Posts related to the outreach mission of the Physics Department

Dear Friends of UConn Physics

As we approach the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, UConn is set for having classes in person again, students on campus, and our first taste of somewhat normal university life in a year and a half. Students, faculty, and staff are all required to be vaccinated, masks are required indoors, classrooms will be fully utilized and our labs are fully open once again. As with the rest of America, we are both excited to be coming back but nervous about what the future may hold.

The past year has been difficult for us, as with everyone else. We had been teaching most classes remotely, research labs have been open but running at reduced capacity, and our new physics building has been eerily quiet for the most part. What has surprised me the most has been the number of successes racked up within the department despite the trying times. Within this newsletter there are some great stories on some accomplishments, including the UConn contribution to the world-famous muon g-2 result, our part in the new world of multi-messenger astronomy, and Nora Berrah’s prestigious term as a Blaise Pascal International Scholar. This has also been one of our best years in winning external research funding, with particularly notable successes among our newer hires.

Another development over the past year is that the renovations of the new physics building have been largely completed and it is fully open, including the new Light Court in the center of our studio teaching labs. Physics now occupies the space that was formerly the Mathematics Building. Unfortunately, I cannot yet extend an open invitation to come visit, but I hope you will do so once the pandemic recedes and we are fully open. Given uncertainty in the health situation, we still cannot schedule major public events for this year. Our next Katzenstein Lecture is scheduled for September 23, 2022. The speaker will be Donna Strickland from the University of Waterloo (Canada), the 2018 Nobel Laureate for developing chirped pulse amplification – a key ingredient in today’s ultrafast laser technology. When the time comes, we will be sending out invitations. I hope many of you can attend the lecture, visit our building, and attend the following banquet.

I close by wishing all of us health and a successful return to a more normal kind of life over the next year.


Barry Wells

Physics Department Head

2020-Newsletter Department Head Greeting

It’s been crazy.

That holds for everybody over these past six months; UConn and the Physics Department as well. Events unfurled rapidly last March. Within a week the March Meeting of the APS was cancelled, our department had to postpone the 2020 Katzenstein Lecture with Donna Strickland, and then the University announced that students would not return to campus after spring break, with classes moving online and research labs shut down. The work of the department is now ramping back up, though many courses will remain online through spring semester 2021.

The Physics Department has seen turnover in personnel. Three long time faculty members have left the department this summer: Phil Gould has retired, Robin Cote has moved on to be the Dean of Science at UMass Boston, and Susanne Yelin has taken a position at Harvard. All three will maintain ties with us for the foreseeable future. We have some new faces as well. Professors Daniel Angles-Alcazar and Chiara Mingarelli were hired in fall 2019 on bridge positions with the Center for Computational Astrophysics of the Simons Foundation. They both spent 2019-20 at CCA, coming to Storrs full time this fall. We have hired Professor Chris Faesi to complete our initial construction of an Astrophysics group, though he will delay his start at Storrs until fall 2021. We also have hired Professor Erin Scanlon to a position at the Avery Point campus, though during 2020-21 she will spend some time at teaching at Storrs. Another addition to our department is University President Thomas Katsouleas. He is a plasma physicist with academic appointments in Electrical Engineering and Physics. Apparently, his other duties keep him busy, but he has managed to attend a few department events and a faculty meeting.

Despite the pandemic, the department has had notable events and successes. I highlight a few here. We moved into our newly renovated building in August 2019. While there have been a host of construction hiccups, the building is now mostly completed. Our new research labs are state of the art, we have new teaching spaces that allow for moving to a new method of teaching introductory physics, and bright airy spaces throughout. In November we hosted Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell for the 2019 Katzenstein Lecture. The event was a rousing success as we packed the student union theater and had record attendance at the banquet. We have had some great research success. The most prestigious awards given to new faculty members are the CAREER awards from federal agencies. We now have an unprecedented four active CAREER awardees: Professors Andrew Puckett, Daniel McCarron, Jonathan Trump, and most recently Luchang Jin. Congratulations to all four.

