Dr. Walsh received College of Science Faculty Scholar award for recognition of his exceptional contributions to his discipline and Oregon State University. This is a three-year titled endowed position. See more details at https://internal.science.oregonstate.edu/faculty-and-staff-awards/college-science-whiteley-faculty-scholar-teaching-excellence-award-and-osu

It was a banner day for Physics at the College of Science Awards Ceremony on Tuesday, February 22, 2022 (lots of twos, too).

Liz Gire won the Frederick H. Horne Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching Science. A master innovator in teaching, Liz earns accolades for her skill in communicating difficult topics and her ability to pitch physics at the right level for her students. A student wrote, “Her level of dedication to the genuine support and inclusion of the students in her courses is something I’ve never seen in an educator before. She backs that up with her skill and experience in education and communication that makes difficult content still accessible and enjoyable to learn.” Read more at the College of Science Impact Magazine.

Matt Graham was presented with the Industry Partnership Award for his work on harnessing waste heat. Matt has worked with several companies over the past several years on projects that have led to Ph.D. theses for his students.

Davide Lazzati earned this year’s Milton Harris Award for his outstanding work in the field of high-energy astrophysics. His pioneering considerations of electromagnetic signatures of neutron star mergers hav produced some of the most detailed predictions of compact binary mergers, perhaps one of the most exciting topic in astrophysics in the past decade. Read more at Impact Magazine.

Heidi Schellman is this year’s Gilfillan Awardee. The F.A. Gilfillan Award for Distinguished Scholarship honors faculty members in the College of Science whose scholarship and scientific accomplishments have extended over a substantial period of time, especially faculty whose research careers have had a significant impact on his or her field. Heidi’s work in neutrino physics is just part of her work leading to 700 peer-reviewed publications and an h-index of 113. She has contributed to several well-known scientific collaborations and currently serves in a leadership position for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE). Read more at Impact Magazine.

Oregon State’s Department of Physics recently underwent a major reform of their graduate program and requirements. 

Introduction:

U.S. Physics Departments generally require that doctoral students complete core advanced courses in Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, Classical Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics, with additional electives depending on the field of study.  Most Departments also require that all students demonstrate proficiency by passing written or oral examinations in the core topics.  These examinations have different names (Preliminary, Qualifying or Comprehensive) but generally involve several multi-hour written tests.  Students are normally given several chances to pass but if they fail to pass these examinations by the end of their second year, they are usually asked to leave the program.

At OSU, as at most Physics Departments, graduate students in their first 1-2 years are normally supported as graduate teaching assistants with significant teaching responsibilities while they are taking the required courses.  As graduate and undergraduate courses start at the same time in the Fall, new graduate students typically find themselves teaching several undergraduate laboratory or recitation sections and taking three challenging courses, right after they arrive.  The combination of a new environment, challenging courses, and teaching duties, all at once, can become overwhelming.   Institutions can help with preparation, for example with pre-term orientation sessions, but the transition is still very difficult.  

Oregon State physics recently did a major reassessment of the early requirements for our doctoral program which has led to three major changes. 

Second, the graduate teaching load in the first term has been reduced and the third core course for entering students is now replaced by a pedagogy course, taught by a faculty member with experienced graduate teaching assistants as mentors.  This helps incoming graduate teaching assistants gain the skills they need very early in their graduate career.

First, entering graduate students are assessed individually by a group of faculty on arrival.  The Core Graduate Advising Committee meets with all incoming students to assess their preparation for the Core graduate courses.  Students who have missed a component (for example Statistical Mechanics) in their undergraduate preparation, or feel underprepared, are given the chance to take the appropriate undergraduate course in the first year, and then proceed to the advanced courses in the second year.  

Third, the written comprehensive examination has been replaced by a series of assessments over the first 2-3 years.  These include the grades in the core courses and demonstration of written and oral communication skills.  In particular, candidacy for the doctorate now requires a writing sample and a researched presentation on a general topic posed by the committee and communicated to the students several weeks before the exam. 

These changes resulted from a multi-year process, initiated by both faculty and graduate students.   Both groups realized that talented students were being lost due to overload in the first term or later, through failure to pass the written examination or, more often, out of worry that they would not pass after a failed attempt. 

Inputs and proposed solutions:

Several years ago, a group of graduate students, led by students in the Physics Education Research group, researched and presented a paper on studies of known sources of bias in high stakes testing.  In parallel, the faculty had long recognized that the skills needed to be a successful physicist were not solely correlated with an ability to take timed tests. Over the years, various reforms of the written examination had been tried, with little change in outcomes; talented students were still leaving the program.   An elected graduate student representative committee was formed, with an elected (by the students) faculty liaison to provide input. A series of Town Halls led by the graduate representatives were held.  At those Town Halls, students described their concerns about the program, in particular the sink or swim nature of the first term and the high stakes exams.

