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:


Michelle Girvan Named Distinguished Scholar-Teacher

Professor Michelle Girvan has been named a University of Maryland Distinguished Scholar-Teacher. The Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Program, established in 1978, honors a small number of faculty members each year who have demonstrated notable success in both scholarship and teaching.Michelle GirvanMichelle Girvan

Girvan works in network science, which focuses on complex connectivity patterns among interacting units. This interdisciplinary field builds upon techniques from physics and applied mathematics in order to gain in new insights in systems ranging from brain networks to social networks to power grids. Girvan received her Ph.D. in Physics from Cornell University, and has held appointments at the Santa Fe Institute and the Institute for Advanced Study. She joined the Department of Physics in 2007 and holds appointments in the Institute for Physical Sciences and Technology and the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics.

In 2017, Girvan received the Richard A. Ferrell Distinguished Faculty Fellowship and was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society for seminal contributions to the nonlinear and statistical physics of complex networks, including characterization of network structures and dynamics, and interdisciplinary applications.  In 2020, she was elected a Fellow of the Network Science Society.

Since 2016, Dr. Girvan has served as director of UMD’s COMBINE (Computation and Mathematics for Biological Networks program, initially funded by the National Science Foundation. COMBINE’s interdisciplinary curriculum integrated quantitative modeling methods from physics and mathematics with data processing, analysis, and visualization tools from computer science to gain deeper insights into living systems. Thus far, COMBINE has trained more than 60 graduate students.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of the COMBINE program, Girvan launched #Net_COVID, an online series that explored and explained network epidemiology in the time of Coronavirus.

Girvan has served as thesis advisor for 12 students in four different disciplines: Physics, Applied Math and Scientific Computing, Biophysics and Math; she has co-advised five others (four in Physics and one in Chemical Physics).  

Girvan will give her Distinguished Scholar-Teacher lecture on December 13, 2022.

Sylvester James Gates, Jr. Returns to UMD Faculty as Clark Leadership Chair in Science

Sylvester James Gates, Jr., a member of the National Academy of Sciences and recipient of the National Medal of Science, will rejoin the University of Maryland faculty on July 1, 2022. He will hold the Clark Leadership Chair in Science and a joint appointment in the Department of Physics and the School of Public Policy. He will also hold the titles of Distinguished University Professor and Regents Professor.

“Jim Gates is a truly legendary figure in science and education. His lifelong fascination with fundamental physics has inspired generations of students and scientists worldwide,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. “We’ve benefited from his counsel and advocacy for nearly 40 years, and we are delighted that our faculty members and students will continue to have opportunities to interact with him here at the University of Maryland.”

Gates is well-known for his seminal work in supersymmetry, supergravity and string theory. He has made milestone discoveries in the mathematics of particle theory and the geometry of gravity. In addition to his research achievements, Gates also distinguished himself as a powerful advocate for education and a charismatic ambassador for American science around the world.

“The University of Maryland, College Park has been the main secret sauce turbo-charging my professional activities and I am looking forward to this once more!” Gates said.

In 2011, Gates received the National Medal of Science “for contributions to the mathematics of supersymmetry in particle, field, and string theories and extraordinary efforts to engage the public on the beauty and wonder of fundamental physics.” He served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) under Barack Obama and was the vice president of the Maryland State Board of Education.

“Professor Gates has applied his knowledge and research to great effect in the policy arena,” said Robert Orr, dean of UMD’s School of Public Policy. “He has also been instrumental in educating our students about the crucial nexus between science and technology and the policy world.”

Gates was a faculty member in UMD’s Department of Physics from 1984 until 2017 and maintained ties since then as a College Park Professor of Physics. Since 2017, he also held appointments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Howard University, Dartmouth College and Brown University.  He has also served as president of both the National Society of Black Physicists and the American Physical Society.

“Having Jim Gates return is a boon to our entire campus,” said Steve Rolston, chair of UMD’s Department of Physics. “His international stature as an educator and science proponent is particularly crucial in our current times.”

University System of Maryland Chancellor Emeritus William E. “Brit” Kirwan has stated, “Jim is the academic version of a triple-threat: great researcher, gifted teacher and totally dedicated to public service. He is simply amazing.”

The Clark Leadership Chair in Science that Gates will hold was established through the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation’s Building Together: An Investment for Maryland.