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

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.


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.

Physics students boost interdisciplinary research in materials

Krishna (left) and Lukasz (right) posing in front of their EAM-2018 award winning posters.

By Amanda Olavarria

The Electronic and Advanced Materials Conference (EAM) is geared towards engineers, technologists, researchers and students with an interest in science, engineering and the applications of electroceramic materials. Several MSE students and faculty attended this year’s EAM Conference held in Orlando, FL.

MSE Associate Professor and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Serge Nakhmanson, co-organized a symposium at this event entitled “Mesoscale Phenomena in Ceramic Materials.” Four UConn students including Tulsi Patel, Krishna Chaitanya Pitike, Lukasz Kuna and Hope Whitlock showcased their research.

In addition to the oral presentations, two UConn students claimed 2nd and 3rd place in the American Ceramics Society (ACerS) Electronics Division “Best Student Poster Presentation” awards. Lukasz Kuna received 3rd place for his poster entitled, “Mesoscale Simulations of the Influence of Elastic Strains on the Optical Properties of Semiconducting Core-Shell Nanowires.” Krishna Chaitayna Pitike won 2nd place for his poster, “Shape and Size Dependent Phase Transformations and Field-induced Behavior in Ferroelectric Nanoparticles.”

In response to the latter award Serge Nakhmanson said, “This remarkable work involves contributions from five UConn students (including Physics undergraduate Hope Whitelock) and an exchange student from China visiting my group. It started as a team project in the “Phase Transformations in Solids” graduate class (MSE 5305). Since the original results appeared to be significant, we decided to continue this project beyond the end of the semester to generate a publication for a peer-review scientific journal. This is now being finalized for submission. It is relatively rare to see classroom projects successfully transition into publication quality research, but this one is being well received by the community.” Department Head Bryan Huey adds, “Devising a class project that can be guided through to a publication is a testament to Professor Nakhmanson’s commitment to teaching and the hard work he inspires with these bright students.”

EAM, jointly arranged by the Electronics Division and Basic Science Division of the ACerS, focuses on the properties and processing of ceramic and electroceramic materials and their applications in electronic, electro/mechanical, dielectric, magnetic, and optical components and devices and systems.

Categories: awards, conferences, news, research, students

Published: February 16, 2018

One Giant Leap in Mapping the Universe

An artist’s rendering of hot material falling into a supermassive black hole, creating what is called the accretion disk, shown in orange. Reverberation mapping measures the time it takes light to travel between two areas of the accretion disk. The ‘light echo’ enables direct measurement of the mass of the black hole. This reverberation mapping project is the first project to weigh many black holes at once. (Image by Nahks Tr’Ehnl, Penn State University)

 – Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

Surveying millions of astronomical objects, such as supermassive black holes, is a huge and time-consuming undertaking. An international team of researchers, including UConn assistant professor and astronomer Jonathan Trump and graduate student Yasuman Homayouni, have been successful in improving and speeding up this complex task of surveying and mapping our skies, in a study published in the Astrophysical Journal.

“In one sentence, it’s a new, industrial-scale way to weigh large numbers of supermassive black holes,” says Trump.

The effort is part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, one of the most successful survey projects in the history of astronomy, which has produced the largest and most detailed three-dimensional maps of the Universe to date. Just like early map makers trying to better understand the planet we live on, modern mapping of galaxies, quasars, and supermassive black holes – the largest type of black hole, found in the center of almost all currently known massive galaxies – gives researchers insight into these phenomena and the Universe we live in. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is creating as detailed a map as possible of a portion of our sky, and has already collected data on more than three million astronomical objects.

Trump and his colleagues are working toward this goal using a method called reverberation mapping on an especially large sample of distant galaxies with supermassive black holes. The technique measures the mass of the black holes by using light echoes of gas orbiting the black holes, far outside the ‘event horizon’ within which nothing can escape falling into the black hole. With this data, he says, black holes can be described very easily.

“Mass is fundamental,” Trump says. “Once you know the mass, you can calculate almost everything there is to know about a black hole.”

