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. 

Congratulations to Isabel Rodriguez, M.S. for being the 2021 recipient of the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award! This award celebrates a member of the OSU community who works as an agent of change in service of racial justice and gender equity. This ” Breaking Barriers” award  is sponsored by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCOSW), the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID), the Office of the Provost and OSU Athletics.
https://leadership.oregonstate.edu/pcosw/events/breakingbarriers 

Isabel is a brilliant example of a scientist who works tirelessly and effectively for change in service of racial justice and gender equality. The STEM culture at Oregon State University is changing profoundly because of her influence. As a Black woman in astrophysics, she has expertly navigated the terrain in this white-male-dominated field to emerge as a powerful example to other marginalized people of how to be successful on their own terms and teaching her mentors to change the ways they interact with their students.

Isabel has been a powerful agent of change in our Department and College. She has challenged her research group, her peers, her mentors and the administration to look at our workplace differently and through the eyes of those marginalized. As an elected member of the graduate student committee, she helped lead discussions among the faculty and students in a series of Town Hall meetings that ultimately resulted in significant changes to the physics graduate program to make it more fair, flexible, and inclusive. She has also been an important member of the departmental DICE committee and a founding member of CoSMAC, the College of Science Multidisciplinary Antiracism Coalition, which advocates for the adoption of antiracist policies, practices, and actions in the College. She was also Vice President of the Black Graduate Student Association, where she organized regular on-campus events to foster a sense of community and belonging for Black undergraduate and graduate students. For her positive, measured and always relentless advice and guidance, Isabel is a worthy member of a spectacular group of leaders that have been recognized with the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award.

Thank you for your service Isabel, and for raising our collective consciousness.

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

Jake Jacobs (far right) and his family.

Robert  “Jake” Jacobs has been awarded a NASA Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) award for 2019 in the competitive Earth Science Division. With this award, he is developing a method to analyze latitudinal circulation utilizing satellite measurements of ocean surface vector winds measured by the QuickSCAT and ASCAT scatterometers. Our objectives are to improve understanding of climatological atmospheric circulation patterns and how surface winds in the tropical Pacific influence El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. Latitudinal circulation plays an important role in weather and climate variability as it shapes where precipitation falls and how heat moves from the equator to polar regions. Improved accuracy of the boundaries between large-scale atmospheric cells can advance our understanding of climate and weather models.

Robert “Jake” Jacobs has been awarded a NASA Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) award for 2019 in the competitive Earth Science Division.  With this award, he is developing a method to analyze latitudinal circulation utilizing satellite measurements of ocean surface vector winds measured by the QuickSCAT and ASCAT scatterometers.  Our objectives are to improve understanding of climatological atmospheric circulation patterns and how surface winds in the tropical Pacific influence El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events.  Latitudinal circulation plays an important role in weather and climate variability as it shapes where precipitation falls and how heat moves from the equator to polar regions.  Improved accuracy of the boundaries between large-scale atmospheric cells can advance our understanding of climate and weather models.

This type of work while exciting is not new, as astronautical projects have been a driving force in Jake’s life. His passion for space has taken him from an undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering, from Purdue University, to satellite remote sensing at Oregon State University (OSU) where he is completing a PhD in Physics. Before arriving at OSU, Jake obtained a master’s degree in physics from Eastern Michigan University (EMU). While there, he worked with funds from the NASA Space Grant to develop an ion source that would be used in sputtering experiments to model the solar wind.

Connecting with his advisor, Dr. Larry O’Neill at OSU, has created an excellent partnership, as they bring different strengths to the table.  Dr. O’Neill’s wealth of experience has helped Jake to greatly advance his knowledge of atmospheric and oceanic sciences.  While Jake’s physics and math background have assisted with advancing spatial derivative analysis techniques.  This newest project has combined Jake’s passion for physics and math with a novel astronautical venture. He greatly looks forward to continuing this project with the support of the FINESST Fellowship.

In his limited free time, Jake enjoys reading, hiking, swimming and playing disc golf with his two small children, wife and two dogs.  An extra joy in his life is watching his children grow to love the universe and all its boundless opportunities.  The family also enjoys star gazing, which can be difficult in Oregon, so they use a home star theater system to learn about space, stars and the world above.

