Gage Siebert named 2021 Goldwater Scholar

profile photo of gage siebert
profile photo of gage siebert
Gage Siebert 

Three University of Wisconsin–Madison students, including junior Physics and Math major Gage Siebert, have been named 2021 winners of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship, considered the country’s preeminent undergraduate scholarship in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering.

As a freshman, Siebert studied the origins of life in Professor David Baum’s lab at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. Siebert then interned at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, studying the radio emission from several of the millisecond pulsars used in the search for gravitational waves. He later presented this work at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. For the past two years, Siebert has worked in Professor Peter Timbie’s observational cosmology lab on the Tianlai Array, a radio astronomy experiment built to map hydrogen. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

More than 1,250 students were nominated this year from 438 academic institutions; 410 were named Goldwater Scholars. The scholarship program honors the late Sen. Barry Goldwater and was designed to develop highly qualified scientists, engineers and mathematicians. The scholarships were first awarded in 1989. Each scholar will receive up to $7,500 for their senior year of undergraduate study.

This post was adapted from this post originally published by University Communications


Gage Bonner earns 2020 Teaching Award

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profile picture of Gage Bonner
Gage Bonner

Congrats to physics grad student Gage Bonner for earning a 2020 College of Letters & Sciences Continuation of Study teaching award!

This new award category recognizes graduate students in L&S who provided exceptional continuity of instruction support to their department or delivered exceptional student experience in a remote instructional setting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bonner was nominated for his work as a TA in Physics 109, Physics in the Arts, by one of the course’s instructors, Prof. Pupa Gilbert. Physics 109 is a quantitative-reasoning course offered to non-science majors, typically serving more than 200 students.

“The students are terrified of physics, and are not quantitative thinkers, thus it is especially important for Physics in the Arts TAs to be kind, friendly, and not intimidating,” Gilbert says. “Gage excels at all these challenges, and teaches masterfully. He is kind, intelligent, knowledgeable, and always in a good mood, making everyone feel comfortable and not intimidated.”

Gilbert nominated Bonner for the Continuation of Study award because of how effectively he adapted to the changes forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, because in-person labs were no longer an option, Gilbert selected online labs, and asked the TAs to develop a series of interactive questions associated with each online experiment to help the students learn by doing. Bonner excelled at developing these questions. She also noted how well he interacts with students through the online Zoom lectures, helping to keep conversations going and being knowledgable, kind and effective with online instruction.

Based on course and TA evaluations, the students agree with Gilbert. Said one student in an evaluation:

“Gage has been a really awesome TA. He makes labs run so smoothly, responds to questions quickly and effectively, and reminds us [of] vital information. He was also super helpful in lectures. Letting the teachers know if there was a technical issue or question. He also made a really friendly and comfortable learning environment even with the restraints of BBC collaborate ultra.”

UW–Madison employs over 2,100 teaching assistants (TAs) across a wide range of disciplines. Their contributions to the classroom, lab, and field are essential to the university’s educational mission. To recognize the excellence of TAs across campus, the Graduate School supports the College of Letters & Science (L&S) in administering these awards.

Bonner has been a graduate student and TA in the department since Fall 2016.

Congratulations to Professor Sue Coppersmith on her retirement!

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With the best of wishes — and some sadness — the Department of Physics says “Happy Retirement” to Professor Sue Coppersmith. Her last day at UW–Madison was February 14.

Coppersmith, the Robert E. Fassnacht Professor of Physics, joined the department in 2001. Prior to coming to UW–Madison, she earned her Ph.D. from Cornell University, conducting her thesis work at Bell Labs. She completed a postdoc at Brookhaven National Lab, then worked at Bell Labs for eight years before joining the faculty at the University of Chicago.

profile photo of Susan Coppersmith
Sue Coppersmith

During her tenure here, she served as Department Chair for one three-year term, and earned recognition as a Fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society. 

Scientific Achievements

At UChicago, Coppersmith’s research focused on soft matter physics and non-linear dynamics, work that she continued at UW–Madison, primarily with Prof. Pupa Gilbert. But her research program largely shifted over the years into quantum computing, an area that was just getting started when she started in Madison..

“At the time, I would tell people what we were doing, and of course nothing was working yet, and people would say, ‘Well, that’s all crap, isn’t it?’” Coppersmith recalls. “So, it was really fun to go from a time where there was nothing working, to now we have qubits, and being a part of the effort and feeling like I was helping.” 

Coppersmith describes herself as a theorist who went into the lab every day to better understand the experimental side of quantum computing, And, she says, UW–Madison stands out as one of the universities where theory and experiment are so closely tied together. Here, she frequently collaborated with Prof. Mark Eriksson and Distinguished Scientist Mark Friesen. 

“She just comes up with a lot of ideas, and what matters most is how many of them are home runs. She had an unusually large number,” Eriksson says. “She came up with the idea for a brand new qubit, the quantum dot hybrid qubit, and we’re still working on it to this day in my lab. And other people around the world have picked it up.”

Friesen adds:

“As a researcher, Sue is highly intuitive and focused more on the high-level physical picture rather than specific technical details. She typically breaks a problem down to a ‘minimal model’ that captures its basic physics. She has studied a wide variety of problems in her career, for which she is highly respected in many different communities, and she is able to apply lessons learned from one area to another. Her memory is legendary! She is also known for her quickness, both in being able to understand a problem (and how it fits into the big picture) and being able to immediately respond to it. I also say this in a good way: she is not shy about expressing her opinions.”

Legacy as Department Chair

Perhaps equal to her scientific achievements is the mark Coppersmith made on the department during her time as Chair, from 2005-08. The Department was hiring three faculty positions, and she reasoned that if eight offers were made, at worst four people would accept. 

“But eight people came! And I was famous for it because I ruined the College’s budget,” Coppersmith says. “I think this is the highlight of my Chair career. I loved recruiting people.”

There are a number of factors that go into faculty candidates accepting or not accepting offers, but Eriksson is certain that Coppersmith‘s ability to recruit was a significant one.

“They came in large part because Sue understood and was able to get them to explain and she was able to hear what they really needed, and then go deliver on it,” Eriksson says. “It’s one thing to have any subset of those skills, but she has the whole package.”

Current Department Chair Sridhara Dasu credits Coppersmith with shaping the direction of the department in all areas of physics, adding, “Her tenure continues to be an inspiration for all chairs of the department who followed her.”

five people stand in the foreground with a mountain in the background in Rio de Janeiro
Sue with a group of close collaborators from around the world, at a meeting that she arranged in Rio de Janeiro.

Mentorship of students and colleagues

Coppersmith’s mentorship of junior colleagues and students will also be missed. Both Friesen and Susan Nossal, senior scientist and director of the Physics Learning Center, noted that Coppersmith’s support has been crucial to their success as researchers in the department. They both applauded her as a champion of women and girls in science, citing her participation – with Nossal, Gilbert and several graduate students – in the annual Expanding Your Horizons event at which middle school girls participate in fun, hands-on science activities. 

“As a mentor, she is highly dedicated to her students and colleagues,” says Friesen, who co-advised several students with Coppersmith. “For me personally, she has been very supportive of my career path, helping me to obtain promotions and advancements, and providing on-point advice.”

Adds Nossal: “As a scientist, you have your ups and downs, and she helped me through some of the downs. It’s always helpful to have people who believe in you, and she helped me in persisting as a scientist.” 

Looking forward

Between Coppersmith and everyone else mentioned in this piece, there were certainly plenty of stories that could be shared. But for now, we’ll let emeritus professor Lou Bruch sum up Coppersmith’s tenacity and well-placed ambition with this anecdote:

“Sue touted the usefulness of the Mathematica package and would at times get into competition on speed of getting to the answer — her using the package and me using ad hoc analyses. I recall only one instance where I won.”

Coppersmith may be retired from UW–Madison, but she is not retiring from science. She is currently Professor and Head of the School of Physics at the University of New South Wales in Australia, where she will continue her research and collaborations with colleagues here and around the world.

“Wisconsin was so good to me. The people are so nice, and we did good work,” Coppersmith says. “I like to feel that I contributed in a positive way. I’ll always be grateful.”

Victor Brar awarded prestigious Sloan Fellowship

University of Wisconsin–Madison physics professor Victor Brar has been named a 2021 Sloan Research Fellow, a competitive award given to researchers in the early stages of their careers.

Victor Brar

“A Sloan Research Fellow is a rising star, plain and simple,” says Adam F. Falk, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. “To receive a Fellowship is to be told by the scientific community that your achievements as a young scholar are already driving the research frontier.”

Brar’s research focuses on developing new microscopy techniques to look at quantum systems in ways that current microscopes cannot. Applying these techniques to study defects in materials — where a perfect crystal lattice is disrupted by one or more anomalous atoms — could lead to improvements in quantum computer performance or the discovery of new Physics.

“Everyone in the world is trying to make a quantum computer, but we don’t really have good diagnostics for what all the quantum systems are inside of a material,” Brar says. “One goal with this microscope is to figure out what’s in a material that could interfere with a quantum computer.”

Additionally, Brar hopes that by applying this technique to complex materials, new particles may be identified and studied. For example, many particle physics discoveries, such as the Higgs boson and the positron, have been first theorized based on materials science research and repurposed into high energy physics experiments.

“At CERN, for example, they try to get to higher and higher energies to see particles, and at some point CERN just can’t get high enough,” Brar explains. “But in a material, you can get analogous particles for what CERN scientists are looking for but at much lower energies. There are particles that we’ve never seen outside of a material, but we can see them in a material, and those are the kinds of things that we’d ideally like to study.”

Images of quantum defects embedded in the atomic lattice of tungsten diselenide (credit: Victor Brar)

The technique that Brar is developing combines optical and electron microscopy, two methods he worked on as a graduate student and post-doc. By bringing them together now, he hopes that his unique method will bring significant advances to his field — and that the Sloan Fellowship indicates that other scientists agree.

“The Sloan award has a history behind it, and they have a track record of funding good science,” Brar says. “So, it means a lot to be recognized by Sloan and I hope it will help when we start to try to make our case for why this method is important.”

The Sloan Research Fellowship is open to early-career scientists in one of eight fields, including physics. More than 1000 researchers are nominated each year for 128 fellowship slots. Winners receive a two-year, $75,000 fellowship which can be spent to advance the fellow’s research.

“Prof. Victor Brar winning the Sloan Foundation Fellowship is a very welcome recognition,” says Sridhara Dasu, chair of the UW–Madison physics department. “For decades now, the Sloan Fellowship is a highly sought-after honor amongst young scientists, and it is wonderful to note that our enthusiasm and confidence in Prof. Brar’s research prowess is recognized by an international panel selecting the Sloan Fellows.”

Deniz Yavuz announced as Vilas Associate

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The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education has announced 23 faculty winners of the Vilas Associates Competition, including physics professor Deniz Yavuz. The Vilas Associates Competition recognizes new and ongoing research of the highest quality and significance.

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 both summers 2021 and 2022, 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.

IceCube Collaboration awarded 2021 Rossi Prize

The 2021 Bruno Rossi Prize was awarded to Francis Halzen and the IceCube Collaboration “for the discovery of a high-energy neutrino flux of astrophysical origin.”

The Bruno Rossi Prize is awarded annually by the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society. The 2021 HEAD awards were announced last night at the 237th AAS Meeting, which is being held virtually. Named after Italian experimental physicist Bruno Rossi—who made major contributions to particle physics and the study of cosmic rays, launched the field of X-ray astronomy, and discovered the first X-ray source, SCO X-1—the Rossi Prize is awarded “for a significant contribution to High Energy Astrophysics, with particular emphasis on recent, original work.”

The IceCube Collaboration is made up of over 300 researchers from 12 institutions in 53 countries. Halzen, the Hilldale and Gregory Breit Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is the principal investigator of IceCube. The international group maintains and operates the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a cubic kilometer of ice at the South Pole instrumented with optical sensors that can detect signals from high-energy neutrinos from outer space.

Read the full story at IceCube’s website

Pupa Gilbert elected Fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America

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Congrats to Prof. Pupa Gilbert on her election as a Fellow of the Mineralogical Society of America! Members who have contributed significantly to the advancement of mineralogy, crystallography, geochemistry, petrology, or allied sciences and whose scientific contribution utilized mineralogical studies or data, may be designated as Fellows upon proper accreditation by the Committee on Nomination for Fellows and election by the Council. The number of fellows elected each year cannot exceed 0.5% of MSA membership.

Fellows newly elected in 2020 are Jeffrey Catalano, Sylvie Demouchy, Pupa Gilbert, Jun-ichi Kimura, Othmar Muntener, Marc Norman, Alison Pawley, Mark Rivers, Ian Swainson, and Takashi Yoshino.

Full list of MSA Fellows

Mark Friesen promoted to Distinguished Scientist

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profile photo of Mark Friesen
Mark Friesen

Congratulations to Mark Friesen on his promotion to Distinguished Scientist! The distinguished title is the highest title available to an academic staff member at UW–Madison.

Friesen joined the physics department in 2004 as an associate scientist, and has been with UW–Madison since 1998, when he began a postdoc in the Materials Sciences and Engineering department. His main research effort at UW–Madison has been related to silicon quantum dot quantum computing, in collaboration with physics professors Mark Eriksson, Sue Coppersmith, Bob Joynt, Maxim Vavilov, and others.

Friesen says his most important achievement in the department is serving as a research advisor: In 16 years with UW–Madison physics, he has advised or co-advised six postdocs, 11 Ph.D. theses, four current Ph.D. students, two M.S. theses, and several undergraduate research projects. He also has 123 peer-reviewed publications and five U.S. patents, and serves as a consultant for ColdQuanta, a quantum computing company.

“Mark is known around the world for his expertise in semiconductor-based quantum computing,” Mark Eriksson says. “He is especially well known for his calculations on how the band structure in silicon interacts with interfaces to determine the quantum states for electrons in silicon-based quantum devices.”

Congrats, Mark Friesen, on this well-deserved honor!

High Energy Physics group awarded three grants totaling over $14 million

a woman in a helmet wearing a disposable facemask stands in front of lots of metal hardware and wires
a woman in a helmet wearing a disposable facemask stands in front of lots of metal hardware and wires
HEP post-doc Dr. Camilla Galloni next to the CMS end cap supporting the GEM detectors that were installed this fall. The primary structure in this photo was engineered at the UW–Madison Physical Sciences Lab. The big CSC chambers were installed, upgraded and reinstalled and operated by UW physicists. The smaller GEM chambers, which are barely visible in the interstices, are being commissioned by UW–Madison physicists through the second grant mentioned in this post.

The High Energy Physics (HEP) group at UW–Madison, which broadly focuses on identifying and understanding the fundamental aspects of particles and forces in Nature, has been awarded three significant grants in 2020. The grants — two from the Department of Energy (DOE) and one from the National Science Foundation (NSF) — are awarded either directly to UW–Madison or indirectly through multi-institution international collaborations, bringing over $14 million to the department.

The first grant, $7.37 million from DOE, funds research that is expected to help physicists understand how our Universe works at its most fundamental level. At UW­–Madison, this research includes experimental and theoretical studies into topics such as using the Higgs boson as a tool for new discoveries and identifying principles of dark matter.

The grant will fund five areas of research: 1) studies of high energy proton-proton collisions; 2) studies of neutrino interactions; 3) studies of super-weak signals from galactic dark matter particles; 4) wide-area imaging surveys using powerful new telescopes; and 5) computational and mathematical methods of quantum field theory and string theory.

Sridhara Dasu is principal investigator on this DOE grant. Co-investigators include Yang Bai, Vernon Barger, Keith Bechtol, Kevin Black, Tulika Bose, Lisa Everett, Matthew Herndon, Kimberly Palladino, Brian Rebel, Gary Shiu, Jennifer Thomas (WIPAC), and Sau Lan Wu. The grant was awarded in June 2020 and provides funding through March 2023.

The other two grants awarded will provide funding for upgrades to the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) project at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The first is an NSF-funded grant for which Kevin Black is leading the UW–Madison effort to upgrade the CMS End Cap muon system upgrade. The $900,000 to the department is part of a larger multi-institutional grant through Cornell University and runs through 2025.

“The GEM detectors are novel micropattern gas detectors which can handle the high background rates expected in the end-cap muon detectors. They will enhance the triggering and reconstruction of forward muons which are expected to make significant improvements and increased acceptance to search for new particles and make precision measurements of known particles and interactions,” Black explains. “UW has a long history with CMS muon system with Prof Matt Herndon, Senior Emeritus Scientist Dick Loveless, and Senior Scientist Armando Lanaro leading to the design, construction, operation, and upgrade of the other end-cap subdetector system instrumented with Cathode Strip Chambers.”

The other CMS-specific grant is a four-year, $5.3 million DOE grant through Fermilab that will fund the CMS trigger upgrade. This funding will allow the UW–Madison CMS group to perform all aspects of the work involved in design, prototyping, qualification, production and validation of the calorimeter trigger system for the upgrade. When completed, the project is expected to result in the collection of 25 times more data than is currently possible. Sridhara Dasu is the principal investigator of this grant.

Ellen Zweibel elected AAAS Fellow

Congrats to Astronomy and Physics professor Ellen Zweibel on her election as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was elected “for distinguished contributions to quantify the role of magnetic fields in shaping the cosmos on all scales.” Read the full story about all six UW–Madison faculty who earned this honor.