The faculty formed a committee of Associate Professors to recommend major changes to the doctoral program requirements. Their work was informed by Oregon State’s training in unbiased hiring practices and the modern methods they used in developing learning objectives and assessments for their courses.   The committee spent most of a year formulating the learning objectives for a physics doctorate.   5 objectives were identified: 

  1. Analyze Physical Systems Apply physical laws and principles to formulate and produce solutions to questions that arise from a broad range of physical phenomena; master quantitative techniques (exact techniques and various levels of approximation including order-of-magnitude estimates); and devise and adopt ways of making meaning of their results. 

2. Learn Physics Expertly Learn and apply new concepts, methodologies, and techniques by identifying and engaging with various resources including, e.g., research literature and books, both individually and in collaboration with peers and other experts. 

3. Create and Share Novel Physical Insight Design and conduct original research within a chosen specialty and disseminate the results through effective presentations in professional settings and in the scientific literature. Research expectations include: familiarity with primary literature, identification of central issues and knowledge gaps, ability to develop original questions, ability to identify and mitigate obstacles in research, ability to engage in productive discussions and work synergistically within a group or collaboration, and ability to write effective scientific publications that include citations and clear descriptions of methods and results. 

4. Communicate with Learners Design and facilitate physics learning experiences at an appropriate level of sophistication for a broad range of audiences (e.g., colleagues, students, and the general public). 

5. Do Physics Ethically and Inclusively Conduct themselves ethically and inclusively in all professional settings, in accordance with the American Physical Society code of ethics (https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/ethics.cfm), as well as proactively identify areas where ethical and/or discrimination issues may arise and articulate strategies for dealing with them.  

Curricula and projects were then proposed to cover each of the objectives and new methods of assessing mastery were proposed.  In particular, the committee proposed replacement of the written comprehensive examinations with grades in core courses and replacement of the general physics portion of the doctoral candidacy exam with a writing sample and a prepared pedagogical presentation on a set topic.   

In addition, the first-year graduate curriculum and graduate teaching training were revamped to make the first year more inviting and flexible. The substantial faculty effort previously put into setting three written examinations per year was redirected into the expanded Core Graduate Advising committee to provide initial and continuing personal advising to beginning students.  

Implementation:

A professional facilitator worked with the faculty committee to prepare for a retreat to discuss the new requirements. At the retreat, after considerable discussion, the new requirements were approved by consensus of the faculty. Graduate students were then given an opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed changes.  Their comments were generally positive but led to several clarifications and improvements.  The new system was voted upon in February 2020 and became the only policy for students arriving in the Fall of 2020. Most existing students who had not yet advanced to candidacy have also opted to follow the new program. 

Preliminary Assessment:

It is early to do a full evaluation but preliminary feedback from 1st year students indicates that the flexible course scheduling and emphasis on training in the first term have had positive results.  Core faculty were initially concerned that their new role as grading gatekeepers would work against their roles as champions for their students. However, the Core Advising Committee’s attention to student needs early in the program has led to increased student success in the core courses.

The doctoral qualifying process has become somewhat more complex with the addition of writing samples and set presentation topics requiring additional planning.  

The new methods may lead to changes in admissions policy.  Talented students with unusual backgrounds are likely to do better in the program, thanks to more intensive advising and flexibility early in the program.  However, the absence of the required examinations may lead to greater attention to undergraduate grades as a predictor of ability in academic courses. 

Summary: 

Based on student input and faculty experience, Oregon State Physics has substantially modified the initial experience for incoming students and evaluation practices.  Initial results are positive, with improved retention. 

Sept. 29, 2021

Oregon State Physics is leading a Department of Energy Office of Science funded project to design computing and software infrastructure for the DUNE experiment.   DUNE is a future neutrino experiment that will aim a neutrino beam from Fermilab, in Batavia Illinois, at a very large detector in the Homestake mine in Lead, South Dakota.  The experiment is currently under construction with a 5% prototype running at CERN in 2018 and 2022 and the full detector expected in 2029. These experiments generate data at rates of 1-2 GB/sec, or 30 PB/year which must be stored, processed and distributed to over 1,000 scientists worldwide.

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The LBNF neutrino beam traveling (right to left) from Fermilab in Illinois to the Sanford Lab in South Dakota

The project “Essential Computing and Software Development for the DUNE experiment” is funded for 3M$ over 3 years, shared among 4 Universities (Oregon State, Colorado State, Minnesota and Wichita State) and three national laboratories (Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi National Laboratory and Brookhaven National Laboratory). The collaborators will work with colleagues worldwide on advanced data storage systems, high performance computing and databases in support of the DUNE physics mission.  See https://www.dunescience.org/ for more information on the experiment.

