Physics professor Nora Berrah has been named a 2018 Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Prof. Berrah has been recognized for her distinguished contributions to the field of molecular dynamics, particularly for pioneering non-linear science using x-ray lasers and spectroscopy using synchrotron light sources.
Step into a fall 2018 class section of PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II, and you’ll find a scene that’s far from the large introductory science lectures common on most college campuses.
Anna Regan ’21 (CLAS) utilizes a whiteboard to try out
solutions during her group’s problem-solving tutorial.
(Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
To start, the class of 30 students sits at several triangular workspaces, which today are covered with wires, coils, magnets, and power supplies that the students are using to demonstrate electromagnetic induction. At the start of class, the instructors provided a short lecture before the students set off on their own problem-solving tutorials.
Now, the instructors move from group to group, stopping to answer questions, as students shuttle back and forth to the whiteboards that line the classroom walls.
It’s a scene that’s about to become common in UConn physics courses, thanks to renovations to the Edward V. Gant Science Complex, according to Barrett Wells, professor and head of the Department of Physics.
“We’re rebuilding our classes from the ground up,” he says. “It’s the basis for what we’re going to spread across most of our introductory courses.”
The curricular redesign, says Wells, will replace the typical large-lecture format with smaller classes, utilizing five new studio-style physics learning laboratories to be added to the Gant Science Complex in 2019. These changes will promote active learning, collaborative problem solving, and faculty-student interaction, he says.
“This is a trend we’re seeing in our discipline,” Wells says. “Restricting class size to promote students actively participating during class has been documented to help them achieve and learn more across the board.”
Lecture Meets Lab
Traditional science courses, including those in physics, typically consist of three weekly lectures that hold 100 to 200 students, with once-per-week lab sections where students practice the concepts they learn in lecture.
But this setup poses challenges for professors and teaching assistants to cover the material at the same rate, often causing lecture and lab sections to fall out of synchrony, says Diego Valente, assistant professor in residence of physics and instructor of Fundamentals of Physics II.
In addition, many physics concepts are difficult to teach within the logistical setup of a lecture, and the instructors may have a difficult time knowing whether students comprehend the material, says Valente.
To combat these issues, the Department of Physics piloted redesigned versions of Fundamentals of Physics I and II, the introductory sequence for physics majors, in the spring and fall of 2018, respectively.
Course instructor and Ph.D. student Lukasz Kuna ’14
(CLAS), ’17 MS assists a group that includes Ian Segal-
Gould ’21 (CLAS), far right. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
The new courses, which will use the physics learning laboratories, merge the lecture and lab sections into three 2-hour class periods per week that hold up to 54 students. Classes are led by the same professor and graduate students.
“[The studio classrooms] allow instructors to interact with students more frequently and discuss concepts with them in depth,” says Valente. “Previously, hands-on group work was limited to lab courses. Now, every single day in class there’s some kind of group activity where students solve problems.”
Lukasz Kuna ’14 (CLAS), ’17 MS, a physics Ph.D. student and teaching assistant for Fundamentals of Physics II, agrees.
“We can present a topic that’s somewhat difficult to understand, and then attack it from all angles,” he says. “It certainly should be the way physics is taught, because it prepares you for more difficult problem solving.”
A Learning Community
The studio learning model also increases the amount of time students spend working collaboratively, says Valente.
Ian Segal-Gould ’21 (CLAS), a physics and mathematics major enrolled in Fundamentals of Physics II, says that the class fosters the collaborative problem-solving that is expected of professional physicists.
“In lecture-based courses, people look at the professor,” he says. “They’re not talking to each other, they’re not solving the problem—they’re looking at somebody else solve the problem. In the real world, physicists work together, so I think the interactive component to this course is on the right track.”
Physics major Megan Sturm ’21 (CLAS) says that working in small groups helps build camaraderie and exposes her to new ideas.
“I know at least half of the class, and it’s way easier to learn that way,” she says. “Someone else will ask a question or say something during the lab that I wouldn’t have even thought about.”
Sturm also says that she enjoys the frequency of interaction with the instructors, noting that Valente circulates through the class, asks students specific questions, and engages in hands-on work with them.
Physics major Megan Sturm ’21 (CLAS) says that working
in small groups helps build camaraderie and exposes her to
new ideas. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
“He’s way more approachable, so when I’m having trouble with things, I don’t have a problem going to office hours,” she says.
