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.

The Physics Department at Oregon State University stands with the Black community. The continued murders of Black people by police are a consequence of long-standing, unacceptable social and economic systems that dehumanize people, particularly the Black community.

We recognize that the academy, and our department by extension, is complicit in these structures of racism. The conspicuous dearth of Black department members points to the racism and structural inequities that exist within our hiring and recruitment processes, our teaching and mentoring, and our broader social culture. Removing these structures is long overdue. We will strive to promote equity across all areas, including but not limited to: race, gender, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, veteran status, and economic status. We are committed to making our workplace and classroom environments supportive of all community members by: (i) creating policies and a culture that work against historical oppressions, and (ii) seeking a diversity in the recruitment, selection, promotion, and celebration of students, staff, faculty, and other scientists, that is representative of the global community.

One of the most recent steps the department has taken is forming the Diversity Inclusion Climate and Equity (DICE) Committee. This committee is composed of members representing all subsets of the physics community – from undergraduates to faculty and staff – and is charged with recommending policies and resources that will help foster a more welcoming and inclusive physics environment. The DICE Committee is seeking new members this academic year.

If you would like to get involved, or would like access to the department’s antiracism resource list, please contact physdice@lists.oregonstate.edu.


Current DICE members

Acacia Patterson (graduating)

Isabel Rodrigues

Xavier Siemens

Evan Thatcher

Three OSU Physics alums are among 2,046 graduate students nationwide to receive the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program award that pays stipend and partial tuition for 3 years. Congratulations to all three! See the Impact article from the College of Science for some more details about other College of Science GRFP recipients.

Head shot of Mirek Brandt at Oregon State
Mirek Brandt in 2017

Mirek Brandt (BS in Physics & Mathematics 2018) worked in the Graham group while at Oregon State. His thesis was on The Impact of Crystal Morphology on the Opto-Electronic Properties of Amorphous and Organic Crystalline Materials. He won a Goldwater Scholarship as an undergraduate and then moved on to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he is doing his doctorate in Astrophysics.

Katelyn Chase (BS in Physics 2018) worked in Bo Sun’s biophysics laboratory during her time at OSU and wrote her thesis on Synchronized Cellular Mechanosensing due to External Periodic Driving. She is now a Ph. D. candidate at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, conducting research in the Gitai bacterial biology laboratory, studying cytoskeletal proteins. She is interested in proteins involved in bacterial cell shape formation and maintenance. Her photo shows her in Iceland in January.

Patrick Flynn (BS in Physics and Mathematics, 2018) did his senior thesis project on Localized structures in a diffusive run and tumble model for M. xanthus, as part of the Complex Systems REU at the University of Minnesota with Arnd Scheel (Bo Sun was the local advisor).  Patrick also contributed to the linear solver code for the Monte-Carlo simulations performed in David Roundy’s research group in Physics.  Patrick is now a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. He is studying the Euler- and Vlasov-Poisson models appearing in plasma and astrophysics. His NSF GRFP proposal was about answering questions such as the existence and stability of solitary waves, or the existence of solutions containing many interacting solitary waves, for the Euler- and Vlasov-Posson equations.  Patrick says he is “very enthusiastic about being able to address questions that have been partially addressed by the physics community to discover new mathematics, and in turn inform scientific discovery. Of course, my time at Oregon State was very formative in this regard, and I still heavily rely on what I learned in the mathematics and physics programs there. After all, I first learned what a dispersion relation was from David Roundy!” The accompanying picture shows Patrick on the Brown Campus.

See the Impact article from the College of Science for some more details about College of Science GRFP recipients.

Drivers on OR34 now see Senior Instructor Randy Milstein smiling at them.

OSU Astronomer in Residence, Senior Physics Instructor and man-about-Corvallis Randall Milstein has been featured by Samaritan Hospital in an article and a huge billboard on OR34. See https://www.samhealth.org/randallm for the full article. You can meet Randy in person in Physics 104 (Descriptive Astronomy), the class he teaches to hundreds of students every term at Oregon State.

Prof. Bo Sun

In December 2019, Associate Prof. Bo Sun received the Richard T. Jones New Investigator Award from the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon for his work on the biophysics of collective behavior in cells.

For more details on the award see the MRF awards site and the longer College of Science IMPACT article about Bo’s work.

And check out his research group at https://sites.google.com/site/biophysicsbosun/ to read about the successes of the large number of graduate and undergraduate students working in his lab.

Congratulations Bo!

Dear Physics community,

The Physics Beavers are studying remotely this quarter.

Oregon State Physics is still operating, although our labs are in standby mode and our teaching is now all remote.   We’re using online channels like Zoom and Slack to maintain our tradition of student interaction in courses.  Students are still working together on problems and the Society of Physics Students  is launching an online game night.  We could not have done this without herculean efforts by faculty and students to create online labs, videos, and sophisticated live classes in 3 weeks.  Grad students are writing new labs and undergraduates are serving as learning assistants in the Virtual Wormhole.  See this video on vectors produced in our Lightboard studio to see what our students see.

On campus, research is on standby. Biophysicists Weihong Qiu and Bo Sun led the Physics effort to collect personal protective equipment (PPE) that Oregon State then donated to Oregon Emergency Management agencies.  https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/oregon-state-collects-nearly-200000-pairs-gloves-other-medical-supplies-covid-19-crisis  But, you can’t grow carbon nanotubes or cancer cell lines at home so on-campus research is now on hold.  In the short run, we can work on writing things up, doing the literature searches we never have time for and analyzing data, but we’re eager to get back to our labs. 

If you are interested in helping students financially in the short term, Oregon State has set up an emergency fund for students in need.  Many students (or their parents) have lost their jobs and are struggling with basics like books, rent,  food and the now vital internet connection. Please consider donating to the Beavers Care fund which is providing emergency funding to OSU students https://app.fundmetric.com/qvRUQF9u4 (You can designate the College of Science) or to the Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) https://studentlife.oregonstate.edu/hsrc which provides food boxes, loaner computers and other emergency supplies for students.  

We’ll be providing updates as things progress. 

Heidi Schellman

The Physics Beavers are working remotely this week.

As part of Oregon State University’s COVID-19 mitigation plans, most Physics activities are moving to remote access.

Courses will be taught via remotely starting March 30: https://learn.oregonstate.edu/keep-learning

Colloquia and Seminars will also use video connections

We’ll keep you updated as we know more.

Physics research isn’t just for Physics majors. Biophysicist Weihong Qiu hosts students from BioHealth Sciences and Biochemistry in his lab as well.

Haelyn Epp and Weihong Qiu preparing motor protein samples in the lab.

BioHealth student Haelyn Epp used her #SUREScience scholarship to work in a biophysics lab on motor proteins. “My scholarship replaced one of my jobs, [and] allowed me to focus on research in a way I had not been able to,” says Haelyn. Read the full article at:

Prof. Bo Sun has received an NSF CAREER award for his biophysics research. Please look at the longer IMPACT article for details. (And he’s also the 2019 Richard T. Jones New Investigator Award for the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon, more details on that after the ceremony in Portland later this term.)