Haddie McLean earns Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award

This post is adapted from one originally published by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research

profile photo of Haddie McLean
Haddie McLean

Haddie McLean, who is inspiring the next generation of scientists with The Wonders of Physics, has received the Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award.

The award, in its second year, recognizes a UW–Madison faculty and academic staff member (one awarded to each category) who has shown excellence in engaging the public in their work in STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math). Botany professor Simon Gilroy won in the faculty category.

McLean is a UW–Madison alumna with a Bachelor of Science in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. She spent over 20 years working as a meteorologist at WISC-TV in Madison, where she honed her science communication skills in front of the camera every day and earned the trust of the public. She joined the Department of Physics in August 2021 as an Outreach Specialist to present The Wonders of Physics traveling show to schools and community groups around the state.

In October 2023, she was promoted to Outreach Program Manager. In her new role, McLean oversees all aspects of The Wonders of Physics outreach program, including the large annual show on campus every February, the traveling show, and securing funding to train undergraduates in the best practices of science communication to broad audiences and expand the program.

McLean’s nominator explains, “Importantly, she shares the science behind the demos — it’s not magic, it’s physics! One of the biggest improvements Haddie has made to The Wonders of Physics is the incorporation of leave-behind kits. These kits, developed with a colleague who is a former high school physics teacher, provide inquiry-based activities related to the show, which help reinforce concepts and allow for more active learning.”

McLean is constantly developing new demos and builds most of them herself with inexpensive items, proving that science outreach doesn’t have to be pricey to be effective. She also collaborates with department outreach staff to create new exhibits for the Ingersoll Physics Museum.

a woman on the left of a stage and Bucky Badger on the right look toward the audience, pictured to the left of the photo, to recruit volunteers
Haddie McLean and Bucky Badger hype up the crowd during the 40th year of The Wonders of Physics. (Photo by Taylor Wolfram / UW–Madison)

For the glass-themed 2022 WiSciFest, McLean created a “walking on broken glass” demo for a live performance on State Street. She broke and tumbled dozens of glass bottles, then filled a plastic tub with them. She first showed that the glass was sharp enough to pop a balloon, then she stepped into the tub. In a glass walk, the weight of your body is spread out over lots of pieces, which have the freedom to move. When you step on a single sliver of glass, your weight is concentrated over that one sharp point.

The audience for the Wonders of Physics shows is, as McLean says, “from pre-K to grey.” She adjusts the contents of her shows for any age and any level of familiarity with physics. She does this by relating physics to real-life concepts, showing her audience how they use physics every day and making sure that everyone knows they, too, can be a scientist if they observe and ask questions.

In addition to performance-based shows, Haddie has partnered with 4-H, UW Extension and many statewide partners to reach under-resourced communities across the state. In two years, she has visited over one-third of Wisconsin counties.

She is a strong partner of the PEOPLE program, developing summer courses for PEOPLE Summer University and traveling to Milwaukee public schools that serve PEOPLE students.

“By meeting students where they are,” her nominator says, “Haddie shows anyone that they, too, can be a physicist.”

The award is named for Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, emeritus professor of chemistry and the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea, in honor of his “Science is Fun” philosophy and long-term commitment to science education and public engagement. Shakhashiri joined the UW faculty in September of 1970 and retired in September 2021.

“Science and society have what is essentially a social contract that enables great intellectual achievements but comes with mutual expectations of benefiting the human condition and protecting our Planet,” says Shakhashiri.

The Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award is supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the Morgridge Institute for Research and UW–Madison’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

WIPAC, UW–Madison Physics Department host after-school program

Last week, 23 participants and their family members gathered for an evening of presentations and cake as part of IceCube After School, an eight-week program hosted by the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC). Since 2013, the annual program introduces local high school students to WIPAC research and the people who make it possible. For [...]

Read the full article at: https://wipac.wisc.edu/wipac-uw-madison-physics-department-host-after-school-program/

Big discoveries, lofty goals highlight astronomy Investiture panel

a group of 5 people stand in front of a screen that is showing an artist's rendering of the Milky Way

This story was originally published by University Communications as part of their coverage of Chancellor Mnookin’s Investiture

A group of astronomers and physicists, including Physics professor Francis Halzen, shared the stories behind their groundbreaking discoveries and lofty goals before a packed house gathered at University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Marquee Theater on Thursday to celebrate the Investiture of Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin.

The scientists included UW–Madison professors Francis Halzen and Susanna Widicus Weaver, as well as Andrea Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and good friend of Chancellor Mnookin. The symposium was titled “Discovery Past, Present, and Future: Black Holes, Neutrinos, and Life in our Galaxy.”

The friendship between Mnookin and Ghez goes back more than 15 years and is filled with fond memories, among them a champagne toast they shared in Ghez’s backyard to mark her winning the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. An attorney with a skill for interpreting legalese, Mnookin ensured the celebratory moment would conform with California’s emergency public health rules during the first winter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the things I love about Chancellor Mnookin is she is a problem solver,” said Ghez, who shared the 2020 prize for the discovery of a supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Ghez recounted the scientific principles, theories and observations that led to the discovery in a talk that reveled in the surprise of the scientific process — a process that is increasingly enabled by new technologies.

“What’s so fun about what I call ‘technology-enabled discovery’ is that almost everything we’ve been able to look at in the center of the galaxy and its environment is inconsistent with the predictions,” Ghez said. “I like to call that either job security or being a kid in a candy shop.”

The rise of new technologies to help answer fundamental questions about the universe was a common theme among the three panelists, who were introduced by Dean Eric Wilcots of the College of Letters & Science and an astronomer himself.

Halzen described the massive telescope built deep within the ice at UW’s IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole that has enabled the detection of neutrinos, along with plans for an ice-encased observatory 10 times its size. The ghostly particles zip across the universe unimpeded from high-energy sources like the supermassive black holes now believed to be at the center of virtually all large galaxies.

And Widicus Weaver recounted her work hunting for the chemical signatures that might help identify habitable exoplanets — research that has received a massive boost from the James Webb Space Telescope, which began its science mission less than a year ago.

The discussion began with a history lesson provided by Wilcots, who shared the story of Karl Jansky.

A 1927 graduate of UW–Madison who was known at the time as “the fastest skater on the Wisconsin hockey team,” Jansky went on to work for Bell Laboratories. There he sought to understand the sources of static and radio interference — work that eventually led Jansky to observe a major source of radio interference emanating from the constellation of Sagittarius. Decades later, Ghez discovered the likely source — the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

Jansky’s observations “effectively started the field of radio astronomy,” Wilcots said, noting UW–Madison’s prominent and ongoing contributions to the field via scientists like Halzen, Widicus Weaver and their many colleagues.

The contributions are in their own ways manifestations of the Wisconsin Idea, Mnookin said in her opening remarks.

“When we talk about the Wisconsin Idea and our impact beyond the borders of our campus, it is awesome to think that there are people in our midst pushing that line beyond our planet, our solar system and even our galaxy,” she said.

The Wonders of Physics celebrates 40 seasons

bucky badger, the mascot, shakes hands with a man in a tuxedo

The Wonders of Physics shows in Chamberlin Hall, Feb 11-12 and Feb 18-19, kept the audience riveted with scientific experiments that demonstrated physics principles with panache. It also was a landmark show of sorts, as Professor Clint Sprott handed over control to Haddie McLean in the show’s 40th year. The show aims to to generate interest in physics among people of all ages and backgrounds.

View the photo essay of the 2023 show

Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science!

a collage of women, some profile pictures and some with their research equipment

February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and we’re more than happy to showcase some of our women physicists! We collected photos from women in the department, which you can see in a collage above. Some women also chose to share a bit about their research and/or what being a woman in science and woman in physics means to them. Those quotes are below.

Abby Warden, graduate student

My name is Abby Warden, a 5th year graduate student working in experimental high energy physics. My current work includes assembling Gas Electron Multiplier (GEM) chambers for electronics testing. GEMs are the newest muon sub detector that will be installed in the general particle detector, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS).

Dr. Camilla Galloni, Post-doc 

Seen some muons? Working on the muon detector of the CMS experiment: GE11 installed in 2020 and successfully operated is the precursor of the GE21 and ME0 detectors now being constructed for the high luminosity LHC upgrade. This big “camera” takes “snapshots” of particles produced in high energy proton collisions and helps understand the fundamental interactions of nature.

Elise Chavez, graduate student

I’ve always been drawn to figuring out how the world works and it led me to my research and passion of learning how the universe works fundamentally at the subatomic level. I work with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) that lies along the Large Hadron Colider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva. Being a woman in physics is a strange duality. There are times when I feel empowered and times I feel very small. It is strength, confidence, and understanding, but it is also alienating, discouraging, and conflicting. It has taught me a lot about people and myself. It gave me a passion to help and support women and minorities in physics because it is for everyone. Diversity is what helps discovery thrive and I hope one day that it can be solely an uplifting experience.

Dr. Charis Koraka, post-doc

Curiosity, along with kindness and compassion are some of the greatest human qualities and those that make societies prosper. The quest of understanding the laws and properties of the universe, has always been a driving source and what made me turn to physics. With perseverance, nothing is impossible!

Wren Vetens, graduate student

My experience as a woman in physics has been marked by perseverance, community, and solidarity. There is still much to be done to achieve equality within the field of physics but we can do our part by standing up for and supporting each other, especially supporting our juniors and those who are disabled, LGBTQ+, and/or POC. I chose physics because I am compelled to always look deeper when I have questions about the nature of life, the universe, and everything. The very same drive that led me to study Physics also led me to coming to terms with my own identity as a queer person, nonbinary person, and transgender woman. Suffice to say, I would not be who I am today without physics or without my gender, and really the two are simply manifestations of that drive. I am currently wrapping up my PhD in experimental particle physics as a part of the CMS collaboration and hoping to graduate this year. My research topic is a search for the unique signature of a long-lived composite particle made of six quarks, which could in principle be produced at the LHC and detected with the CMS detector.

Prof. Tulika Bose

I am an experimental particle physicist working on the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. I love being part of a large international physics collaboration looking to answer some of the most fundamental questions in physics today – what is responsible for dark matter ? What is the matter-antimatter asymmetry in our universe due to ? Are there new exotic particles out there ? We try to answer these questions using our detector, cutting-edge instrumentation, modern software (incorporating Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning) and high-performance computing!

(for a video describing Prof. Bose’s work, please see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7Kzx2xZFdc)

Prof. Ellen Zweibel

I study plasma astrophysics: how electric and magnetic fields interact with charged particles in astrophysical systems. This is an incredibly broad field and I enjoy all of it  –  how sunspots and solar flares work, how a single proton can acquire the energy of a hard hit tennis ball, and what the blotchy rings imaged around supermassive black holes are really telling us, to give just a few examples.

Having the time and capacity to study these things has been an incredible privilege. I’m grateful to my parents, who thought my mind was worth developing, and to  my many wonderful teachers, colleagues, and students – I hope I do as well by them as they did and do by me. I’m grateful to the social infrastructure that gave me food, water, and shelter, cured my illnesses, and allowed me reproductive freedom of choice so I could become a person who lives her dreams.

Haddie McLean, outreach specialist

I love that my job allows me to bring physics to children, our next generation of scientists. I want to show them that physics is fun and it’s for everyone. I hope to inspire them to pursue a career in science.

UW–Madison celebrates the first World Quantum Day, April 14

Even quantum physicists do not understand quantum physics, or so the saying* goes.

“The worst grade I ever got in any class was my first quarter of quantum mechanics, because it just was weird and I didn’t understand it and I couldn’t get my head around it,” says Shimon Kolkowitz, a UW­­–Madison physics professor with the Wisconsin Quantum Institute (WQI), who now conducts research in quantum sensing. “It is something you develop some kind of feeling and intuition for over time, so it’s my personal feeling, and the feeling of many, that it’s important to start exposing people to these concepts much earlier [than in college].”

Quantum science is weird because it explains the workings of our world at the sub-atomic level. The classical physical world we experience and understand — the predictable trajectory of a baseball in the air or the Earth rotating around the sun — breaks down at these tiny scales.

Understand it or not, quantum science is here to stay.

“Quantum science is a rapidly-growing area of research and industry, and it’s going to have a number of major impacts on any number of different areas of commerce,” Kolkowitz says. “There’s a huge need to train a growing quantum workforce that can participate in, engage with, and develop these new technologies.”

a black image that says laser star on the left, LED star in the middle, and UV light star on the right. The left "star" is completely black, the middle star is glowing a faint green, and the right star is glowing the brightest
QuanTime kits include a set of light sources and glow-in-the-dark stars. When participants shine different lights at the stars and observe the differences, they are learning about how light manipulates electrons.

The first-ever World Quantum Day, to be celebrated annually on April 14, is an international, community driven event to spark interest and generate enthusiasm for quantum mechanics. A goal of World Quantum Day is to promote public awareness of the positive impact quantum science has had and will have on society. [The date is taken from Planck’s constant, 4.14 * 10-15 eV · s, a value that is used in many quantum mechanics equations.]

“It’s a day to engage people in quantum science and let them know what is going on in current research, but it’s also a chance to demystify and make quantum science more accessible and available,” says Mallory Conlon, a quantum science outreach coordinator at UW–Madison.

Conlon is working with QuanTime, an educational initiative developed by leading quantum institutions to introduce quantum activities to middle and high school students. Anyone can play QuanTime’s online games, where they will learn about principals such as entanglement and superposition. There is even a quantum chess game.

a black and white coloring book-like image with quantum images, made to be colored in
Physics grad student and artist Aedan Gardill created this coloring page for WQD.

“We also have Wonders of Quantum Physics electron transition kits, and we’re sending out nearly 1000 kits to classrooms across the country,” Conlon says. “It’s an inquiry-based activity where participants learn how we can use light to manipulate atoms and electrons, which is really the underpinnings of how quantum computers work.”

The physics department and WQI will also be celebrating WQD by highlighting several quantum science researchers and sharing the top five quantum stories from the past year on social media. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram (both @UWMadPhysics) to learn more about the exciting quantum research being done at UW–Madison.

There is also a WQD coloring page made by physics grad student Aedan Gardill available for download.