Kuna, who has taught for three years in the Department, says that the faculty-student interaction helps him better gauge how students are learning the material.
“Traditionally, if you’re teaching in a large lecture, you somewhat lose the students when they go to lab,” he says. “Here, you get to see where your class stands.”
With a target completion date for phase one renovations set for fall of 2019, the Department is gearing up to redesign other introductory courses, including Physics for Engineers and Physics with Calculus, a general education sequence taken by many pre-med students.
“This is important because we offer courses to majors across the University, and we’re teaching more students each year,” Wells says.
“Our goal is to develop not just comprehension of physical concepts, but also transferable skills–things like communication through group work and computer programming, which students can use in their professional lives,” adds Valente.
He says that these investments in teaching and infrastructure give UConn an advantage in addressing instructional issues common at institutions across the United States.
“This is a really large-scale venture we are doing, something a lot of comparable institutions aren’t able to do,” Valente says. “It shows that UConn is making a big commitment to physics education.”
By: Bri Diaz, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
This article was originally published in the UConn CLAS Newswletter, November 28 issue
UConn astrophysicist, Cara Battersby. (Carson Stifel/UConn Photo)
A young Cara Battersby once scrawled out the phrase “Science is curious” in a school project about what she wanted to do when she grew up.
This simple phrase still captures Battersby’s outlook on her research about our universe.
Recently shortlisted for the 2018 Nature Research Inspiring Science Award, Battersby has been working on several projects aimed at unfolding some of the most compelling mysteries of galaxies near and far.
“I’m really interested in how stars are born,” Battersby says. “They’re the source of all life on Earth.”
Many of the “laws” we know about how stars are formed are based exclusively on observations of our own galaxy. Because we don’t have as much information about how stars form in other galaxies with different conditions, these laws likely don’t apply as well as we think they should.
Battersby is leading an international team of over 20 scientists to map the center of the Milky Way Galaxy using the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii, in a large survey called CMZoom. She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant to follow-up on this survey and create a 3D computer modeled map of the center of the Milky Way Galaxy.
The center of our galaxy has extreme conditions similar to those in other far-off galaxies that are less easily studied, so the Milky Way is an important laboratory for understanding the physics of star formation in extreme conditions.
By mapping out this region in our own galactic backyard, Battersby will be able to form a better idea of how stars form in more remote areas of the universe.
“I love that astrophysics is one of the fields where I can get my hands into everything,” Battersby says. “Stars are something real that you can actually see and study the physics of.”
Battersby is also investigating the “bones” of the Milky Way. Working with researchers from Harvard University, she is looking at how some unusually long clouds could be clues to constructing a more accurate picture of our galaxy.
“Because of the size of our galaxy, it’s infeasible to send a satellite up there to take a picture,” she says.
Since we are living within the Milky Way it is much harder for us to get a clear idea of what it looks like. We know that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, but we don’t yet know how many “arms” the spiral has and if it’s even a well-defined spiral.
These kinds of celestial mysteries have long fascinated Battersby.
Battersby says she would “devour” astronomy books and magazines her parents gave her, but it wasn’t until college that her passion truly developed.
She did her Ph.D. thesis at the University of Colorado on high-mass stars being formed on the disk of our galaxy. During this research she made an astounding discovery that every high-density cloud in space is already in some phase of forming a star, a process that takes millions of years.
This led her to conclude that star formation starts as the cloud is collapsing bit by bit, modifying previous ideas of the timeline of this process.
“If you look at something new in a way no one’s looked at it before, the universe has a great way of surprising us,” Battersby says.
In August 2018, Professor Barrett Wells entered as the new head of the Physics department, following Professor Nora Berrah. Barrett is an experimental condensed matter physicists with a robust research program involved in both synthesis and advanced experimentation around novel phases of quantum materials. Barrett brings to the department strong administrative talent, having served a long term as the associate department head for undergraduate affairs as well as chairing many important committees since his arrival at UConn.
