Reports on awards, grants, and other forms of recognition received by members of the Physics Department.

Professor Nora Berrah Awarded a Blaise Pascal Chaire d’Excellence to Conduct Research in France

Professor of Physics Nora Berrah has been awarded the International Blaise Pascal Chaire d’Excellence, a prestigious honor whose previous winners include scientists and scholars from a wide range of disciplines, including multiple Nobel laureates. Her award was selected by a committee of scientists and voted on by the Permanent Commission Regional Council of the Région Île-de-France.

Prof. Berrah in her lab
Prof. Berrah in her laboratory.

This award is bestowed to scientists of international reputation who are invited to conduct research in the Paris area. The goal is to establish international collaborations and exchange, as well as share science globally. In Berrah’s case, the collaboration is between UConn and the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives de Saclay (CEA, Paris Saclay). The collaborative work is aimed to push the frontiers of science, as well as enrich and facilitate international research.

The Région Île-de-France selects every year four  laureates of high international standing in their field of expertise. All research areas are included, such as the humanities, arts, and sciences, in the selection of the awardees. Six Nobel laureates have been selected for the award since 1996. Prof. Berrah was selected by the Blaise Pascal Chaire Committee for the field of Fundamental Physics.

For more information about Professor Berrah’ award, see the article in UConn Today

Jonathan Trump wins NSF Early Career Award

Jonathan Trump, Assistant Professor of Physics, will receive $738,090 over five years to compile a census of supermassive black holes in the universe. This will give insights into how supermassive black holes and galaxies evolve across cosmic time. Trump will also develop a bridge program for underrepresented undergraduate physics majors at UConn to increase their participation in STEM fields.
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education, and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Trump was one of 7 junior faculty at the University of Connecticut to receive the prestigious Early Career awards from NSF in 2020. For a description of all 7 awards, see this recent article published in UConn Today.

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell – 2019 Katzenstein Lecturer

The UConn Physics Department is delighted to announce that our 2019 Distinguished Katzenstein Lecturer will be

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Friday, November 8th, 2019
04:00 PM – 05:00 PM
Storrs Campus, Student Union Theater

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (pictured at left) is world-famous for her discovery of pulsars in 1967. Pulsars are a special type of neutron star, the rotating dense remnant of a massive star. Pulsars have highly magnetic surfaces and emit a beam of electromagnetic radiation along their poles. This beam of light moves into and out of our line-of-sight at quick, constant intervals, appearing as a regular “pulse” of light.

At the time of this discovery, Bell Burnell was a graduate student at the University of Cambridge and worked with her supervisor, Anthony Hewish, to construct the Interplanetary Scintillation Array to study another class of objects called quasars. In the course of her daily detailed analysis, she noticed a strange “pulsing” signal in her data. Jokingly dubbed “Little Green Man 1” (LGM-1), further data-taking and analysis revealed this signal to be rapidly spinning neutron star, eventually dubbed a “pulsar.”

Bell Burnell’s discovery is considered one of the most important achievements of the 20th century and was recognized by a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, awarded to her supervisor Anthony Hewish as well as to astronomer Martin Ryle. While many condemned the omission of Bell Burnell for the award, she rose above, graciously stating, “I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them. Finally, I am not myself upset about it – after all, I am in good company, am I not!”

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell has a highly distinguished career. Some notable highlights include serving as head of the Royal Astronomical Society and as the first female president of both the Institute of Physics and The Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to astronomy in 2007. Her story has been featured in a number of works, including the BBC Four’s Beautiful Minds and BBC Two’s Horizon. Bell Burnell is currently the chancellor of the University of Dundee in Scotland and a visiting professor of astrophysics at the University of Oxford.

In 2018 Bell Burnell was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Only four such prizes have been awarded, one to Stephen Hawking, one to the CERN scientists who discovered the Higgs Boson, and one to the LIGO team for their detection of gravitational waves. This award recognizes her discovery of pulsars and “a lifetime of inspiring scientific leadership.” In addition to her research accolades, her teaching, leadership, and work to lift up women and minorities in science is without parallel.

