Professor Munirul Islam: Celebrating His Life and His Legacy

Dear Colleagues:

I would like to share some thoughts on Munir Islam who recently passed away. Prof. Islam came to UConn in 1967 from a faculty position at Brown University. In the late 1970s there were two particle theorists at UConn, Profs. Kurt Haller and Munir Islam. They set about building an elementary-particle theory program here and garnered the support of then Physics Head Joe Budnick and CLAS Dean Julius Elias. They soon obtained funding for a new Department of Energy initiative to support particle theory in the Department. In 1979 they
were able to bring me in as an Associate Professor and Mark Swanson as an Assistant Professor. So eager were Kurt and Munir to bring us in, they chose to forego the summer salary that they had been awarded on the DOE grant.  The impact of the DOE grant on the UConn administration was quite far reaching and led to further internal support. Within a few years I had been tenured and promoted to Full and Mark had been tenured and appointed to Associate at our Stamford branch, where he later became an administrator.

After that, Kurt and Munir were able to secure a bridge position with the DOE that would provide five years of support, provided the UConn administration would create a tenure track position for the recipient. This they agreed to do, and so we brought in Daniel Caldi at the Assistant level, who subsequently was appointed Associate with tenure. Dan eventually opted to leave us for SUNY Buffalo, but our particle group was then able to convince the UConn administration to let us keep the position, and we then hired Gerald Dunne. Gerald went up the ladder very quickly to tenured Full professor. The success of our program enabled us subsequently to bring in Alex
Kovner, followed by Tom Blum (both now tenured Full) and current Assistant Luchang Jin. The success and endurance of the particle group for more than forty years now is a testament to the foresight and the unwavering and unabating commitment of Kurt and Munir to it, and it serves as permanent memorial to both of them.

Munir Islam always retained an enthusiasm for research, an enthusiasm which did not diminish at all after he retired. He focused on fundamental problems in particle physics, with particular emphasis on the theory of the structure of the proton as revealed by high-energy proton-proton scattering. This is perhaps best evidenced in what essentially became a lifelong collaboration with his former graduate student Richard Luddy (at the right, with Prof Islam at the left in the above photograph) as the two of them grappled with Munir’s deep ideas on proton scattering during many of Munir’s later years as a Professor and then as an Emeritus. Munir had a gift for simple pictorial explanations of his research, which he was able to explain lucidly in a lecture for visiting high-school teachers and students during an open house. Munir was urbane, worldly, and wise, and it was a great joy to have him not just as a colleague but also as a friend. He will be sorely missed by all of those that knew him and especially by me as my career owes so much to him. In appreciation, Philip Mannheim.In appreciation,

Philip Mannheim.

The passing of Dr. David Katzenstein, a friend and benefactor of the UConn Department of Physics

Dr. David Katzenstein, a friend, and benefactor of the UConn Department of Physics, passed away on January 25, 2021 due to Covid-19. David was the son of Henry Katzenstein, the first Physics Ph.D. from UConn and a major benefactor of our Department. Currently, both the annual Katzenstein Distinguished Lecture and the Katzenstein Prize for a senior, undergraduate paper were endowed by the Katzenstein family.

David himself was an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the Stanford University Medical School, specializing in Infectious Diseases and Geographic Medicine. He focused on the treatment and prevention of HIV-AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. He died in Harare, Zimbabwe where he had moved in 2016 to continue his important work after his retirement from Stanford.

Obituary in NYTimes: David Katzenstein, AIDS Researcher With Focus on Africa, Dies at 69

UConn Physics alumnus Dr. Michael Wininger

UConn Physics alumnus Dr. Michael Wininger (BS, 2003) was recently featured in the professional journal O&P Almanac (Orthotics and Prosthetics). The article describes how his eclectic background, beginning with degrees from UConn, has enabled him to lead innovations in several areas of health research. Mike is currently an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Biostatistics Department at the Yale School of Public Health while also holding a co-appointment with the Department of Veterans Affairs Cooperative Studies Program. Michael says that former Professor Ed Pollack was particularly instrumental in mentoring towards a successful career, and in gratitude has been a frequent contributor to the Edward Pollack Endowment Fund, which supports our annual Pollack Lecture in Atomic Physics. Some of the old-timers around the department remember Mike for his always energetic presence around the department and help with our bicycles.

The passing of UConn Physics Professor Emeritus, Arnold Russek

Arnold Russek, a theoretical atomic physicist, born July 13, 1926, in New York, passed away on October 13th, 2020, in Colorado. As a young man of 18, he served honorably as a radio engineer in the Pacific during WWII. He earned his Ph.D. at the Courant Institute at New York University in 1953, and taught physics for 40 years at the University of Connecticut, having Professor Emeritus status when he retired in 1992. Prof. Russek published notable works on processes on hydrogen beams and atomic collisions. He is remembered by many of his students as not only an excellent teacher but also a kind and supportive mentor.



My Long-time Friend and Colleague, Prof. Cynthia W. Peterson

When I arrived in Storrs from New York City in 1969 to teach physics at the University of Connecticut, one of the first colleagues I met was Dr. Cynthia Peterson. She had an infectious enthusiasm that appealed to me and my wife Anne. It turned out that Anne and Cynthia had both been students at Bryn Mawr College at the same time, another thing that bound us together. We remained colleagues and friends for decades until she finally retired in 2016, after nearly fifty years on the faculty. I felt she deserved a special retirement party on campus after all that time, and helped to facilitate it.