Looking forward, the immediate future remains daunting. We anticipate significant pandemic restrictions for another year and budgets for the university and research agencies are unsettled. Yet the department remain strong. We continue innovative work in education and research, we have an increasing number of excellent physics students, and dedicated faculty with a particularly strong young cohort. When the situation allows, please come visit us to see how we are evolving.

Physics Department Joins APS-IDEA Network

The Physics Department’s Diversity & Multiculturalism Committee (DMC) was accepted into the APS Inclusion, Diversity and Equity Alliance (APS-IDEA).

Despite years of efforts on local and national levels, the diversity in many physics departments is not reflective of the diversity nationwide. Our department is no exception in this regard. The new APS initiative was created to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in physics by establishing a community of transformation. The international network is formed of teams from over 90 physics departments, laboratories, and other organizations from USA, Canada, Brazil, Germany, and Finland that share the same EDI goals.

The inaugural virtual workshop took place this Summer with over 180 attendees, including APS, AIP, advisory board, and the APS-IDEA steering committee. The next workshop is scheduled for September and more workshops will be organized throughout the year. Acceptance of the departmental DMC positions the UConn Physics Department on the map of global institutions to collectively exchange ideas, learn, and enact strategies for improving EDI in physics. What can we expect? The vision of this initiative is to make physics community more inclusive. The participating teams will exchange ideas/experiences, deepen their knowledge of EDI research and effective practices, and receive guidance to prepare realistic sustainable plans for improving EDI.

Our APS-IDEA team consist of members at the Physics Department from all departmental levels (faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students). Current team members are: Elena Dormidontova (Chair of Diversity & Multiculturalism Committee), Gayanath Fernando, Gloria Fonseca Alvarez, Menka Jain, Aditi Mahabir, Belter Ordaz Mendoza (team contact), Dave Perry, Peter Schweitzer, Megan Sturm, Jonathan Trump, Diego Valente, and Susanne Yelin. The application was supported by the Department Head Barry Wells. All members of the Physics Department are invited and encouraged to join our APS-IDEA team. Together we can enhance inclusion and belonging in physics.


Cancelled: Professor Donna Strickland , Katzenstein Distinguished Lecturer


Dear Friends of UConn Physics,

Due to the current health situation and concerns surrounding the Corona virus, we are canceling the Katzenstein Lecture and Banquet scheduled for Friday, March 13, 2020.

It was an agonizing decision to cancel, but our first priority is the health of all who would have been attending, our special guest Professor Strickland, and the UConn community. I extend an extra apology for those of you who have planned to travel a considerable distance and will need to change plans. For those who have signed up for the banquet, we are working to arrange refunds.

If all goes well, the current health crisis will be behind us soon and we will see if we can reschedule Professor Strickland for another, safer time.

Again, my apologies and best wishes,

Barry Wells

Barrett O. Wells
Professor and Head, Department of Physics

The University of Connecticut, Department of Physics, is proud to announce that on March 13, 2020, Professor Donna Strickland of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Waterloo will be presenting the 2020 Distinguished Katzenstein Lecture. Prof. D. Strickland Prof. Strickland is one of the recipients of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for developing chirped pulse amplification with Gérard Mourou, her PhD supervisor. They published this Nobel-winning research in 1985 when Strickland was a PhD student at the University of Rochester in New York State. Together they paved the way toward the most intense laser pulses ever created. The research has several applications today in industry and medicine — including the cutting of a patient’s cornea in laser eye surgery, and the machining of small glass parts for use in cell phones.

Prof. Strickland earned a Bachelor in Engineering from McMaster University and a PhD in optics from the University of Rochester. She was a research associate at the National Research Council Canada, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a member of technical staff at Princeton University. In 1997, she joined the University of Waterloo, where her ultrafast laser group develops high-intensity laser systems for nonlinear optics investigations. She is a recipient of a Sloan Research Fellowship, the Ontario Premier’s Research Excellence Award and a Cottrell Scholar Award. She received the Rochester Distinguished Scholar Award and the Eastman Medal from the University of Rochester.