2019 Pollack Lecture

On April 11th and 12 of 2019 Prof. Paul Corkum of the Joint Attosecond Laboratory (University of Ottawa and the National Research Council of Canada) visited the department. Prof. Corkum’s main area of research is on the interaction of ultrashort laser pulses with matter broadly defined. His most notable contribution is perhaps the discovery of the so-called three-step model, which has become the basis of the emerging field of attosecond science. Attoseconds, equal to 1 billionth of 1 billionth of a second (10-18 s) is the shortest time scale ever measured or controlled by humans and is at the forefront of modern optics.

Prof. Corkum is a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the Royal Canadian Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society of London. He has received many accolades throughout his career, including the Thomson Reuters Citation Laureate which is awarded to researchers who are “of Nobel class” and likely to earn the Nobel someday and the Order of Canada.

On April 12, Prof. Corkum presented the annual Edward Pollack Distinguished Lecture, entitled “Attosecond Pulses Generated in Gases and Solids”. This lecture is supported by an endowment established by the family of the late Professor Edward Pollack in 2005. Ed’s family, friends and colleagues made contributions in his memory. This special colloquium provides a presentation in Ed’s honor in the field of atomic, molecular and optical physics, his area of research expertise. This year Mrs. Rita Pollack and their three children: Cindy [U.S. Government civil servant], Lois [now a professor of applied physics at Cornell], and Howard [professor of modern languages (German) at dePauw University in Indiana] were all in attendance.

Below, dinner with the Pollack family members, UConn faculty, and guests.

Clockwise from left: Victoria Starzef, George Gibson, Win Smith, Anne Smith, Margaret Kessel, Quentin Kessel, Nadia Corkum, Paul Corkum, Robin Côté, Lois Pollack, Cindy Blazar, Rita Pollack, Howard Pollack-Milgate, Sophie Pollack-Milgate, and Sarah Trallero


UConn Physics Professor elected to AAAS

UConn physics professor Nora Berrah has been elected to the historic and prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. This year, more than 200 individuals were elected to the academy with compelling achievements in academia, business, government, and public affairs. Berrah, who was head of the physics department from 2014 to 2018, 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.

Using big lasers – like the Linac Coherent Light Source at SLAC National Laboratory on the campus of Stanford University, the most powerful X-ray laser in the world – Berrah’s research explores transformational changes occurring inside molecules when exposed to ultra-intense beams of light. In particular, she investigates physical molecular processes that occur at the femtosecond time scale: one quadrillionth, or one millionth of one billionth, of a second.

“The American Academy for Arts and Science honors excellence and convenes leaders to examine new ideas, and that it is a high honor bestowed on me,” Berrah said.

The 2019 class includes poet and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president Elizabeth Alexander; chemical and biological engineer Kristi S. Anseth; artist Mark Bradford; gender theorist Judith Butler; economist Xiaohong Chen; academic leader and former Governor Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.; neuro-oncologist Robert B. Darnell; The Atlantic journalist James M. Fallows; author Jonathan Franzen; cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz; data science and McKinsey & Company technology expert James Manyika; former First Lady Michelle Obama; Cisco Systems business leader Charles H. Robbins; mathematician Sylvia Serfaty; philosopher Tommie Shelby; actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith; and paleoclimatologist Lonnie G. Thompson.

This post has been transcribed from the announcement on UConn Today.

Charles Reynolds Lecture 2018: Prof Andrew Millis

The 2018 Reynolds lecture speaker was Prof Andrew Millis, a Professor of Physics at Columbia University and a co-Director of Center for Computational Quantum Physics at the Flatiron Institute. Dr. Millis’s research focus is theoretical condensed matter physics. He is the leading authority in theory of correlated materials, application of new theoretical ideas to actual experiments on novel materials including high temperature superconductors. His theory of ‘colossal’ magnetoresistance seen in manganites has been the key theoretical advance that enabled a complete understanding of these materials. Andrew has also been working on quasi one-dimensional conductors and heavy fermion compounds. The lecture, entitled “Meeting Dirac’s challenge: from quantum entanglement to materials theory” presented a broad-stroke account of developments in humankind’s capability of explaining and predicting materials properties through advanced computational approaches.