There are many memories: one is that she was the regular instructor in a large astronomy class year after year. This course continued from the time I came to Storrs into the present decade. Having an interest in astrophysics, I filled in for her to teach elementary astronomy for a year while she was on leave and I was mentored by her in preparation. This gave me an appreciation for the quality of her teaching and the effort she put into it.

Teaching for her was more than imparting facts: it included an introduction to research, how facts in science were discovered. An important part of the course was the hands-on observing sessions where students would use a telescope on the roof of the physics building to look at the moon, planets like Saturn, Mars and Jupiter, plus a number of distant galaxies. I had little experience in practical astronomy and Cynthia got me started on that. It is noteworthy that Cynthia and Jerry’s two children are named Celeste and Tycho.

I found out that outreach to the public and community was an important part of the astronomy course because of local interest. Cynthia conducted an extensive outreach program to the community, appearing on radio shows and sometimes on television. Working with her gave me an opportunity to devise some undergraduate research projects using the UConn roof-top telescopes. One project involved a survey of sunspots and observing the sunspot pattern moving which indicated that the sun is rotating slowly on its axis like the earth. Over the years, Cynthia helped many students; particularly female students, with similar research experiences.

One year, when Cynthia was up for promotion, we served together as co-advisors for a graduate student on a spectroscopy project involving experiments using an ultraviolet spectrometer the she had in her lab and a small ion accelerator in my laboratory. This project combined our expertise to provide a richer experience for the student. When our daughter Sarah reached high school, she worked one or two summers as an assistant to Cynthia on some research on dating pre-Columbian pottery samples through a study of the light they emit when heated to high temperature (thermoluminescent dating). The emitted light was due to damage to the material from cosmic rays over the years since the pottery was first fired. This mentoring gave Sarah an appreciation for science as well as a role-model for how to do it, that a father could not replace. Sarah later followed her mother and Cynthia to Bryn Mawr, graduating with honors; though not in science.

Not all our interactions were work related: we shared memberships in the Mansfield Family Recreation Association, which provided an affordable cooperative winter lodge in Northfield, Vermont (once the governor’s residence) in the heart of the ski country. Several families in Eastern Connecticut with teenage children were members that combined outdoor activity, winter and summer, with socializing in the evening. Cynthia and Jerry Peterson were particularly active in this: Cynthia served as Treasurer of the Association for many years.

The Physics Department at UConn had an annual hike up Mt. Monadnock (near Jaffrey, NH) during the height of the fall colors. We joined the Petersons for this event for several years, which featured a picnic on top and dinner on the way home.

In the last few years, with Cynthia and me both retired, UConn’s Physics Department has moved into more advanced astronomy, starting a graduate research program in that field and hiring several new faculty, initially including two women. Women in physics and astronomy faculty are still underrepresented. The program seems very popular with students, both undergraduate and graduate; its success has led to new funding and substantial research. At Cynthia’s retirement, I remarked in jest, but not entirely so, that it has taken three people to replace her.

She set the stage and provided a demonstration of student interest that helped justify the new program. She will be very much missed as a colleague and friend. She has left a strong legacy not only in the field of astronomy, but has been a particular inspiration for women in science more generally.


Winthrop Smith
Research Professor and Prof. Emeritus, Physics
University of Connecticut,
Storrs, CT. 06269-3046
Tel: (860)377-0941. Email:

Physics Alum Receives NSF CAREER Award

UConn Physic alum, Dr. Hyewon Pechkis, an Assistant Professor of Physics at the California State University Chico recently received the prestigious CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. This five-year grant titled “Making a Difference in First Year Underrepresented Students’ Education through Research: Quantum Coherence in a Bose Thermal Gas” will facilitate the involvement of CSU Chico undergraduates in experiments on ultracold atoms and quantum science. Hyewon was a graduate student with Prof. Ed Eyler, receiving her PhD from UConn in 2010 for her work on ultracold molecules. Congratulations Hyewon!

New Physics Faculty: Chris Faesi

We are very excited to extend a warm welcome to a new UConn Physics Faculty member, Dr. Christopher Faesi. Chris is an astrophysicist, specializing in both observational work and modelling, primarily in the study of star formation. He got his PhD at Harvard University, followed by a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg. Most recently Chris was awarded a prestigious NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship at UMass Amherst, and will be on research leave this academic year, completing this Fellowship. Chris is heavily involved in several large-scale international collaborations that will probe the physics of the interstellar medium in nearby galaxies with unprecedented resolution and spectral coverage. He also has extensive experience leading mentorship and outreach activities devoted to students at all levels, as well as the general public. We are looking forward to welcoming Chris to UConn!

UConn Today: A New Phase for the Gant Science Complex

The UConn Today published an article highlighting the state of 10-year renovation of the Gant Science Complex. The Complex was first constructed between 1974 and 1978 and was home to the departments of mathematics and physics for several decades. The renovation to this 285,00 square-foot campus landmark is part of Next Generation Connecticut, the initiative to expand educational opportunities, research, and innovation in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines at UConn.

For more information follow the link.

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