Theoretical physicist Bernice Durand was a leader of gender equity on campus and in her field

profile photo of Bernice Durand
Bernice Durand

Bernice Durand, Professor Emerita and one of the first two female professors in the UW–Madison Department of Physics, passed away February 7.

Durand was a theoretical physicist who specialized in particle theory and mathematical physics. Her research was on symmetry relations in algebra and physics, plus the phenomenology of high-energy interactions at large particle accelerators. She earned her BS and PhD degrees in physics from Iowa State University. In 1970, she started at UW–Madison as a research associate and lecturer and joined the faculty in 1977, where she directed nine PhD and three MS students.

As the first Associate Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Climate, Professor Durand provided leadership to ensure that faculty, staff, and student diversity issues including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, and classroom and general campus workplace climate issues be addressed, and that search committees for non-classified staff be trained in broadening the pool of applicants and eliminating implicit bias. Durand co-directed a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to the UW System designed to create more equity, flexibility and career options for faculty and academic staff. She was also a member of the leadership team of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute sponsored by the National Science Foundation to increase the participation and status of women in science.

A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Teaching, Professor Durand taught courses at all levels, from modern physics for non-scientists (“Physics for Poets”) to a specialized course she developed for advanced graduate students in the use of topology and algebra in quantum field theory. In the mid-1990s, she used technological and pedagogical techniques in her teaching, such as broadcasting her modern physics for non-scientists course on public television with web-based coursework and pioneering one of two early versions of MOOCs (massive open online courses) on campus.

The department announced the annual Bernice Durand Undergraduate Research Scholarship in 2003, which gives preference to students from underrepresented groups in Physics and Astronomy who show research potential, motivation, and interest in the discipline. In 2018, the department’s Board of Visitors sought to create an endowed faculty fund in honor of Durand. Thanks to generous support from several Board of Visitors members and Bernice’s husband, Professor Emeritus Randy Durand, the Bernice Durand Faculty Fellowship was established in 2021. The Department plans to use the Durand Faculty Fellowship to support a professor in the department who will expand efforts to create a more diversified faculty.

Bernice is survived by her husband, Loyal Durand, also a UW­–Madison Professor Emeritus of Physics; by stepsons Travis, Tim, and Chris Durand, whom she helped to raise from early ages; and by five nieces and nephews.

Read the Wisconsin State Journal’s Obituary
Visit the Department Tribute Page

Ultraprecise atomic clock poised for new physics discoveries

University of Wisconsin–Madison physicists have made one of the highest performance atomic clocks ever, they announced Feb. 16 in the journal Nature.

Their instrument, known as an optical lattice atomic clock, can measure differences in time to a precision equivalent to losing just one second every 300 billion years and is the first example of a “multiplexed” optical clock, where six separate clocks can exist in the same environment. Its design allows the team to test ways to search for gravitational waves, attempt to detect dark matter, and discover new physics with clocks.

optical video of a ball of strontium atoms being mutliplexed into 6 separate, smaller spheres of atoms, like pearls along a string
From one sphere of supercooled strontium atoms, Kolkowitz’s group multiplexes them into six separate spheres, each of which can be used as an atomic clock.

“Optical lattice clocks are already the best clocks in the world, and here we get this level of performance that no one has seen before,” says Shimon Kolkowitz, a UW–Madison physics professor and senior author of the study. “We’re working to both improve their performance and to develop emerging applications that are enabled by this improved performance.”

Atomic clocks are so precise because they take advantage of a fundamental property of atoms: when an electron changes energy levels, it absorbs or emits light with a frequency that is identical for all atoms of a particular element. Optical atomic clocks keep time by using a laser that is tuned to precisely match this frequency, and they require some of the world’s most sophisticated lasers to keep accurate time.

By comparison, Kolkowitz’s group has “a relatively lousy laser,” he says, so they knew that any clock they built would not be the most accurate or precise on its own. But they also knew that many downstream applications of optical clocks will require portable, commercially available lasers like theirs. Designing a clock that could use average lasers would be a boon.

