CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
“LET’S DO THIS”
That didn’t feel like enough break, right? After two weeks of actual break (when SMU was shuttered), we clawed our way back to work on January 4, 2021 … though the email inbox was still pretty quiet and the buildings were even quieter. That was before we witnessed the historic and other-worldly events of the last few weeks, which necessarily set our work again on pause as we tried to make sense of what unfolded on January 6 and in the aftermath of that day.
But, two weeks later, here we are … a new semester is upon us as the challenges of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic remain. The good news is that this semester has been long considered little or no different from the fall semester. Classes will be hybrid (a mix of in-person and virtual students) when possible, but instructors have been largely free to choose the method of instruction they prefer (hybrid or all-virtual). A healthy population of students are enrolled in our classes. At last count our introductory physics classes, a melange of students from across many disciplines at SMU, had 232 students enrolled and our introductory laboratory classes had 226 students enrolled. Our majors classes, starting with PHYS 3305 (third-semester modern physics) always have a much better student-to-faculty ratio (more at the level of 5-to-1), and those enrollments are as expected for the spring. It’s going to be a semester similar to the fall … another 14-week sprint to the final exam period, with no real breaks along the way.
We’ve got this. We can do this.
But I also understand that we are bracing for it, even after the extended break that wound up exhausting in its own way. As vaccines continue to roll out and national coordinated vaccination strategy takes shape, we are all hoping for better days ahead. My heart is lightened by the anecdotes of colleagues and students who have been able to receive one or more of the required vaccinations. Even as we begin to feel more hopeful, the hard work of the semester begins. We need to be sensitive to the continued level of stress each of us, and each of our students, is experiencing during the ongoing pandemic.
Activities in the department will rekindle as the semester begins. The speaker series will kick off on Feb. 1 with a colloquium on theoretical and precision physics avenues beyond the Standard Model of particle physics. The theory group will resume their weekly Wednesday lunches, albeit virtually, this semester. Research will continue apace this semester … at least, as much as can when travel is still limited and personal face-to-face interactions are still unwise.
I welcome all of you back to campus for this spring term. Let’s do this!
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
Meet the Office Staff
We are very fortunate to be supported by two staff in our Physics Main Office: Lacey Breaux (Academic Operations) and Michele Hill (Research Operations). In a department with complexity and excellence in both teaching and research, support for both hemispheres of our program are essential and each is a full-time job. To help our community find the right person for assistance with a need or an issue, we provide this helpful guide to many of the key areas where Michele and Lacey have roles and expertise!
Lacey Breaux – Academic Operations
Lacey’s duties include fundamental academic activities such as class enrollments, grade changes, textbook orders and adoptions, and support for both lecture and laboratory courses (e.g equipment orders, room scheduling, etc.). In addition, she is the go-to person for AmazonBusiness.com purchases, Staples supplies orders, and other charges that would be supported by departmental accounts. In addition, she handles higher-level activities including the organization of promotion and tenure materials (dossiers, etc.) and the resolution of all student issues (except those related to travel) including student health insurance. When it comes to supporting our students through payroll activities (e.g. student workers, teaching assistants, research assistants) she handles undergraduate and graduate payroll issues and planning. Student graduation is also her area of expertise, making sure that students are aware of the scheduled targets and checkpoints on the way to the completion of their degrees. Finally, she has responsibility for some technical aspects of the department, including access requests for Fondren Science Building (e.g. key requests or building card-swipe authorization for periods when the building is locked), submitting facilities requests (e.g. leaks, hot/cold issues, building damage, etc.), and membership to department email listservs (managed through list.smu.edu).
Michele Hill – Research Operations
Michele’s duties touch the whole portfolio of externally funded research activities, spanning the department from observational, theoretical, and experimental astronomy and astrophysics, to instrumentation project funding, to experimental and theoretical particle physics. If a request involves an external grant for which you are a principle investigator or co-principle investigator, Michele has the expertise to help resolve issues and get things done. These responsibilities include working to make timely payments on grants for student, staff, post-doctoral, and faculty salaries, as well as purchases and travel, closing out grants, and transacting across multiple grants.
Broader areas where Michele has expertise and responsibility are the use of the Concur travel and expense reporting management system. This includes making sure you have access to the system, know how to execute transactions in the system, and that you organize reports and request reimbursement against the appropriate accounts. Michele also handles post-doctoral hiring and payroll, so if you are looking to recruit and retain a post-doctoral researcher you should always begin by talking to Michele.
Michele handles all aspects related to travel, even if that travel may be for reasons other than research. If it involves travel outside the university, Michele is the point person. In addition, she coordinates reimbursement requests (which should always go through Concur), faculty summer salary payments, and transportation, reimbursement, or honorarium matters for all of our seminar and colloquium speakers.