Dirac wrote 90 years ago: “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty is only that the exact application of these laws leads to equations much too complicated to be soluble. It therefore becomes desirable that approximate practical methods of applying quantum mechanics should be developed, which can lead to an explanation of the main features of complex atomic systems without too much computation.’’ Professor Millis described the development of the new computational tools to meet the challenge laid out by Dirac in our quest for effective predictive tools for quantum materials. Center for Computational Quantum Physics, The Flatiron Institute is superbly positioned to address this challenge. The lecture was held on March 15 2019 and was well attended with a large number of undergraduate and graduate students present.

Contributed by Alexander Balatsky, edited by Jason Hancock

Kate Whitaker wins the Sloan Fellowship!

Original UConn Today article here

Rising Star in Astrophysics Receives Sloan Foundation Fellowship

Kate Whitaker, assistant professor of physics, stands next to a telescope inside the observatory on top of the Gant Complex on Feb. 14, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Kate Whitaker, assistant professor of physics, stands next to a telescope inside the observatory on top of the Gant Complex on Feb. 14, 2019. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

As an assistant professor of astrophysics, Kate Whitaker spends a lot of her time thinking about stars. Hundreds of billions of stars that comprise galaxies, to be more precise. But with a recent fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it is Whitaker’s star that is shining brightly.

Whitaker is one of 126 outstanding U.S. and Canadian researchers selected by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to receive 2019 Sloan Research Fellowships. The fellowships, awarded yearly since 1955, honor early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as among the most promising researchers in their fields.

Valued not only for their prestige, Sloan Research Fellowships are a highly flexible source of research support. Funds may be spent in any way a Fellow deems will best advance his or her work.

“Sloan Research Fellows are the best young scientists working today,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “Sloan Fellows stand out for their creativity, for their hard work, for the importance of the issues they tackle, and the energy and innovation with which they tackle them. To be a Sloan Fellow is to be in the vanguard of twenty-first century science.”

According to colleagues, Whitaker certainly fits the bill as one of the brightest young minds at UConn and beyond.

“Kate’s record so far is truly impressive and speaks to her potential as a leader in her field,” explains Barry Wells, head of UConn’s Department of Physics. “It was my great pleasure to nominate her for a Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship, and I am thrilled they felt she was worthy of the prize.”

An observational extragalactic astronomer, Whitaker’s research tries to reveal how galaxies are evolving from the earliest times to the present day.

In addition to her position at UConn, Whitaker is also an associate faculty at the new Cosmic Dawn Center in Copenhagen, Denmark. Whitaker and her students actively collaborate with DAWN, working towards pushing our detection of quiescent “red and dead” galaxies even earlier in time.

She will be among the world’s first scientists to explore the universe using the new James Webb Space Telescope when it is launched in 2019, which she says will allow her to push into new frontiers of research.

Apart from that exciting work, Whitaker and colleagues Cara Battersby and Jonathan Trump were tasked with building a full-fledged astronomy program from scratch at UConn. Not only has their work exceeded expectations, the fruits of their labor are already beginning to emerge. Whitaker and colleagues have so far created five new astrophysics courses with two more slated for next year, established an official astronomy minor, and are operating a thriving research program that involves doctoral students, undergrads, and even local high school students.

“I am both thrilled at this opportunity and humbled to be named amongst such a prestigious cohort of scientists,” says Whitaker. “With the Sloan Foundation’s generous support, I aspire to continue to lead ground-breaking studies of the distant universe, the mystery of which will no doubt captivate our imaginations.”

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation is a philanthropic, not-for-profit grant making institution based in New York City. Established in 1934 by Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr., then-President and Chief Executive Officer of the General Motors Corporation, the Foundation makes grants in support of original research and education in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics. A full list of the 2019 Fellows is available at the Sloan Foundation website at

Nora Berrah Named 2018 AAAS Fellow

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.

Prof. Berrah

View full story on CLAS website.

UConn Physics major wins national recognition for research

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.

Professor Rainer Weiss: Katzenstein Distinguished Lecture

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.

Students discuss gravitational waves with Prof. Weiss (MIT) following lecture

In 2017 Professor Weiss shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Professor Kip Thorne and Professor Barry Barish for 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. Shep Doeleman 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: