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In Physics, Recent Hires Show How New Faculty Can Energize an Entire Department

Undergraduate enrollment, student research and faculty publications up as new hires join department

Release Date: November 30, 2011

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UB physics students have benefited from the hiring of faculty including Dejan Stojkovic (right), whose teaching consistently receives top reviews from students.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- An influx of new hires in the University at Buffalo physics department has contributed to measurable improvements in areas from research productivity to student enrollment.

The proof is in the numbers.

In the 2010-11 school year, UB physics students and faculty authored 100 refereed papers -- five times more than the department produced just five years before, according to department statistics.

The number of students presenting research at conferences also increased five-fold over that period. The number of students co-authoring academic papers roughly tripled.

Enrollment is also up, with 18 physics majors graduating last year and more than 20 on track to complete degrees this year. In the American Institute of Physics' most recent annual survey, UB ranked 30th among 716 schools for the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in physics. A decade ago, the department was turning out 10 or fewer graduates annually at the undergraduate level.

All these performance indicators grew at a faster pace than the faculty count, reflecting the productivity of new hires. Since 2000, more than a dozen physicists have joined UB. With retirements and other departures, the department now has 27 professors -- just six more than it had in 2005.

"You can attribute a lot of our good fortune lately to the new hires that we made," said department chair Hong Luo. "The numbers are just amazing. We hired great people, and the whole department has supported them. They have also received excellent mentoring."

The department now has eight faculty members who have received the National Science Foundation's (NSF) CAREER award, a prestigious award for junior investigators. It is highly unusual, Luo said, for a single physics department to secure so much support through the CAREER program, which provides not only recognition, but funding for research as well.

As UB implements President Satish K. Tripathi's plan of hiring 300 faculty members in the next five years, the success in physics shows how new blood can reinvigorate both research and education.

Physics students have benefited tremendously from changes that recent hires have instituted in concert with veteran colleagues. Three years ago, for instance, Luo turned to Assistant Professor Dejan Stojkovic to revamp Physics 117, an introductory course for honors students.

Stojkovic, a cosmologist who joined the department in 2007, consistently receives top-rated teaching evaluations on campus.

To make Physics 117 more exciting for students, he chose a new textbook and reduced the amount of time devoted to what he calls "the monologue," or lecturing. He made the class more interactive by asking students to solve problems in groups, instead of just following along as he gave them answers. He also focused more on topics like cosmology that captivated students' interest.

In summer 2011, the department made another change: offering online versions of all large introductory physics courses that science and engineering students from across UB must take. As a result, the department's enrollment doubled from the previous summer. Each digital course includes video lectures recorded specifically for the course, along with interactive recitation, office hours and in-person exams taken at colleges and universities nationwide.

Stojkovic said UB's physicists have developed something rare: a truly collegial culture that emphasizes both teaching and research. It is not just a congenial environment where people get along, but one that promotes faculty development and healthy competition.

"The first thing I noticed here is that the department functions as a whole rather than being broken along party lines," Stojkovic said. "Here, no matter what your research is -- high energy, cosmology, solid state, lasers, new materials -- you are a member of the department. It doesn't matter if you're a theorist or an experimentalist. You are a member of the family."

He said recent hires are eager to show the value they bring to UB. They write papers, go to conferences and mentor student researchers.

Zachary Pace and Kristina Krylova, two undergraduate physics majors, exemplify how the department's culture has helped students achieve their goals.

Both have conducted research -- Pace with UB condensed matter theorist and Associate Professor Igor Zutic, and Krylova with particle physicists at UB and other institutions. Among other activities, Krylova conducted summer research at Fermilab, where she added to an existing computer code that helps scientists at the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator accurately identify the kinds of particles they are detecting in the accelerator.

Krylova and Pace said when they first expressed interest in conducting research, both junior and senior faculty members in the department were willing to spend time with the undergraduates to help them find placements that matched their interests.

Stojkovic has been an informal mentor to Pace, helping the student make decisions--such as double majoring in math and physics -- that will position Pace well for applying to graduate school. Cosmologist Will Kinney, who joined the physics faculty in 2003, even made time to meet with Pace before Pace officially entered UB.

"He was accessible, he was engaging, and he cared about making sure his students had the best experience," Pace remembers. "That attitude is pretty prevalent in the department. Usually when you email the professors, they get back to you within a day or so."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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