Theory Lunches in Spring 2021
The SMU Physics theoretical physics program, led by Profs. Joel Meyers, Pavel Nadolsky, and Fred Olness will resume the weekly “Theory Lunches” this spring … albeit virtually.
… during the spring semester, we will continue having periodic theory lunches on Wednesdays at 12pm. This is an opportunity to informally communicate with members of the SMU theoretical physics group about theoretical aspects of our research, coursework, and interesting recent developments.
On February 3, we will connect to a webinar “Scaling down the laws of thermodynamics” by Christopher Jarzynski organized by the Cambridge University Physics Society.Message from Profs. Fred Olness, Joel Meyers, and Pavel Nadolsky
For those of you interested in connecting to the lunches, speak with one of the professors for connection information. The details of the Feb. 3 webinar are available here: https://www.facebook.com/events/224965769280762
New Teaching Demonstration: The Brachistochrone
The “brachistochrone,” from the Greek for “least time,” is the answer to a famous question: what is the trajectory between two different points that, when moving under the influence of gravity, offers the shortest travel time? Thanks to Prof. Tom Coan and engineer Tim Mulone, you can now engage students in your mechanics classes in the subject with a live demonstration.
According to Prof. Coan, the demonstration is ideal for anyone looking to teach ” … the calculus of variations … there are even two versions of the same brachistochrone so you can demo the isochronous property of the curve,” showing live that even though the paths are slightly different they nonetheless result in equal travel times.
Lab Manager Rick Guarino has housed the demonstration in the FOSC 115 equipment storage room (see photo for location atop one of the shelving units). If you have questions about the demo, Prof. Coan invites you to contact him!
The Spring 2021 Department Speaker Series
The first event of the Spring 2021 Department Speaker Series will be on Monday, February 1, at 4pm. We will welcome Prof Ahmed Ismail (Oklahoma State University) to kick off the term with a look at physics beyond the Standard Model and precision measurements or programs that can lead the way into the future.
This semester, we aim to have at least a few presentations from SMU Physics Faculty who are looking to recruit graduate students, or undergraduate students, to research projects. Look out for those talks throughout the semester!
Miss a Colloquium or Seminar? Don’t Panic … They’re Recorded!
You can get ready for the start of our upcoming Spring 2021 Physics Speaker Series on Feb. 1 by checking out your favorite subjects from the Fall 2020 series! Explore supermassive black holes, the new Electron-Ion Collider planned for construction in the U.S., new ideas about dark matter, or the basic research needs for future scientific instrumentation in HEP … all from your personal devices! Enjoy our archive of the Fall Speaker Series Talks below.
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of your activities in research, the classroom, and beyond are very welcome!
ATLAS Experience with the Hardware-Based Fast Tracking (FTK) System Published!
A paper on the Fast TracKer system (FTK) has now been submitted for publication to JINST. The FTK upgrade was designed to provide high speed tracking for the high level trigger of the ATLAS detector, using custom hardware composed of AM chips and FPGAs. The Deiana Firmware Lab (in this case Rohin Narayan, Lloyd Hasley, and Allison Deiana) worked on firmware design for checking and discarding duplicate matched tracks. The slice of the system that has been built is demonstrated to function with the performance expected from simulation.
Faculty Teaching Leaves Approved for AY2022!
We had a large number of leaves requested by faculty for the 2021-2022 academic year (AY22). Such leaves from teaching are intended to support and enhance the research mission of faculty, and thus the department.
Leaves are part of the Faculty Leave Program outlined in the University Policy Manual (https://www.smu.edu/policy):
It is the policy of the University to grant members of the faculty in the tenure-track professorial ranks (assistant professor, associate professor, or professor) a leave of absence for the purpose of study, research, creative activity, or other pursuit of value to the scholarly agenda of the faculty member and the University … to enable faculty to increase their effectiveness and usefulness to the University through a period of sustained time for research, writing, scholarship, or creative activity. Professional activities that might detract from this purpose including teaching will ordinarily not be permitted during the research leave.SMU University Policy Manual, Policy 2.13, Sections 1 and 2.
Two of these were leaves for Assistant Professors (Prof. Deiana and Prof. Meyers) following their third year, which are intended to provide time for the faculty to focus on research activities in anticipation of their upcoming tenure reviews. Prof. Deiana will focus on her research program on the Large Hadron Collider in ATLAS Experiment upgrade electronics and the physics of multi-Higgs production in a single proton-proton collision. Prof. Meyers will focus on his work to improve constraints on fundamental physics with new data and future observations of experiments probing the Cosmic Microwave Background.