Prof. Strickland served as the president of the Optical Society (OSA) in 2013 and is a fellow of OSA, the Royal Society of Canada, and SPIE (International Society for Optics and Photonics). She is an honorary fellow of the Canadian Academy of Engineering as well as the Institute of Physics. She received the Golden Plate Award from the Academy of Achievement, is in the International Women’s Forum Hall of Fame, and holds numerous honorary doctorates.

Livestream of the talk: March 13 2020, 4:00 EST, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCBv2Kp9wAsjHDfEHhIRc0pg

Reception: at 3pm in the Gant Light Court

Insight from APS: Careers in Physics

What is a Bachelors of Science degree in Physics good for? What kinds of jobs are available to graduates who complete a 4-year degree in physics, but decide not to pursue an advanced degree? How does a physics degree stack up against other STEM fields in terms of employment options in today's highly competitive job market? Each year the American Physical Society gathers data to help answer questions like these, which they post on their physics careers web site and summarize in their Insight Slideshow. Scroll inside the window below to browse the latest edition of Insight.

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.

Research Spotlight: Exploring the nature of the universe with Dr. Thomas Blum

The Daily Campus published an article highlighting the research of Prof. Thomas Blum about Quantum Chromodynamics, a theory which describes the interactions between elementary particles. The development of this theory could help further understanding of the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is what physicists use to describe the fundamental building blocks of everything in the universe.

For more information follow the link.

Astronomer Jonathan Trump interviewed on UConn 360

UConn Astrophysicist and observational astronomer Jonathan Trump was a recent guest on UConn 360, a podcast from the Storrs campus of the University of Connecticut. In this conversation, Jonathan tells about how attending a lecture as an undergraduate at Penn State captured his interest and changed the course of his professional career. Now Jonathan offers similar career-changing opportunities to UConn students, who just this year have applied for and obtained dedicated time for observations by the Hubble space telescope.

Greetings from the Department Head

New building, new teaching approach, new people – there is a lot of change and excitement in the air for the Physics Department in 2019. The most obvious change is that physics has moved into a newly renovated building. What most alumni will remember as the Math Building has been taken down to its frame and rebuilt as the new physics building, formally Gant South. The new building features large windows with lots of light, revamped teaching labs, and a theory suite at the east end of each hallway. There are also plenty of meeting rooms and nooks, complete with writing spaces, to foster spontaneous discussions. We moved into the offices and teaching spaces at the start of fall semester, whereas the research lab relocations are ongoing as I write.

Along with the new building comes new teaching laboratories. The most striking of these are our studio-labs, located in the Gant Plaza building in the center of the Gant Complex. These studio labs have allowed us to redesign how we teach our introductory physics with calculus courses. Instead of three one-hour lectures per week and a three hour lab, there are now three two-hour meetings per week with mixed activities. The rooms are arranged with groups sitting around tables, and class time is spent on group efforts to explore concepts, solve problems, and conduct laboratory measurements. We have been developing this program using the Phys 1601 and 1602 courses for physics majors. This fall we rolled out the first of four other courses to be taught in this method with Phys 1501, to be followed in successive semesters by Phys 1502, Phys 1401, and Phys 1402.

If your travels bring you to the Storrs area, please stop by our new building. I will give anyone interested a tour myself if my schedule allows.

We also have several new faces around the department this fall. We have hired two new assistant professors in astrophysics, Chiara Mingarelli and Daniel Angles-Alcazar. Both have been hired in a bridge program with the Flatiron Institute of the Simons Foundation. Simons is the leading philanthropic foundation focused on science, and the four centers hosted at the Flatiron are world leaders in computational methods. We also have two new full-time teaching faculty, Niraj Ghimire and Sarah Trallero. Niraj was our own Ph.D. student who had previously worked on our Studio Physics development team. Sarah has been working with our teaching lab support team, with previous experience at Kansas State teaching studio-style physics courses. We have several new members of our teaching lab support team, with three new technicians. Zach Transport and James Jaconetta began working with us last January, and Hannah Morrill joined us over the summer. And finally, while I am not a new face, I took over as department head about a year ago and this is my first go-round writing a welcome to our newsletter. I would like to personally thank Professor Nora Berrah, our past department head, for putting our department on a firm footing that has made my job much easier.

Barry Wells