Though he resigned in 2017 from the University of Maryland, he has recently returned.

Sensitive to diversity issues over the duration of his career, in 1995 he authored an essay entitled "Equity versus Excellence: A False Dichotomy in Science and Society." This avenue of his writings eventually led to a work "Thoughts On Creativity, Diversity and Innovation in Science and Education" that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States in its 2016 decision in the case  'Abigail N. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, et. al.'  Gates has engaged efforts to look at social justice themes within physics, physics education and policy.  He held the position of the  president of the National Society of Black Physicists. He also is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. In 2013, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, becoming the first African-American theoretical physicist so recognized in its 150-year history. Also in 2013 he was awarded the National Medal of Science. His significant contributions to the field of physics, his commitment to increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in STEM, and his dedication to improving physics education.

He has received a number of very prestigious awards including the Edward A. Bouchet award from APS (1994) and National Medal of Science (2013) and the Scientist of the Year Award (2014) from the Harvard Foundation.

In addition to the prestigious positions that Gates has held and awards that he received, he also has been instrumental in shaping physics education particularly at the undergraduate level through his service on various physics education focused advisory boards and task forces. Gates has provided undergraduate research experiences via the Summer Student Theoretical Physics Research Session (SSTPRS) since around 2000. Students attending the SSTPRS are immersed in the mathematics that is used in supersymmetry and superstring theory. Over 150 undergraduate students have participated in this program. As Gates notes, most of these students do not become theoretical physicists and end up in a range of careers. Instead, the purpose of the program is to help these students “think like a physicist.” The SSTPR program continued even during the pandemic with students interacting via Zoom. He has inspired an entirely new generation of students learning physics.

Gates served as an active member of the Physics and Astronomy New Faculty Workshop (NFW) Advisory Board. The NFW has had a large impact on the teaching of physics in four-year colleges and universities. The NFW advisory board has helped the organizers improve the workshops and create a more impactful experience for participants. His feedback on the effectiveness of the program was on point providing critical and yet supportive advice on the direction that the workshops should go. It was evident from his feedback that he was concerned about the future of the participating new faculty members and their impact on students through their teaching. This feedback helped shape future workshops including proposals to NSF to continue funding the NFW.

The Joint Task Force on Undergraduate Physics Programs (J-TUPP) was a joint task force convened by AAPT and APS and charged with preparing a report to engage and inform physicists in answering the question: What skills and knowledge should the next generation of undergraduate physics degree holders possess to be well prepared for a diverse set of careers? The project emerged from work conducted by the AAPT Undergraduate Curriculum Task Force and the concern that most physics departments focused on career paths leading students to academic faculty positions. Gates was part of a task force working on this project. The task force met regularly over several years asking difficult questions about the needs of employers and the development of skills that are missing from the undergraduate physics curriculum. He provided an important perspective as someone who mentored many undergraduate students as well as served on PCAST during a period in which undergraduate STEM education was a focus. His full engagement in the work of the task force including writing a section of the report and assisting with dissemination were critical to the success of the project. Many physics departments have now taken the report and implemented changes to their curricula.

Several years ago, the AIP Liaison Committee on Underrepresented Minorities was dismayed that the number of African Americans receiving undergraduate degrees in physics had not increased in many years. The committee approached the AIP Board of Directors to approve a study to develop concrete steps to implement positive change for this critical issue of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The AIP Board approved the study and the AIP National Task Force to Elevate African American Representation in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP) was formed with Gates serving as a member of the task force. The TEAM UP task force spent two years investigating the reasons for the persistent underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy and produced a report with its findings. Finally, in 2021 the American Institute of Physics made him the recipient of its Andrew Gemant Award.

In 2020 during the increasing awareness of the inequities faced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) physicists, Gates, in his position as APS Vice President, created a new webinar series to “make physics inclusive and equitable.” The workshop series Delta Phi (“change physics”) has reached a broad audience of physicists including physics educators from K-12 through graduate education. The first webinar occurred in June 2020 and a panel that included past AAPT president Mel Sabella focused their discussion on why everyone, no matter their position, has an important role in building a diverse next generation of physicists. Gates has made increasing diversity and equity in physics a goal during his year as APS president.

His recent books, “Proving Einstein Right: The Daring Expeditions that Changed How We Look at the Universe,” (with Cathie Pelletier) and "Reality in the Shadows or What the Heck's the Higgs" (with Frank Blitzer and Steven Sekula) are excellent examples of how he brings the public into the world of science.

During the Obama administration he served on the U.S. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and was the co-chair of the PCAST working groups for STEM Education which presented recommendations to the President. The seminal reports that were part of this effort, “Prepare & Inspire,” and “Engage to Excel” were extremely useful to science educators around the world, providing a scientific rationale for the importance of science and math as well as how we need to increase access to these fields for all students.

This work on the front lines of scientific policy advising played a major part in his role as an advocate for science and science education. In 2013, President Obama awarded Jim the 2011 National Medal of Science, the highest recognition given by the U.S. to scientists with the citation, ‘‘For his contribution to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field, and string theories and his extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics.”

His work on promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in physics and the sciences is significant. As an example, he has given talks on racism and STEM, the history of African Americans in Science, and Inclusivity in String Theory. In his role in the Presidential line of the American Physical Society, he has pushed the organization forward on thinking about DEI efforts in Physics. He has taken bold stances on the issue and has helped APS develop concrete actions.

The Oersted Medal is named for Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851), a Danish physicist who, in the course of creating a demonstration for teaching his class, discovered that electric currents cause a magnetic field. This was a crucial step in establishing the theory of electromagnetism so important in building modern technology and modern physics. The award was established by AAPT in 1936 and is given annually to a person who has had outstanding, widespread, and lasting impact on the teaching of physics. Previous winners include Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and UMD Professor Emeritus Joe Redish.

This story was provided by the AAPT. The original is posted here: https://www.aapt.org/aboutaapt/S-James-Gates-Jr-to-Receive-AAPT-2023-Oersted-Medal.cfm