It is this ability to understand so much about black holes from knowing just their mass that makes them good mapping targets. Black holes are more than just rips in space and time, and more than vacuum cleaners sucking up everything that gets too close to their event horizons, Trump explains. There are tight connections between black holes and the galaxies they exist in, so knowing the mass of a black hole allows researchers to unlock more information about the galaxy itself. For example, as black hole mass increases, the galaxy’s mass also increases in lockstep. There is also evidence that black holes act as stabilizing forces within their galaxies, and if a black hole happens to be located close to a supernova, the black hole can act to disperse the heavy elements that are created only in these exploding stars throughout the galaxy.

But there is more to learn. “We know black holes are important and they matter for the rest of the Universe, but we still don’t know exactly why,” says Trump. “They are such strange beasts in our reality.”

Speeding up the Mapping Technique

One drawback of reverberation mapping is that it requires multiple observations, over extended periods of time. With so many astronomical objects to observe and only so much equipment capable of taking such detailed measurements, large-scale mapping of this kind has not previously been possible.

“This technique is hard to do,” says Trump. “You need a lot of very well calibrated observations.”

In addition to the sheer number of objects observed for this project, the light signals observed were at times very faint because their sources of emission are at such great distances.

However, this project’s sizable dataset has increased the sample of black holes with reliably known masses by two-thirds in the past year alone – by 44 quasars to be exact. These data are quickly building on decades of existing work that had around 60 well mapped, representing only the last few percent of the history of the Universe.

The reverberation mapping data have reached deeper, around six or seven billion light years away, looking at more distant black holes. And the future of the project will go even farther, Trump says, which will translate to going even farther back in the history of the Universe.

He draws an analogy to periods in a human life to explain the distances in space and time: “We published data on 44 well-characterized black holes at about the middle age of the Universe. We hope to get to 100 [black holes] at around a quarter of the Universe’s age, so equivalent to around its early adolescence or maybe even childhood. A lot of changes happen in adolescence and childhood for us, and the Universe went through a lot of changes at that age too.”

Read more in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey press release here.

This research was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation grant AST-1517113, and Trump’s research group has additional support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA HST-GO-15260.

Ultracold group achieves new milestone in quantum control

 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

Scientists from three major research universities successfully manipulated the outcome of a chemical reaction and, in doing so, created a rare molecular ion.

Through a process known as “controlling chemistry,” the researchers bonded an oxygen atom to two different metal atoms, creating the barium-oxygen-calcium molecular ion or BaOCa The same process could lead to the creation of other exotic new materials and the design of novel chemical compounds, according to the team from the University of Connecticut, University of California-Los Angeles, and University of Missouri, whose work appeared in the Sept. 29 online issue of Science.

“It’s doing chemistry with the tools of physics,” says Robin Côté, UConn physics professor and associate dean for physical sciences who co-authored the study. Côté is a leading theorist in the field of ultracold molecular ion reactions.

“Usually in chemistry you can’t see molecules react,” says Côté. “You do experiments and you get a reaction with a range of products, which can be analyzed with mass spectrometry and other tools. What our team did allowed us to image ions directly to get a much clearer picture of what is happening within the chemical reaction itself. We were able to prepare a system in an ultracold environment that was very pristine and that allowed us to see exactly how the molecules and atoms were behaving.”

<a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2IkerjKjzFM"><em>Watch an animation of barium ions inside a Paul Trap</em></a><em>.</em>
Watch an animation of barium ions inside a Paul Trap.

Previous work had observed hypermetallic alkaline earth oxides consisting of an oxygen atom sandwiched between two identical alkaline earth atoms, such as barium or calcium.

But for the first time in this study, researchers observed compounds consisting of an oxygen atom bonded to two different metal atoms. Such compounds are believed to have unique properties resulting from the broken symmetry.