Learn more about Professor Wells and the physics department from a recent interview produced by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Connor Occhialini – Finalist 2018 LeRoy Apker Undergraduate Achievements Award
by Jason Hancock
One of our star undergraduates, Connor Occhialini, has won national recognition as a finalist in the 2018 LeRoy Apker Undergraduate Achievements Award competition for his research in the UConn Physics department. The honor and distinction is awarded not only for the excellent research achievements of the student, but also for the department that provides the supportive environment and opportunities for students to excel in research. Connor is in fact the second Apker finalist in three years’ time (Michael Cantara was a 2016 Apker finalist). Connor graduated with a BS in Physics from UConn in May 2018 and stayed on as a researcher during summer 2018. During his time here, he developed theoretical models, helped build a pump-probe laser system, and carried out advanced analysis of X-ray scattering data which revealed a new context for an unusual phenomenon – negative thermal expansion. With these outstanding achievements, the department presented Connor’s nomination to the 2018 LeRoy Apker award committee of the American Physical Society. Connor was selected to be one of only four Apker finalists from all PhD-granting institutions in the US. With this prestigious honor, the department receives a plaque and a $1000 award to support undergraduate research. Connor is now a PhD student in the Physics Department at MIT.
The Katzenstein Distinguished Lectures series continued in the 2018 academic year with its twenty second Nobel Laureate lecturer, with an October 26, 2018 lecture by Professor Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The title of Professor Weiss’ talk was “Exploration of the Universe with Gravitational Waves”, with abstract:
The observations of gravitational waves from the merger of binary black holes and from a binary neutron star coalescence followed by a set of astronomical measurements is an example of investigating the universe by “multi-messenger” astronomy. Gravitational waves will allow us to observe phenomena we already know in new ways as well as to test General Relativity in the limit of strong gravitational interactions – the dynamics of massive bodies traveling at relativistic speeds in a highly curved space-time. Since the gravitational waves are due to accelerating masses while electromagnetic waves are caused by accelerating charges, it is reasonable to expect new classes of sources to be detected by gravitational waves as well. The lecture will start with some basic concepts of gravitational waves, briefly describe the instruments and the methods for data analysis that enable the measurement of gravitational wave strains of one part in 10 to the 21, and then present the results of recent runs. The lecture will end with a vision for the future of gravitational wave astrophysics and astronomy.
In 2017 Professor Weiss shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Professor Kip Thorne and Professor Barry Barishfor their epochal discovery of gravitational waves, waves that had been predicted by Albert Einstein using his General Theory of Relativity no less than a hundred years before.
Professor Rainer Weiss received his BS degree from MIT in 1955 and his PhD from MIT in 1962. He was on the faculty of Tufts University from 1960 to 1962, and did post-doctoral research at Princeton from 1962 to 1964. He joined the MIT faculty in 1964 and remained a regular faculty member there until he became emeritus in 2001. Along with Kip Thorne, the late Ronald Drever and Barry Barish he spearheaded the development of LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, a set of two interferometers, one located in Louisiana and the other in Washington State. The interferometers would jointly look for gravitational wave signals seen in coincidence, and in September 2015 made the very first detection of gravity waves. At Louisiana State University he has served as an Adjunct Professor of Physics since 2001. As well as research in gravity waves Professor Weiss’ other primary interests are in atomic clocks and cosmic microwave background measurements.
Dr. Weiss had previously visited the University of Connecticut in Fall 2015 as part of a lecture series that fall given at the University of Connecticut in commemoration of the hundredth year of Einstein’s development of his Theory of General Relativity. At that time Dr. Weiss described the ongoing search at LIGO for gravity waves produced by the merger of two black holes. And the initial announcement of a discovery was made in February 2016, shortly after Dr. Weiss’s visit to the University of Connecticut. It is also of interest to note that Dr. ShepDoeleman of Harvard University was another of the speakers at the Fall 2015 University of Connecticut Einstein commemoration. He talked about the ongoing effort to actually detect the event horizons associated with black holes using the Event Horizon Telescope, black holes being yet another prediction of Einstein’s Theory that was also one hundred years old. And in 2019 Dr. Doeleman announced the very the first direct detection of a black hole event horizon. Thus, with the first detection of gravity waves produced by black hole mergers and then the detection of an event horizon itself, the theory of black holes is put on a very secure observational foundation. This lecture can be viewed: https://www.uctv14.com/ucspanblog/2018/12/10/katzenstein-distinguished-lecture-october-26th-2018?rq=Katzenstein
The Department of Physics seeks 2 dynamic and energetic applicants to join its teaching laboratory team. The Department is undergoing a deep renovation of teaching pedagogy in large-scale learning labs with full support of the University. The successful applicant will fill the Laboratory Technician 2, UCP 4 designation and assume responsibility for maintaining, troubleshooting, and organizing equipment related to learning activities in the large-scale introductory courses. In addition, the technician will be expected to provide support and training to graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants and interact professionally with the teaching staff team, students, and faculty to ensure the safe and secure operation of our teaching labs. Additional duties will include maintaining and upgrading equipment, developing new educational tools under supervision, evaluating and designing laboratory procedures, providing administrative support related to the teaching labs, and assisting in the training, support, and evaluation of teaching assistants. For information about the Physics Department, please visit: http://www.physics.uconn.edu/.
