University of Vermont

University Communications

Physics Department Joins National Honors Society

Gary White, national director of Sigma Pi Sigma, was in the process of making the University of Vermont the 497th member of the national honors society for physics when he paused in the middle of the ceremony to recognize professor emeritus Wesley Nyborg sitting in the back of Waterman Manor.

White was fascinated that Nyborg worked as a graduate student at Penn State in the 1940s under Sigma Pi Sigma's leader Marsh White, the first Ph.D. recipient at Penn State and founder of Sigma Pi Sigma's national office in 1926. To members of Sigma Pi Sigma, there is none higher than Marsh White, who remained a driving force in the organization until his death in 1999 at age 102.

"I suppose one of his greatest passions was Sigma Pi Sigma," Nyborg says. "He was quite a presence when I was at Penn State. I'm glad to see that UVM has become a member. It's a distinction to be able to say you are a member when applying for a job."

One of the customs of joining the society is to sign the chapter book, which is put in a place of distinction within the physics department. Associate Professor Dennis Clougherty was asked to sign the book first, but deferred the honor to Nyborg, who, like Marsh White, will be the first to sign his university's book.

The next generation
Faculty and students in the physics department say the induction into Sigma Pi Sigma is another sign that the physics department is on the rise. Department chair Junru Wu, a faculty member for 17 years, says the department, which typically graduates two or three students, is experiencing a resurgence in enrollment and now has 30 undergraduates, some of whom are presenting research at national conferences and being published in major science journals.

Research grants secured by the department have tripled in the past five years and are expected to continue to increase, Wu says. "Everyone has been working hard to recruit top students and improve the image of the department," Wu says. "The quality of the students has improved dramatically."

The relatively high number of inductees into Sigma Pi Sigma is a sign of the strength of the program, White says. White says UVM's 29 inductees, some of whom were faculty transferring membership from other chapters, are about three times as many as he would normally induct into a new chapter. Inductees must be in the top one-third of their class overall and have completed at least three courses towards a physics major. There have been more than 80,000 inductees nationwide since the society's inception in 1921.

"It was very surprising to me that Vermont didn't have one," White says. "Becoming a member really can validate a department. Students tend to take more ownership. Not that UVM's program needed validation because it has very impressive research credentials despite being relatively small for a flagship state university. They really take care of their undergraduates."

Charles Foell is an example of the high caliber of students within the department. A native of Burlington, Foell, who is a John Dewey Honors student and the 2004 David W. Juenker prize winner as the most outstanding physics senior, recently gave a presentation on theoretical research on polarons at the American Physical Society meeting in Montreal, the nation's largest and most prestigious conference of its kind.

His paper, "Vector Polarons in Degenerate Electron-Phonon Systems," was one of 15 papers chosen nationwide to be presented at the meeting. "It was pretty intimidating with Nobel laureates walking around," he says. "It was a fantastic opportunity to learn how good science is done."

Foell has plenty of strong undergraduate peers. Senior Mark Byrne was awarded the 2004 Albert Crowell Award by the physics faculty for his outstanding performance in experimental research in polymer physics. He also presented his research results at the conference in Montreal. Zuzana Srostlik was named a Barry M. Goldwater scholar through a nationwide competition and is the only Vermont winner this year. Amy Cochran, a member of the ski team, carries a 4.0 grade point average. Sophomore Paul Mark co-authored a paper with Sanjeeva Murthy, an associate professor, that recently appeared in the journal Chemical Materials.

The right time for expansion?
Wu and Clougherty are hoping all these accomplishments lead to the re-establishment of the Ph.D. program that was cut in the early 1970s along with football among other programs. "It has been my dream as chair to bring back the Ph.D. program to UVM," Wu says.

Clougherty says the addition of a Ph.D. program in physics is critical to the future of the state if it wants to continue to keep high tech employers such as IBM. It's also crucial to UVM's efforts to "once again rise to the ranks of the public ivies," he says. "There's a lot of energy here, and we've attracted some strong researchers with fantastic credentials. UVM has really undergone a transformation over the past few years."

Wu says the addition of a doctoral program would increase the amount of research funding secured by his department and would enable it to recruit higher-level graduate students. "I hope we can begin the process of starting a Ph.D. program soon. The president really wants to grow the university and make it competitive, especially within New England. We're the only major state university [in New England] without a Ph.D. program in physics. The timing is right."

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