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Scientific Explosion
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Andrea Markelz, assistant professor of physics, is doing her part to boost the department’s image on another front. She recently received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), given to those teacher-scholars most likely to become the academic leaders of the 21st century. Markelz will use the $600,000 grant over five years to develop a technique for measuring the elasticity—or “bounciness”—of biomolecules, such as proteins, using ultrafast optical methods.

As part of the grant, she is also developing an educational program between UB, the Buffalo Public Schools and the Buffalo Museum of Science to draw more girls and other underrepresented groups into the sciences. “For the last 14 years I’ve been surrounded by physics people, and my main objective has been to do research. So you become somewhat divorced from the psychology of the students here, many of them just out of high school,” she says. “But this experience helps me appreciate what you have to do to help them over the hurdles, to understand the problems, with lots of little rewards every step of the way.”

In March, John Cerne, assistant professor of physics, also received a NSF CAREER award. He’ll use his grant money to probe the fundamental behavior of “strange metals,” including materials related to high-temperature superconductors and magnetic semiconductors.

Cerne and Markelz recently squeezed a bit of campus outreach into their busy schedules. Offering a demonstration of liquid nitrogen in action, they made balloons shrink and flowers shatter. The audience “oohed” and “aahed.” But then, no one expected any less of a reaction from UB’s daycare center preschoolers, potentially the next generation of great scientific minds.

Scientific Explosion
Quantum growth marks ‘miracle year’ in chemistry and physics

Story by Nicole Peradotto

Photos by Mark Mulville
Professor Melvyn Churchill teaches to a packed 9 a.m. Chemistry 102 class in a Natural Sciences Complex lecture hall.

In UB’s Natural Sciences Complex, a curious phenomenon is taking place. It can’t be measured in a test tube or studied under a microscope. It involves increases in mass and density, but you won’t find a formula to explain it in any textbook. Actually, it’s happening in labs and lecture halls, right before scientists’ surprised eyes: Chemistry is exploding in popularity.

Want proof? It’s in the numbers. In the fall of 1999, 450 students were enrolled in two sections of Chemistry 101. This past fall, three sections were filled with more than 1,000 students.

Correspondingly, the number of chemistry majors and minors has climbed dramatically, with 185 declared undergraduates in the spring of 2000 and a whopping 273 just five years later.

“We’re watching this from the sidelines and wondering, ‘Oh, my goodness—what’s going on?’” says associate professor Troy Wood, who teaches Chemistry 101. “There seem to be fewer students coming in with the attitude that chemistry is scary and onerous—and I think all of us in the department are very glad to see that change.”

As it turns out, chemistry is not the only science that’s experiencing a surge in growth at UB. In this, the centennial of Albert Einstein’s “miracle year,” undergraduates are attracted to physics like iron to magnets. In fact, enrollment in Physics 101 has soared from 450 students to 720 in the past four years, with Physics 102 rising from 426 students to 598. In the same period, the number of majors has more than doubled, from the mid-30s to the low 70s.

Physics Department Chairman Francis M. Gasparini recently read a report indicating a minor increase in physics majors nationally—but nothing compared to UB’s 50 percent growth.

“I wish I knew the exact cause of this doubling, because I would do my darndest to yield some more majors,” he says. “There’s no one-to-one connection that I can make to explain why this is happening. I’m just happy that it’s taking place. There’s a lot more synergy in the classes when there are more people in them.”

To respond to the quantum leap in physics enrollment, professors are teaching labs on weekends in addition to weekdays, a department first. Even the UB chapter of the Society of Physics Students, the previously inactive undergraduate club, has enjoyed an impressive resurgence. According to its advisor, the main attraction to the monthly meetings used to be the free pizza the department offered. But these days the 15 active members meet every week, and without a cheese-and-pepperoni pizza incentive. And, without any faculty nudging, the students established regular tutoring sessions for their peers.

Physics students with the physics department robot.

“It’s not just that we have more students—it’s that they’re showing more initiative,” says assistant professor John Cerne, who resurrected the society in 2002. By way of example he points to the students’ robot entry in this year’s “Bot Wars,” the first time the physics department has participated in the UB competition.

Cerne, along with Andrea Markelz, assistant professor of physics, are two of nine new faculty members hired in the physics department since 1999—with three more positions to be filled soon—yet another indication of the department’s vibrancy. Both are pleased with the undergraduates’ eagerness to pursue physics. “We’re almost to the point where we have to have two sections for upper-division courses,” Markelz says, noting that Cerne’s electricity and magnetism course attracted an unprecedented 40 students during the spring semester. Similarly, Gasparini’s upper-division thermodynamics course, which used to draw in a dozen or so students, last semester enrolled 27.

So, why are these subjects on the upswing at UB? And why now, at a time when there has been such widespread consternation that students are turning away from them? So far, no one has been able to pinpoint the reasons with scientific certainty.

“Many professions, including medicine, are becoming more quantitative—but do students realize that, and therefore take more quantitative subjects?” wonders Uday Sukhatme, physics professor and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “That’s not clear to me. But if they do, it could account for part of this increase.”

Michael Fuda, professor and undergraduate director of physics, recalls that when he was an undergraduate studying physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Soviets launched the world’s first artificial satellite, marking the start of the Space Age. Responding to the so-called “Sputnik Crisis,” the U.S. Government then created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and organized a drive to recruit scientists as the race to the moon began in earnest.