Bachelor’s degree in physics or a related field and 1-3 years experience in teaching laboratory operations, or equivalent education and experience; sound knowledge of principles of and experience in experimental physics; ability to perform and explain lab procedures and edit manuals; working knowledge of standard MS Office software; ability to operate and maintain computer-based laboratory equipment; knowledge of laboratory safety procedures; ability to troubleshoot equipment similar in type and complexity to existing lab equipment; ability to perform tasks requiring manual dexterity and lift 40 lbs; ability to support evening labs as needed.
Strong written and verbal communication skills; familiarity with PASCO proprietary hardware and software; demonstrated ability to work well with students, faculty and staff in a diverse environment; familiarity with the LaTeX typesetting system; ability to create schematic drawings of experimental equipment; ability to revise current experiments and design new experiments; ability to design and perform basic repairs to electric circuits and electronic equipment; familiarity with basic experimental data analysis techniques and software tools; basic proficiency writing code in Python (or equivalent); familiarity with science education research; familiarity with studio-based instructional models;
This is a full time, 12-month permanent position with excellent benefits.
For full consideration, interested applicants should submit letter of application, resume, names and contact information for three professional references to UConn Careers. Employment of the successful candidate is contingent upon the successful completion of a pre-employment criminal background check. (Search #2019124).
All employees are subject to adherence to the State Code of Ethics which may be found at http://www.ct.gov/ethics/site/default.asp.
University of Connecticut, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Physics Department
Postdoctoral Research Associate: Galactic Center, Star Formation, ISM, numerical or observational
Job Summary: Applications are invited for a Postdoctoral Research Associate to join Prof. Cara Battersby’s research group in the Astrophysics Program at the University of Connecticut. The successful candidate will work closely with the group on research topics related to star formation, the Galactic Center, Galactic structure, nearby galaxies, and the ISM, utilizing large datasets and/or numerical simulations. The growing UConn astrophysics program, with three recent faculty hires, is a vibrant and collegial atmosphere. The successful candidate will have opportunities for research mentoring, teaching, and outreach as desired.
Appointment Terms: The desired start date is August 2, 2019 (with flexibility). The initial appointment is for one year, renewable for an additional two years contingent upon satisfactory performance, mutual agreement, and availability of funds.
Minimum Qualifications: Candidates are expected to have a PhD in astrophysics or a closely-related field by the start date.
Preferred Qualifications: The ideal candidate will have a solid research portfolio, strong coding and analysis skills, excellent communication skills, and a commitment to promoting an inclusive community in astrophysics as well as an interest and/or experience in working with large datasets, numerical simulations, the Galactic Center, Galactic structure, nearby galaxies, star formation, and/or the ISM.
To Apply: Please submit a CV, publication list, cover letter, and research statement (flexible length, about 2-4 pages) to UConn Jobs http://hr.uconn.edu/jobs, Staff Positions. Please arrange for three letters of reference to be sent to Prof. Cara Battersby (email@example.com). Questions about the position should also be directed to Prof. Cara Battersby. Evaluation of applications will begin December 17, 2018 and will continue until the position is filled. Employment of the successful candidate is contingent upon the successful completion of a Pre-Employment Criminal Background Check (Search # 2019081). The University of Connecticut is an EEO /AA Employer.
