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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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.