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Shimon Kolkowitz one of four UW professors awarded Sloan Fellowship

Four University of Wisconsin–Madison professors, including assistant professor of physics Shimon Kolkowitz, have been named to Sloan Research Fellowships — competitive, prestigious awards given to promising researchers in the early stages of their careers.

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows represent the scientific leaders of tomorrow,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has awarded the fellowships since 1955. “As formidable young scholars, they are already shaping the research agenda within their respective fields—and their trailblazing won’t end here.”

Kolkowitz, an assistant professor of physics, builds some of the most precise clocks in the world by trapping ultracold atoms of strontium — clocks so accurate they could be used to test fundamental theories of physics and search for dark matter.

UW–Madison’s other 2022 Sloan Fellows are Tatyana Shcherbina (math), Zachary K. Wickens (chemistry) and Andrew Zimmer (math).

The UW–Madison professors are among 118 researchers from the United States and Canada honored by the New York-based philanthropic foundation. The four new fellows join 110 UW–Madison researchers honored in the past.

Each fellow receives $75,000 in research funding from the foundation, which awards Sloan Research Fellowships in eight scientific and technical fields: chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, computational and evolutionary molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics.

Physics of Climate Change project funded by WI Idea grant

Eleven research projects that illustrate how the Wisconsin Idea has evolved — including one from the Department of Physics — have now been funded by Extension and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education.

The premise of the Wisconsin Idea, extending university knowledge to all corners of the state, is traditionally described as starting on campus and traveling to other parts of Wisconsin. This new series of grant-funded projects recognizes the value of knowledge transfer in reverse: utilizing Extension’s local networks to bring community perspectives and knowledge into research studies conducted on campus.

The Wisconsin Idea is almost 120 years old, and in that time it has evolved to include the wide range of topics currently being studied by faculty and specialists at UW–Madison. Extension’s locally based educators deliver evidence-based programming for farmers and 4-H youth and also help address specific issues in local communities by sharing expertise on natural resources, family, financial, economic development, and health/well-being topics.

The heart of the Wisconsin Idea – creating vital links between UW–Madison and communities across the state to inform community programming and improve lives – is embodied as the core mission of Extension. The new grant series will showcase how communities can both inform and benefit from university research. This work follows the longstanding tradition of Extension’s role to advance the Wisconsin Idea, while the research methods used to develop knowledge continue to evolve.

Extension collaborated with the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education to create the Wisconsin Idea Collaboration Grant project series. The competitive grants will kickstart applied research and development of innovative educational programming or community engagement to address community needs and priorities.

Funded project: The Physics of Climate Change

Principal Investigator Mallory Conlon (Physics); co-PIs Cierra Atkinson (Physics), Haddie McLean (Physics), and Joanna Skluzacek, Professor and STEM Specialist, Division of Extension

The scientific principles explaining and predicting the effects of climate change are being lost in the noise of rampant misinformation. Understanding of climate change varies across age groups and location, and many K-12 teachers are left without the support needed to incorporate climate change concepts in their curricula.

To mitigate misinformation, this project will create hands-on activities to understand the impacts of climate change and empower teachers to accurately share content with their students. Specific efforts will include a museum exhibit at the Ingersoll Physics Museum, outreach demonstration for the Wonders of Physics traveling show, and an activity kit designed to empower middle and high school students, teachers, and general audiences to identify accurate information about climate change.

Maxim Vavilov named Vilas Associate

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education has announced 26 faculty winners of the Vilas Associates Competition, including physics professor Maxim Vavilov. The competition recognizes “new and ongoing research of the highest quality and significance.” Tenure-track assistant professors and tenured faculty within 20 years of their tenure date are eligible.

The award is funded by the William F. Vilas Estate Trust.

Recipients are chosen competitively by the divisional research committees on the basis of a detailed proposal. Winners receive up to two-ninths of research salary support (including the associated fringe costs) for the summers of 2022 and 2023, as well as a $12,500 flexible research fund in each of the two fiscal years. Faculty paid on an annual basis are not eligible for the summer salary support but are eligible for the flexible fund portion of this award.