Postdoctoral Research Associate: Galaxy Formation and Evolution
Applications are invited for a postdoctoral research position in extragalactic astronomy at the University of Connecticut in collaboration with Professor Kate Whitaker. The successful candidate will focus on the analysis, interpretation and modeling of space-based multi-wavelength data from the 3D-HST/CANDELS treasury program, as part of an awarded NASA-ADAP grant. Emphasis of research topics related to observational galaxy formation and evolution can include star formation, dust obscuration, quiescence, galaxy morphology, and/or active galactic nuclei. The position will also provide opportunities for independent research. The growing UConn Astrophysics Program offers a vibrant and collegial atmosphere. The successful candidate will have local opportunities for research mentoring, teaching, and outreach, as desired, as well as potential new international collaborative projects with the Cosmic Dawn Center in Copenhagen.
Minimum Qualifications: Candidates are expected to have a PhD in astrophysics or a closely-related field by the start date.
Preferred Qualifications:The ideal candidate will have a demonstrated research portfolio, strong coding and analysis skills, excellent communication skills, and a commitment to promoting an inclusive community in astrophysics. Interest and/or experience in working with large space-based extragalactic datasets, including Hubble, Spitzer and/or Herschel photometry is preferred.
Appointment Terms: The start date is August 2, 2019 (with flexibility). The initial appointment is for one year, renewable for an additional two years contingent upon satisfactory performance, mutual agreement, and availability of funds.
To Apply: Please apply online at UConn Careers, (www.jobs.uconn.edu), Staff Positions (Search # 2019130). Please submit a curriculum vitae, publication list, cover letter, and research statement (flexible in length, about 2-4 pages). Please arrange for three letters of reference to be sent to Prof. Kate Whitaker (firstname.lastname@example.org). Questions about the position should also be directed to Prof. Kate Whitaker. Evaluation of applications will begin January 1, 2019, but applications will continue to be accepted until the position is filled.
Employment of the successful candidate will be contingent upon the successful completion of a pre-employment criminal background check. (Search # 2019188)
This job posting is scheduled to be removed at 11:59 p.m. Eastern time on March 15, 2019.
The University of Connecticut is committed to building and supporting a multicultural and diverse community of students, faculty and staff. The diversity of students, faculty and staff continues to increase, as does the number of honors students, valedictorians and salutatorians who consistently make UConn their top choice. More than 100 research centers and institutes serve the University’s teaching, research, diversity, and outreach missions, leading to UConn’s ranking as one of the nation’s top research universities. UConn’s faculty and staff are the critical link to fostering and expanding our vibrant, multicultural and diverse University community. As an Affirmative Action/Equal Employment Opportunity employer, UConn encourages applications from women, veterans, people with disabilities and members of traditionally underrepresented populations.
The Department of Physics at the University of Connecticut invites applications for a tenure-track position in Astrophysics at the rank of Assistant Professor with an anticipated start date of August 23, 2019. This is an open search with a preference for expertise in data science, numerical simulations, computational methods, and/or large datasets/surveys. The first three years of the position are under a joint (50-50) appointment with the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA) at the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute in New York City, where the appointee will hold the position of Associate Research Scientist or Research Scientist. Applicants are expected to have a PhD in astrophysics or a closely-related field and to have established an independent program of research. The successful applicant will demonstrate a strong commitment to effective teaching and promoting an inclusive community in astrophysics.
UConn is committed to building a strong astrophysics program, with the recent hire of three assistant professors in astrophysics, development of new astrophysics courses and a minor, and investment in the new Prime Focus Spectrograph (PFS) on the Subaru Telescope. The CCA is part of the Flatiron Institute in New York City, supported by the Simons Foundation, and is a focal point for computational astronomy in the region and around the world. Information on the CCA is available at https://www.simonsfoundation.org/flatiron/center-for-computational-astrophysics/.
The University of Connecticut is committed to building and supporting a multicultural and diverse community of students, faculty and staff. UConn is an AA/EEO employer and encourages applications from women, veterans, people with disabilities and traditionally underrepresented populations.
THE SIMONS FOUNDATION’S DIVERSITY COMMITMENT
Many of the greatest ideas and discoveries come from a diverse mix of minds, backgrounds and experiences, and we are committed to cultivating an inclusive work environment. The Simons Foundation provides equal opportunities to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, religion, color, age, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, genetic disposition, neurodiversity, disability, veteran status, or any other protected category under federal, state and local law.