Tyler Parsotan
Tyler Parsotan

Tyler Parsotan has been awarded a NASA Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology (FINESST) award for 2019 in the extremely competitive Astrophysics category. His proposal, titled “Demystifying the Interplay between Explosion Dynamics and Electromagnetic Radiation in Gamma Ray Bursts”, was one of the 11% of selected proposals in this category.

Originally from NY, Tyler is a first generation student. His family is from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. He acquired a BS in Space Physics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is now working on a PhD in Physics at Oregon State University.

Tyler is currently a fourth year graduate student working with Dr. Davide Lazzati on understanding the most powerful explosions in the Universe known as Gamma Ray Bursts. These events are so energetic that in the first few seconds of the explosion, they release more energy than our sun will emit in its entire lifetime. Understanding these events allows us to get a better handle on how matter behaves in extreme conditions and may eventually lead to using these Gamma Ray Bursts as tools that can uncover new cosmological truths.

Besides working on his research project, Tyler is the president and co-founder fo the OSU astronomy Club. The club is focused on fostering interest in astronomy at OSU and the community of Corvallis in general. Tyler, with the help of many other undergraduate and graduate students, has hosted the Astronomy Open House events where members fo the public are invited to Weniger Hall to learn about astronomy though interactive demos and rooftop observations. More information regarding OSU Astronomy can be found at: https://physics.oregonstate.edu/astronomy-club

Congratulations to Okan Agirseven of the Tate lab! Okan received the $500 Graduate Student Travel Award from the OSU Graduate School to attend the 30th International Conference on Defects in Semiconductors.  ICDS-30 will be held in Seattle, WA, in July 2019 and is one of the premier international conferences in the field.  Okan will be giving a contributed talk at the conference about his work on amorphous titania thin films.  Okan has learned how to make specific polymorphs of crystalline TiO2 from sputtered amorphous precursor films. This project is part of a larger effort to study metastable materials in the Department-of-Energy-sponsored Energy Frontier Research Center led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).  Co-authors on the work are Janet Tate, Tate group alums David Rivella and James Haggerty (who started the project as part of his doctoral research) and current undergraduates Patrick Berry, Kelda Diffendaffer and Acacia Patterson. Collaborators are  Brian Gorman and John Mangum from Colorado School of Mines, John Perkins from NREL and Laura Schelhas from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Graduate Student Jihan Kim has won the 2018 Physics Department Graduate Research Award

Jihan Kim in the lab

Jihan Kim works with Prof. Bo Sun on biophysical problems. Jihan’s research focuses on the mechanics of cancer-extra-cellular medium (ECM) interactions, which is one of the major factors dictating the physiology of tumors. This is a particularly fertile ground for interdisciplinary research, as physicists are  trained to analyze forces in complex systems. Jihan takes advantage of his physics knowledge in understanding deep biological questions.

Jihan’s first project is to measure the force exerted by cancer cells in 3D collagen matrices, which simulate a realistic tissue environment. He quickly learned MATLAB programing, and wrote a sophisticated image analysis algorithm to enhance images, and to determine the 3D deformation field caused by cancer cells. After publishing his first paper in PLoS ONE, Jihan noticed that a pair of cancer cells can permanently remodel a collagen matrix by creating a bundle of concentrated collagen fibers between them. He talked to a friend during the APS meeting about the observation, which eventually evolved into a collaborative project published in Nature Communications.

Having studied the forces generated by cancer cells and how these forces modify the cells’ environment, Jihan is working on his latest project. In this project, he studies how the environment direct cancer migration. Once completed, his PhD thesis will have a completed loop indicating the feedback between cancer cells and their physical environment.

Rebecca Grollman, Graham Founds, Rick Wallace and  Oksana Ostroverkhova’s paper “Simultaneous fluorescence and surface charge measurements on organic semiconductor-coated silica microspheres” has been featured by Advances in Engineering  as a key scientific article contributing to excellence in science and engineering research.  See

https://advanceseng.com/simultaneous-fluorescence-surface-charge-measurements/

for a short summary of the paper and a short video highlighting the result.

The work of OSU physics graduate student Lee Aspitarte was featured as a Scientific Highlight on the American Institute of Physics website. Lee’s recent experiments in Ethan Minot’s lab provide new insights about nanoscale pn-junctions. Nanoscale pn-junctions are a promising technology for maximizing the efficiency of light-to-electricity conversion.