PI Heidi Schellman (Oregon State Physics) leads the DUNE computing and software consortium which is responsible for the international DUNE computing project. Physics graduate student Noah Vaughan helps oversee the global grid processing systems that DUNE uses for data reconstruction and simulation and recent graduate Amit Bashyal helped design the DUNE/LBNF beamline.  Graduate student Sean Gilligan is performing a statistical analysis of data transfer patterns to help optimize the design of the worldwide data network.  Postdoc Jake Calcutt recently joined us from Michigan State University and is designing improved methods for producing data analysis samples for the ProtoDUNE experiment at CERN.

One of the major thrusts of the Oregon State project is the design of robust data storage and delivery systems optimized for data integrity and reproducibility.  30 PB/year of data will be distributed worldwide and processed through a complex chain of algorithms. End users need to know the exact provenance of their data –  how was it produced, how was it processed, was any data lost – to ensure scientific reproducibility over the decades that the experiments will run.  Preliminary versions of the data systems have already led to results from the protoDUNE prototype experiments at CERN which are described in https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-0221/15/12/P12004 and https://doi.org/10.1051/epjconf/202024511002.

As an example of this work, three Oregon State Computer Science Majors (Lydia Brynmoor, Zach Lee and Luke Penner) worked with Fermilab scientist Steven Timm on a global monitor for the Rucio storage system shown below. This illustrates test data transfers between compute sites in the US, Brazil and Europe. The dots indicate compute sites in the DUNE compute grid while the lines illustrate test transfers. 

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Data transfer diagram for DUNE data.

Other projects will be a Data Dispatcher which optimizes the delivery of data to CPU’s across the DUNE compute systems and monitoring of data streaming between sites.

Congratulations to Prof. Davide Lazzati , Head of Physics, who garnered the 2021 Impact Award for Outstanding Scholarship at OSU’s University Day Award ceremony on September 14th. Davide was cited for his ground-breaking work on gamma-ray bursts and neutron star mergers.

Davide Lazzati

Davide and his co-workers were the first to correctly predict the electromagnetic signature of the binary neutron star merger GW170817, which was first detected through gravitational wave emission and faint gamma ray emission, then across the electromagnetic spectrum from optical to radio through various follow-up observations. This was the first event of its kind, and ushered in the era of “multi-messenger astronomy.” Lazzati & co. had laid the theoretical groundwork for this prediction over the years, most recently with two papers published before the observation of GW170817 [1,2].

After the observation of GW17081, he published the explanation for how a binary neutron star could result in the observations made. The puzzling part of the observation was that the gamma ray burst observed accompanying GW170817 was faint, and it was unclear how such faint emission could be used to associate GW170817 with a binary neutron star merger model for gamma ray bursts; the latter are observed to be very luminous and involve highly relativistic emission. Lazzati realized that a structured highly relativistic jet surrounded by slower and less energetic material produces afterglow emission that brightens characteristically with time, exactly as was observed in GW170817. Furthermore, he showed how to constrain the geometry of the jet and surrounding material using the observational data. This confirmed a single origin/explanation for short gamma ray bursts and binary neutron star mergers [3].

The nominators noted Davide’s impact not only on science, but also on students through his teaching and mentorship. His astrophysics research program draws many students. Two of his most successful graduate students are McNair Fellow Tyler Parsotan, who also received a NASA FINESST grant and is now a postdoc at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland; and Black student leader, Isabel Rodriguez who graduated with an M. S. in Physics and received the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award for her groundbreaking work to improve diversity in Physics and beyond. He has also mentored over a dozen OSU undergraduate research dissertation projects and undergrads enthusiastically line up to join his research group.

The full list of award recipients is on the Awards Day website at https://universityday.oregonstate.edu/award-recipients.

[1] D. Lazzati, D. Lopez-Camara, M. Cantiello, B. J. Morsony, R. Perna, J. C. Workman, “Off-axis Prompt X-Ray Transients from the Cocoon of Short Gamma-Ray Bursts,” The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 848, L6 (2017) (https://arxiv.org/abs/1709.01468)

[2] D. Lazzati, A. Deich, B. J. Morsony, J. C. Workman, “Off-axis emission of short γ-ray bursts and the detectability of electromagnetic counterparts of gravitational-wave-detected binary mergers,” Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 471, 1652 (2017) (https://arxiv.org/abs/1610.01157)

[3] D. Lazzati, R. Perna, B. J. Morsony, D. Lopez-Camara, M. Cantiello, R. Ciolfi, B. Giacomazzo, J. C. Workman, “Late Time Afterglow Observations Reveal a Collimated Relativistic Jet in the Ejecta of the Binary Neutron Star Merger GW170817,” Physical Review Letters, 120, 241103 (2018) (https://arxiv.org/abs/1712.03237).