Highlights

Synopsis or brief article reporting on research or teaching highlights taking place within the department.

Amelia Henkel, Graduating President of the Undergraduate Women in Physics Club, speaks about her time at UConn

 

Amelia Henkel, graduating Double Major in Physics and Human Rights, and President of the Undergraduate Women in Physics Club, speaks on the CLAS website about her passion for physics and human rights, and how she mastered challenges in her remarkably interdisciplinary curriculum. “We really need to interact with other disciplines,” says Amelia, “because that’s when physics has the opportunity to make a real impact on the rest of the world.” Her broad research interests range from A to W: from Astronomy to Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “Respecting and promoting human rights is a prerequisite to realizing our full potential as human beings,” says Amelia. Physics as a discipline has made progress to become more inclusive, but many groups remain minorities including women. In daily college life in physics departments female students still face “microaggressions and discriminatory practices” which are often unintended and unconscious but nonetheless damaging and frustrating.  As the President of the Undergraduate Women in Physics Club, Amelia helped to organize “events that promote community cohesion and inform the students about the nature of some of the barriers that exist in physics and in STEM, while talking about how we can overcome them.” The recent department-wide event Women in Physics Colloquium organized by Amelia was thought provoking and well-received. The percentage of women earning a Bacheleor’s Degree in Physics from UConn, though slowly increasing and compatible with the national average of about 20% published by APS, is far away from where we wish to be. But the efforts of students like Amelia contribute to improving the situation.  Many thanks to Amelia whose commitment helps to make our department better.

Read more about Amelia on the CLAS website. A short summary of her story is in UConn Today.

Astronomers Assemble View of Evolving Universe

 – Donna Weaver & Ray Villard, Space Telescope Science Institute

The University of Connecticut’s Katherine Whitaker is part of a team of astronomers who have put together the largest and most comprehensive “history book” of the universe from 16 years’ worth of observations from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

This image, a mosaic of nearly 7,500 separate Hubble exposures, presents a wide portrait of the distant universe and contains roughly 265,000 galaxies that stretch back through 13.3 billion years of time to just 500 million years after the universe’s birth in the Big Bang. (Space Telescope Science Institute Image)

The deep-sky mosaic provides a wide portrait of the distant universe, containing 200,000 galaxies that stretch back through 13.3 billion years of time to just 500 million years after the Big Bang. The tiny, faint, most distant galaxies in the image are similar to the seedling villages from which today’s great galaxy star-cities grew. The faintest and farthest galaxies are just one ten billionth the brightness of what the human eye can see.

The image yields a huge catalog of distant galaxies. “Such exquisite high-resolution measurements of the legacy field catalog of galaxies enable a wide swath of extragalactic study,” says Whitaker, the catalog lead researcher. “Often, these kinds of surveys have yielded unanticipated discoveries that have had the greatest impact on our understanding of galaxy evolution.”

The ambitious endeavor, called the Hubble Legacy Field, also combines observations taken by several Hubble deep-field surveys, including the eXtreme Deep Field (XDF), the deepest view of the universe. The wavelength range stretches from ultraviolet to near-infrared light, capturing all the features of galaxy ‘assembly over time.

“Now that we have gone wider than in previous surveys, we are harvesting many more distant galaxies in the largest such dataset ever produced,” says Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and leader of the team. “This one image contains the full history of the growth of galaxies in the universe, from their times as infants to when they grew into fully-fledged ‘adults.’”

Illingworth says he anticipates that the survey will lead to an even more coherent and in-depth understanding of the universe’s evolution in the coming years.

The deep-sky mosaic provides a wide portrait of the distant universe, containing 200,000 galaxies that stretch back through 13.3 billion years of time to just 500 million years after the Big Bang.

Galaxies trace the expansion of the universe, offering clues to the underlying physics of the cosmos, showing when the chemical elements originated and enabled the conditions that eventually led to the appearance of our solar system and life.