As summarized in the policy manual:
Tenure-track assistant professors … who have undergone a formal third-year review and are deemed to be making good progress towards achieving tenure are eligible for one semester of paid Junior Research Leave to concentrate on research, scholarship, and/or creative activity. This leave is normally taken during the fourth or fifth year of the probationary period.SMU University Policy Manual, Policy 2.13, Section 4.
The other two leaves were important and research-focused administrative leaves – those granted in return for service in administrative positions at SMU – that had been anticipated earlier but were disrupted by the pandemic in 2020-2021. These were granted to Prof. Olness and Prof. Stroynowski to support their research goals on nuclear structure and new opportunities with the Electron-Ion Collider, and the Large Hadron Collider and Higgs Physics, respectively.
All four leaves were approved by the Provost for the coming academic year. We are excited to see the progress that will be made during the one-semester leaves!
Spring 2021 Term Announcements
The semester is nearly upon us! Here are some important reminders for faculty:
- Faculty have received guidance on teaching matters for the spring term in an email from the Chair on January 21, 2021. If you don’t have a copy of that and want it, just ask the Chair!
- New grant tools for Principle Investigators: “Post-award grant PI dashboard – The Sponsored Projects Dashboard is now available for principal investigators (PIs) through my.SMU. This dashboard, created by the Office of Research and Office of Information Technology provides PIs with a real-time financial picture of their sponsored projects. PI Training, via webinar, took place on November 10, 2020. Additional instructions and a recording of the training are available on the Sponsored Projects Dashboard Wiki.” (Provost Loboa’s Weekly Update, Nov. 13, 2020)
Staff In-Office Schedule for Week of January 25
The in-office staff schedule for the week of January 25 is as follows:
- Monday: Lacey
- Tuesday: Michele
- Wednesday: Lacey
- Thursday: Michele
- Friday: Michele
Of course, both are always available on Microsoft Teams, by Email, or by phone.
Full staff in-office calendar for January:
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of students in research, the classroom, internships or fellowships, awards, etc. are very welcome!
Spring 2021 Honors Physics: The Physics of Failure
“The greatest teacher, failure is,” said Master Yoda in the movie, “The Last Jedi,” as he counseled Luke Skywalker on what he should have taken away from his past mistakes. This lesson has been repeated in one form or another over the entire history of humankind, and this semester the Honors Introductory Physics course will explore failure in the physical world, the physics of failure, and how to think about materials and systems to anticipate failure.
All SMU undergraduates who are taking or have taken an introductory physics course (PHYS 1303, 1304, 1307, or 1308) are welcome to enroll in this zero-credit-hour course. Over 14 weeks, meeting once per week, students will be immersed in activities and exercises intended to enhance teamwork and utilize the lessons of introductory physics to think about answers to interesting problems or questions. Learn more from the public course website, and check out this teaser trailer for this semester’s theme!
If you are an alum of the doctoral, masters, majors or minor programs in Physics at SMU, or have worked in our program as a post-doctoral researcher, and wish to share news with the community, please send your story to the Physics Department and we’ll work with you to get it included in a future edition.
News from Moez Janmohammad (BS’16)
We were very pleased to get a big batch of news from alumnus Moez Janmohammad (BS’16). Moez writes:
Hello SMU Physics family!
It’s been 4 years since I graduated, and what a wild time it has been. Somehow, I went from learning about networking technologies at a small company, to hacking vehicles for one of the largest automotive companies in the world. I’ve been able to get hands-on experience in all aspects of cybersecurity, from running phishing campaigns against users, to discovering vulnerabilities in popular applications. I’ve helped create tooling for ethical hackers to collect information and establish a presence in target networks.
Outside of my professional career, I’ve spent my weekends building and racing Miatas as well as playing a lot of golf (not comparable to Bryson [DeChambeau] though, I’m lucky to hit my driver 250 yards). I’m getting married in July and look forward to the SMU Physics family meeting my wife once the world returns to semi-normality.
I’m at nearly every SMU football home game, so hopefully I see some of you there this coming season. Pony Up!Moez Janmohammad, BS’16
THE BACK PAGE
January Physics Challenge!
SPS Faculty Advisor and our department’s informal “Puzzle Master,” Prof. Randy Scalise, invites you to try to solve this month’s physics challenge from The Physics Teacher. The first correct solution he receives (email@example.com) from a student member of our Society of Physics Students will be awarded a prize. The winner will get to select from the following four books,
- Gleick, J. “Chaos: Making a New Science“.
- Crease, R. P. and Mann, Charles C. “The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics“.
- Thorne, K. “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy“.
- Greene, B. “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality“.
Solutions must be complete enough to understand your strategy, reasoning, and methods; providing answers with no explanations are not acceptable. Dr. Scalise urges submitters who believe they have the correct answer to, of course, also submit their solution to The Physics Teacher using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to follow the journal’s guidelines for submissions (see below). The deadline is the last day of this month.