UB Physics Department Celebrates Growth

UB Physics Graduate student Chase Ellis works in the laboratory.

Published April 29, 2013

Alongside the recent achievements touted by the University at Buffalo Physics Department—a doubling in publications and research funding in the last 6 years, exciting new experiments and discoveries—there is a national recognition of these developments.

“The idea is something that I came here with after having seen it in New York City, and it’s an exciting kind of outreach, so we decided to start one here in Buffalo.”
Dr. William H. Kinney

The American Physical Society recently made a short video about the department and highlighted it in its largest annual meeting in Baltimore in March, along with 15 other physics departments across the country that have made outstanding contributions in education and research. The key feature of the video is the department’s growth, with an influx of young and dynamic faculty members. UB Physics’ expansion is reflected in many areas, such as research, education, and service to the community in Western New York. 

Since 1999, the UB Department of Physics has hired 18 faculty members, eight of whom have won the prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award.  These hires, as Professor Hong Luo, Department Chair, notes in the video, have strengthened and expanded research areas including condensed-matter physics, high-energy physics, biophysics, cosmology, and astrophysics.  As an example, Luo pointed out that new faculty—Professors Arnd Pralle and Hao Zeng—have joined forces, combining their expertise in biophysics and nanoscale magnetism to develop exciting breakthroughs in the thermomagnetic stimulation of cells.

Professor Igor Zutic notes in the video that the collegial atmosphere in the department has encouraged a spirit of collaboration in the classroom, as well. “We do things that maybe aren’t traditionally done elsewhere,” he said. “Four of us would teach a single course—not only were we teaching it, we were sitting in the audience and giving a hard time to the lecturer [for that] week.”  The course, “Quantum Theory of Solids,” is offered to graduate students to help them prepare for research challenges. Zutic adds, “Considering that there were many other teaching priorities, four of our faculty (Jong Han, Xuedong Hu, Peihong Zhang, and myself) have developed it and jointly taught it. What was likely specific to our approach was that typically we have all attended the lectures and jointly examined the students. I learned a lot myself (both as a student and an instructor in the course). My colleagues have provided both a significant breadth and some of the recent research directions, which would be very difficult to realize in a traditional single-instructor course.”

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the Physics Department’s growth have been its students. For graduate students like Chase Ellis, this has led to increased opportunities for contributing to research grants—he has helped write NSF grants with faculty—as well as for receiving guidance on writing grants of his own, such as the National Research Fellowship he successfully applied for. Kristina Krylova, an undergraduate, has enjoyed participating in the advanced research the department has made possible for all of its students. “The professors here, especially freshman year when I was a scared freshman, helped me develop the positive outlook and courage to roll with what I want to do, and try new things,” she says.

Sharing that spirit with the local community was the goal of Dr. William H. Kinney, who created the Science & Art Cabaret in downtown Buffalo in 2009. Currently held at the Ninth Ward at Babeville, and sponsored by Hallwall’s Contemporary Arts Center, UB’s College of Arts and Sciences, and the Buffalo Museum of Science, the cabaret is billed as a place where “patrons can grab a drink at the bar and rub elbows with local artists and top university researchers in an interactive, informal setting.” It works to expose the wider Buffalo community to cutting-edge science in an informal and creative setting, and takes place several times a semester. Among a large number of contributors, past events have included pairings of a theoretical particle physicist (UB Physics Professor Doreen Wackeroth) with a conceptual artist (UB Visual Studies Professor Gary Nickard); the chamber music of the Long Winters String Quartet with a public telescope viewing, courtesy of the Buffalo Astronomical Association; and an evening titled “The Prestige,” in which magician Bruce Adams revealed the secrets behind magic tricks, while UB Psychology Professor Peter Pfordresher talked about the psychology behind perceptual illusions. 

“They’ve all been extremely well attended, and the response has been terrific; we have a loyal audience at this point,” says Dr. Kinney. “All sorts of different people come, everyone from university people to moms with kids to local plumbers. It seems to be a real cross-section of the community that shows up. The event itself is reflective of the new dynamic that the young people have brought to the Physics Department itself,” he adds. “The idea is something that I came here with after having seen it in New York City, and it’s an exciting kind of outreach, so we decided to start one here in Buffalo.”

As much as the Physics Department has expanded, Dr. Luo expects it to continue to do so, building on the strength and research vitality that it has recently shown. Physics is hiring in the field of materials science this year, and hopes to receive more lines in the coming years.