This new wider view contains 100 times as many galaxies as in the previous deep fields. The new portrait, a mosaic of multiple snapshots, covers almost the width of the full Moon, and chronicles the universe’s evolutionary history in one sweeping view. The portrait shows how galaxies change over time, building themselves up to become the giant galaxies seen in the nearby universe. The broad wavelength range covered in the legacy image also shows how galaxy stellar populations look different depending on the color of light.

The legacy field also uncovers a zoo of unusual objects. Many of them are the remnants of galactic “train wrecks,” a time in the early universe when small, young galaxies collided and merged with other galaxies.

Assembling all of the observations was an immense task. The image comprises the collective work of 31 Hubble programs by different teams of astronomers. Hubble has spent more time on this tiny area than on any other region of the sky, totaling more than 250 days.

The image, along with the individual exposures that make up the new view, is available to the worldwide astronomical community through the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes (MAST), an online database of astronomical data from Hubble and other NASA missions.

The new set of Hubble images, created from nearly 7,500 individual exposures, is the first in a series of Hubble Legacy Field images. The team is working on a second set of images, totaling more than 5,200 Hubble exposures, in another area of the sky.

In addition, NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will allow astronomers to push much deeper into the legacy field to reveal how the infant galaxies actually grew. Webb’s infrared coverage will go beyond the limits of Hubble and Spitzer to help astronomers identify the first galaxies in the universe.

The Hubble Legacy Fields program, supported through AR-13252 and AR-15027, is based on observations made with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, obtained at the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc., under NASA contract NAS 5-26555.

This article first appeared in UConn Today on May 2, 2019.

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 https://sloan.org/fellowships/2019-Fellows.

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.

Hands-On Approach to Physics

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.

Students in PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II in a new Studio Learning Lab located in the Gant Science Complex on November 5, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
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.

Graduate teaching assistant Lukasz Kuna instructs PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II in a new Studio Learning Lab located in the Gant Science Complex on November 5, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
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 Strum, far left, in PHYS 1602: Fundamentals of Physics II in a new Studio Learning Lab located in the Gant Science Complex on November 5, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)
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.”

New Opportunities

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

Faculty Profile: UConn Astrophysicist Cara Battersby

Meet the Researcher: UConn Astrophysicist Cara Battersby

UConn astrophysicist, Cara Battersby sits in an office in front of poster of galaxies.

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.

View full story on UConn Today.

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By: Anna Zarra Aldrich ’20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research

 

 

Welcoming Barrett Wells as new department head

 

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.

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.

Hands-on teaching of introductory physics gains momentum

Students in PHYS 1601Q, taught by Professor Jason Hancock, work during a lab that observes how an external mass can affect oscillation by producing torque. They use a device called an ioLab to record data, and use the data in a program called Mathematica for analysis. The lab was in the Edward V. Gant science complex on April 20, 2018. (Garrett Spahn/UConn Photo)

 

A recently renovated physics classroom in the Edward V. Gant Science Complex was built to pilot a new approach to physics education, integrating lecture with lab rather than the classical approach of separating these components.

Students and instructors apply concepts with hands-on activities throughout the lecture, practice new tools, and problem solve as a group. The space is equipped with whiteboards on every wall, and computers and projectors for each station. Though built for entry-level courses such as Physics 1601 and 1602, the end goal is to convert larger classes into this format as well, including entry-level engineering and biology classes, for a more interactive learning experience.

– Garrett Spahn ’18 (CLAS) & Elaina Hancock

UConn Prof. Kate Whitaker interviewed by Gizmodo

Gizmodo has recently launched a new series of articles to explore how the best images in science were created and why.  In a recent article in this series by Ryan F. Mandelbaum entitled, “The Making of ‘Pillars of Creation,’ One of the Most Amazing Images of Our Universe”, the author presents a classic set of images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope showing a zoomed-in view of the Eagle Nebula. The article explains some of the details about the instrument that took these images, and how a color image is obtained by combining black-and-white photographs taken at a number of different wavelengths. In the article, UConn astronomer Prof. Kate Whitaker explains why an advanced space-based instrument like the HST is required to obtain awesome views like this of our cosmic neighborhood.