It’s nice to see that a phenomenon you envisioned at one time as too difficult to do, is indeed possible.— Robin Côté

The researchers used a host of equipment to accomplish the breakthrough – quantum chemistry computations, lasers, a hybrid ultracold atom-ion trap, and something called a “radially-coupled time-of-fight mass spectrometer.”

By trapping atoms and ions in an ultracold hybrid magneto-optical trap and then cooling them down to a temperature one one-thousandth degree above absolute zero, the scientists were able to observe a reaction between atoms and molecules that hadn’t been seen before.

See a real time image of crystal ions.

They used lasers to manipulate calcium atoms into a specific quantum state, which allowed the chemical reaction to proceed and the new molecules to form when they normally shouldn’t. To confirm their results, the researchers released the ions and molecules from their ultracold suspension, where they would then “fly” into the mass spectrometer to be analyzed and measured further.

The process could serve as a platform for gaining greater insight into chemical reaction dynamics. Armed with such knowledge, chemists and physicists could engineer specific chemical reactions and synthesize new products currently unavailable to us, such as more advanced chemical sensors, quantum computer processors, and medications with fewer side effects.

Joining Côté on the project were UConn research professor John Montgomery Jr., an expert in computational quantum chemistry, and postdoctoral researcher Ionel Simbotin. UCLA physics professor Eric Hudson, an expert in hybrid atom-ion trapping, served as the project’s principal investigator; and UCLA graduate students Prateek Puri (lead author) and Michael Mills, together with postdoctoral researcher Christian Schneider, performed the measurements. University of Missouri chemistry professor Arthur Suits rounded out the team.

Côté was the first to propose studying ultracold atom-ion systems in 2000, shortly after arriving at UConn. And, UConn physics professor emeritus Winthrop Smith, in 2001, was the first to propose using a hybrid ultracold ion-atom trap to conduct the observations in order to learn more about the fundamental processes of chemical reactions.

Experimental and theoretical physicists and chemists have been working in the field ever since. Lately, new advances in technology, such as the hybrid trap used in this study, are providing scientists the tools they need to progress.

To some extent, the study confirmed Côté’s and Smith’s proposal that hybrid atom-ion traps could be valuable tools for exploring the fundamental dynamics underlying chemical reactions.

“It’s nice to see that a phenomenon you envisioned at one time as too difficult to do, is indeed possible,” says Côté. “We did calculations showing this behavior should take place, and it is great to see that now confirmed in the lab.”

In the current study, the researchers spent more than 18 months trying to figure out what was driving the chemical reaction creating the new molecule. They analyzed experimental data, performed quantum chemistry calculations, and tested various theories in the lab. In many ways, it was like solving a mystery. The scientists knew the molecule could be formed because their UCLA peers had seen them in the hybrid ion trap. The challenge was trying to explain how it was happening.

The team ultimately determined the precise mechanisms that allowed the mixed hypermetallic earth oxide to form, which involved the amount of energy expended in the reaction and a certain spin of electrons.

“Most chemical reactions take place in the ground state, which is to say, a system’s lowest-energy state,” says Montgomery. “The use of quantum chemical calculations enabled us to understand that this particular reaction could only take place on the excited triplet state, which is a higher-energy state. This was then verified by experiments.”

That kind of precise knowledge of what exactly is occurring during a chemical reaction goes to the very core of controlling chemistry.

“When something reacts in chemistry, you can compute the outcome or products, but you can rarely control the process,” says Côté. “But if you are able to know exactly what is happening in that reaction, what components are rotating, what is spinning, what’s vibrating with this energy or that energy, and if you’re able to control those quantities, then it is feasible to design a reaction or a device to ensure a particular outcome most of the time.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation (PHY-1205311, PHY-1415560, and DGE-1650604) and Army Research Office (W911NF-15-1-0121, W911NF-14-1-0378, and W911NF-13-1-0213).

UConn is one of seven universities working in this area under a multimillion-dollar research grant awarded by the Department of Defense. The MURI award, which stands for Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, also includes researchers from the physics departments at UCLA, Northwestern, and Temple, and from the chemistry departments at Georgia Tech, Emory, and Missouri.