May 16, 2023
The department gathered on May 8 to celebrate physics students and faculty for outstanding research, academic achievement, leadership, service, teaching, and advising. We also inducted new members into Sigma Pi Sigma, the physics honor society. Professor and Head Adrian Del Maestro presented the staff awards, Assistant Professor Max Lavrentovich (assistant director of the undergraduate program) presented the undergraduate awards, Undergraduate Laboratory Director Christine Cheney presented the service awards, and Professor Norman Mannella (chair of the graduate advising committee) presented the graduate awards. The Society of Physics Students and Graduate Physics Society announced their honorees for outstanding teachers and research advisors, and the festivities concluded with a picnic in front of Ayres Hall. Congratulations to all our 2023 honorees!
Adrian Del Maestro and Showni Medlin-Crump
Adrian Del Maestro and Christine Cheney
This is a new award for 2023 to recognize staff members for their many contributions to the department. The inaugural honorees were Office Manager Showni Medlin-Crump and Director of Undergraduate Laboratories Christine Cheney. Among a host of responsibilities, Showni juggles personnel issues for the entire department (from complicated faculty searches to adding undergraduates to payroll) and makes sure the main office runs smoothly. Christine played a key role in mitigating fallout from "the freeze and flood of 2022" to protect lab space and equipment.
Dylan Stewart with Max Lavrentovich
Gage Erwin with Max Lavrentovich
As a member of Professor Adrian Del Maestro's group, Gage Erwin has been working toward realizing an atomically thin superfluid. His nomination reads that he has "excelled in his research role, diving into details, showing real ambition, motivation, and an ability to self-direct towards results." He comes prepared for group meetings, works to consistently improve his physics understanding and skill set, and looks for connections between his coursework and research experience.
William Greene with Max Lavrentovich
Taylor Sussmane with Max Lavrentovich
This year we had multiple great candidates for the Talley Leadership Award and chose two honorees who have devoted their time and energy to our student groups. These organizations give students the opportunity to participate in outreach activities, connect with professional resources, and forge friendships. William Greene has been extremely active in our Society of Physics Students, holding different offices and helping guide the group to another national Outstanding Chapter Award. Similarly, Taylor Sussmane has also been active in SPS and has helped revive our Women in Physics group.
Lucas McBee with Max Lavrentovich
Lucas McBee has excelled in the classroom, particularly quantum mechanics, where his professor said his "ability of leveraging (mathematical) skills for understanding the physics is at another level." He became interested in spin phenomena, linking theory to real observations which shows, as his nomination reads, that "he already thinks like a physicist." This led to him joining the experimental condensed matter research program to provide theory support, where he applied for and won internal funding for his research. His nomination reads that "his deep understanding of the fundamental principles of physics and his ability to apply that to solve complex problems are extremely impressive."
Charles Bell with Max Lavrentovich
Charles Bell has worked on several projects across nuclear and particle physics; as well as across theory, phenomenology, and experiment. He's completed an REU at Cornell University and his current research efforts are the basis for a paper to be submitted this summer. He has also served on the Community Connections Committee and has picked up tutorial center assignments where he's needed. His nomination reads that "in all of his roles in the department, he holds himself with professionalism, curiosity, and grace. He is a model undergraduate student."
Hannah Garrett with Christine Cheney
Hannah Garrett (Class of 2022) came to the rescue when the department was short-staffed this semester. Her nomination reads that "she always has a smile on her face no matter what is asked of her. She has done a great job as an astronomy, introductory physics, and optics TA. She has kept everything organized while being well prepared for teaching. She really cares about student learning."
Daniel Murphy with Christine Cheney
Daniel Murphy's nomination describes him as an outstanding astronomy GTA. From his first semester with the astronomy team, he has garnered the respect of his students. He is a natural teacher, and many students have benefited from that. He provides wonderful introduction to the labs, listens to and interacts with his students, and goes out of his way to make the entire astronomy lab curriculum better. He also participated in UT's Facilitating Undergraduate Evidence-Based Learning (FUEL) professional development seminar, where he said he learned to translate his passion for astronomy into engaging classes that encourage students to participate with him in the act of learning.