“So there was a singular event that attracted people to physics,” notes Fuda. “But I can’t think of anything recently that would compare. That’s why I’m so mystified. When I talk to students who come to sign up for the major, I don’t get any clear, revealing answers.”

Faculty members in both departments agree that several forces, on campus and off, may be at work. Among them: more stringent Regents’ requirements for New York State high school students, new majors, curriculum and faculty changes, the escalating price of private colleges and—perhaps most significantly—an academically stronger and larger student body.

“The improving quality of the students coming means they’re less ‘chemophobic,’” says Jim Atwood, professor and department chair of chemistry. “The number of premed students is declining, but we’re getting more top students, and they’re usually less afraid of science.”

Six years ago, in an effort to decrease the failure rate in the Chemistry 101 course, Atwood and his faculty introduced a Chemistry 100 class, tailored for students whose math or problem-solving skills weren’t advanced enough for the 101 course. Although such a class can be found in most undergraduate catalogs at large universities, UB is unique in that it allows students performing poorly in Chemistry 101 to transfer to Chemistry 100, even after the drop-add deadline. In so doing, undergraduates who risk failing 101, dropping below a full-time credit load and losing financial aid can transfer to a class better suited to their abilities. Ultimately, the set-up offers a second chance to those who might otherwise develop a bad taste for chemistry. In turn, they’re more inclined to continue their studies in the department—and spread the word.

The approach appears to be working. In fact, the majority of students who take Chemistry 100 and proceed on to Chemistry 101 perform better than the class average. “That’s pretty amazing because many of these are self-selected students who had been flunking out of [Chem 101] at the beginning of the semester,” says Atwood. “But, there’s no way these changes can account for the doubling of the Chem 101 classes.”

Bill Stubler, electrical engineering major, and Adriana Crippen, aerospace engineering major, work on an experiment in a physics lab describing the fluctuations of electric and magnetic forces.

The primary developer of Chemistry 100, James McIver, professor and director of undergraduate studies of chemistry, believes the department owes its stellar growth to yet another factor—namely, a concerted effort to staff the lower-division service courses with charismatic professors who fare best in front of large groups. “The viewpoint there is that you want to catch students when they’re freshmen, and get them excited,” says McIver. And when students discover the multitude of career choices in chemistry, they become hooked.

“The opportunities for chemistry are far greater than they were in the old days. Thirty years ago, chemistry was fairly rigidly defined. It was inorganic, organic, analytical and physical,” he says. “But now, in addition to those, we have medicinal chemistry, biochemistry, material science and bioinformatics. Our majors go on to all kinds of programs—earth science, biochemistry, pharmaceutics. Some of our undergraduates want to be high school science teachers, or environmental or patent lawyers.”

Professor and chemistry club advisor Michael Detty agrees. “In these uncertain economic times, science is seen to be a viable degree,” says Detty, a chemist at Eastman Kodak before coming to UB in 1995. “It’s a marketable degree that you can take to industry and say, ‘I can do this.’” He adds that UB’s competitive doctor of pharmacy program is also partly to credit for chemistry’s gains. That’s because many of the students who aren’t accepted into that program turn to chemistry as a major.

“I think we’re seeing a real improvement in the level of students overall,” observes Detty, advisor to the Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society. “We have more students, and better students. So you have better students doing research, and the quality of the posters they present at regional and national meetings is better, which in turn brings more good students in.”

While chemistry and physics have made impressive strides in enrollment over the past several years, UB’s associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Peter Gold, says that they’re “rebounding from a dip” that took place in the late 1990s. “Chemistry enrollments are very high in the university, and physics enrollments are very high, but they follow the pattern of general enrollment patterns [at UB].” He continues, “At UB there are a large number of students who say they want to do something in the health professions. For them, these classes are prerequisites.”

In the chemistry department, the demand is translating into something of a space crunch. Classes are packed to the fire-code limit, professors are scrambling to find recitation rooms and labs have been added in the evenings and on weekends. Even lab drawers, originally designed to accommodate maximum growth within the department, are full. “Our freshman and sophomore classes are filled right up and, because we have so many more majors now, there’s a lot of pressure on our upper-division laboratory courses,” McIver says. “I don’t want to raise our GPA requirements unless we have to, but we’re checking into that.”

For its part, the physics department still has room to grow, and faculty members are seizing on the opportunity. With this being the International Year of Physics, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s seminal papers on relativity, there is a major initiative underway to expose the marvels of matter and natural forces to the masses.

Three physics faculty members, Ulrich Baur, associate professor; Doreen Wackeroth, assistant professor; and Markelz are organizing a project consisting of several components. In May, the department will present “Demonstration Extravaganza,” a series of eye-popping demonstrations that explain such principles as the uniform acceleration of gravity and conservation of angular momentum. Another part of the project allows individuals to take a self-guided tour within the department by dialing a toll-free number from their cell phones. The tour’s highlights include a ceiling laser show, an elevator balance and several installations by UB assistant art professors Gary Nickard and Reinhard Reitzenstein, including a sculpture made from the detritus of various physics experiments. The artists will also provide aesthetic enhancements to the most ambitious aspect of a department-wide beautification project: a massive Foucault pendulum that will hang from the ceiling of Fronczak Hall and descend three floors.

“There are a lot of things going on throughout the world [for the Year of Physics], and we are excited to participate,” Markelz says. “And we would like it to have a long-term impact, so the students can enjoy and appreciate the changes in the building for years.”

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer/editor.

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