Shaun Vavra with Christine Cheney
The Outstanding Tutor Award is chosen by students enrolled in our courses and labs. Shaun Vavra has shown amazing dedication and time spent with students. He spends many hours (many more than required) Zooming with students and meeting with them in-person to make sure that they understand the material. He received the James E. Parks Award last year and continues to go above and beyond inside and outside of the classroom.
Ian Cox with Norman Mannella
Ian Cox's current research program focuses on experimental research with exotic nuclei, specifically at the RIKEN facility in Japan. His nomination explains that he has played a vital role in developing instrumentation and has also been involved in every step of the preparation of the FRIB Decay Station Initiator. At FRIB, "he quickly earned the trust of collaborators, who were impressed with his professionalism and level-headed presence." He traveled to four FRIB experiments in 2022 to help with the setup and performing measurements. His research advisor writes that "his graduate research is outstanding and very independent, and he is a role model for my other graduate students. His individual contribution to our research is vital, but he is also a wonderful citizen who is willing to share his knowledge and train his junior colleagues and undergraduates."
Tanner Mengel with Norman Mannella
Tanner Mengel actually chose a project against his advisor's advice. He was intrigued by a paper proposing that a deep neural network can be used to subtract background from reconstructed jets in heavy ion collisions. He adopted a background generator developed by a previous student and implemented a clever computational trick that sped up the computation time by a couple of orders of magnitude. He demonstrated that they could actually use machine learning to really understand where the improvement in the deep neural network comes from. He came up with the research questions and drove the work.
Chengkun Xing with Norman Mannella
Chengkun Xing's dissertation project exploits an advance in heterostructure synthesis to convert the exotic excitations in geometrically frustrated quantum magnets into electronic responses. He pursued his work, even through the pandemic, to master and bridge two growth techniques. He developed a multistep procedure on his own with meticulous work and overcame technical barriers to successfully synthesize the BIO/DTO heterostructure. His created a blueprint for the metallization of frustrated quantum magnets and was first author on a Nature Communications paper chosen as an editor's highlight. His nomination reads that he has acquired a unique skill set and deep knowledge to create novel materials and tackle physics problems in ways beyond others' imagination. His toolbox makes him stand out from his peers as a "unicorn" in the quantum materials research field.
William Greene (SPS Pres.) and Elbio Dagotto
William Greene (SPS Pres.) and Sean Lindsay
The Society of Physics is an undergraduate student organization and has been selecting a Teacher (or in this case, Teachers) of the Year since 2001. This year they chose Distinguished Professor Elbio Dagotto (a record-setting third award for Professor Dagotto!) and Senior Lecturer/Astronomy Coordinator Sean Lindsay. Professor Dagotto was also awarded the university's Alexander Prize for 2023.
Not to be outdone, the Graduate Physics Society also chose to award a Teacher of the Year honor and they selected Associate Professor Steven Johnston.
Jordan O'Kronley, Abhyuday Sharda, Nadia Fomin
Last year the Society of Physics Students gave the inaugural award for Research Advisor of the Year. This year they chose Assistant Professor Tova Holmes for the honor.
The Graduate Physics Society chose to honor an oustanding research advisor as well, bestowing the honor on Associate Professor Nadia Fomin. (She won the first SPS Research Advisor of the Year honor in 2022.)
As the National Physics Honor Society, Sigma Pi Sigma exists to honor outstanding scholarship in physics, encourage interest in physics among students at all levels, promote an attitude of service, and provide a fellowship of persons who have excelled in physics. Election is a lifelong membership and includes a once-year complimentary membership in the Society of Physics Students. Sigma Pi Sigma is an organization of the American Institute of Physics, and a member of the Association of College Honor Societies. It was founded in 1921, and there are now more than 90,000 historical members.
UT's 2023 Sigma Pi Sigma inductees are (pictured at right): Scarlett Wilson, Preston Waldrop, Gage Erwin, Lucas McBee, Taylor Sussmane, and Fredrick Melhorn.