UW–Madison and WQI are members of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, the NSF-funded Quantum Leap Challenge Institute HQAN, and the Department of Energy’s National Quantum Information Science (QIS) Research Center Q-NEXT, three collaborative efforts that are advancing quantum information science and engineering, especially in Great Lakes region. Learn more about the research happening across our collaborations by searching #MidwestQuantum on social media.

* Borrowed from quantum physicist Richard Feynman’s quote: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

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.

Chicago State University students gain quantum experience through HQAN summer internships

profile photos of Anosh Wasker, Dominique Newell, Gabrielle Jones-Hall, and Ryan Stempek

This story was adapted from one originally published by HQAN

Over the past summer, the NSF Quantum Leap Challenge Institute for Hybrid Quantum Architectures and Networks (HQAN) offered a 12-week “Research Experiences for CSU Students” internship opportunity that provided students and recent graduates from Chicago State University (CSU) with virtual research experiences addressing quantum science topics. In an August 20 online poster session, students presented the results of their summer projects to HQAN’s university and industry partners.

Mallory Conlon, HQAN’s outreach program coordinator and the quantum science outreach program coordinator with the UW–Madison department of physics, explained that this year’s program was the pilot offering. “We wanted to make sure we had the support and activity structures right before expanding this to more [minority serving institutions] (MSIs) and other underrepresented groups across the Midwest. We’re currently evaluating the program and aim to develop an expanded internship for summer 2022.” For the pilot, CSU was chosen as the sole participating MSI because of its proximity to the University of Chicago (one of HQAN’s three university partners), and because of HQAN staff connections to CSU.

The posters presented on August 20 included Anosh Wasker’s “Quantum Games for Pedagogy” (advised by Russell Ceballos of the Chicago Quantum Exchange); Dominique Newell’s “Super-Resolution Microscopy Using Nitrogen Vacancy Centers in Diamond to Analyze the Optical Near Field Diffraction Limit” (advised by Shimon Kolkowitz of the University of Wisconsin–Madison); Gabrielle Jones-Hall’s “Demonstrating Entanglement” (advised by Paul Kwiat of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC)); and Ryan Stempek’s “Quantum vs. Classical Boltzmann Machines for Learning a Quantum Circuit” (advised by Bryan Clark of UIUC).

Wasker is pursuing a Master’s at CSU; his long-term goals are to go for a PhD and then work in industry. Over the summer, he developed an air-hockey-inspired computer game that teaches players some of the counterintuitive concepts involved in quantum—particularly the Hong-Ou-Mandel (HOM) effect. He says he’s passionate about quantum science and has noticed that many opportunities are coming up in the field, but that it’s difficult for people to find “access points” into learning about this intimidating topic so that they can seize those opportunities. His summer project was inspired by his belief that learning through play is a powerful way to gain understanding.

Newell recently graduated from CSU with a BS in physics, with a minor in chemistry. She spent the summer studying the propagation of light through a laser beam that travels through a nitrogen vacancy center in diamond, as observed through a confocal microscope. The goal was to locate the zero intensity points above and below the focal plane of a Gaussian beam by using its own electromagnetic field.

Jones-Hall is now in graduate school at Mississippi Valley State University. She’s working towards a Master’s in Bioinformatics but plans to return to quantum after completing that degree, so her internship project—which worked on developing a quantum-themed escape room designed to teach players the concept of quantum entanglement—will be relevant to her later work.

Stempek will graduate in December with a Master’s in computer science and then work in industry. His summer project aimed to show that a quantum Restricted Boltzmann Machine (Q-RBM) has the potential to learn the probability distribution over a set of inputs more accurately than a classical RBM (C-RBM) can for the same circuit. He says the internship was a great opportunity for him to further build his Python skills and problem-solve through the ups and downs of research. “[It] was really beneficial,” he says, “and actually, moving into industry, I feel that I’ll have a greater sense of self-confidence… It was a great experience!”

HQAN is a partnership among the University of Chicago, UIUC, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is funded by the National Science Foundation.

The Wonders of Physics ready to hit the road

The Wonders of Physics traveling show is back! After a five-year hiatus, the department is pleased to announce that we have hired a full-time outreach specialist and restarted the program.

profile photo of Haddie McLean
Haddie McLean

Haddie McLean, a former meteorologist with WISC-TV / Channel 3 in Madison, began her new role as the Wonders of Physics outreach coordinator on August 9. After a 21-year TV career, McLean says she was looking for a new challenge — and any job that didn’t require her to wake up at 2am was just a bonus.

“I love talking to people about science. And I love seeing kids’ faces light up when they understand a topic or when they learn something new,” McLean says. “I was able to do a little bit of that in my job in TV. But in this position, I’ll get to do a ton more, and that’s what drew me to it.”

McLean’s primary role with The Wonders of Physics will be to further develop and perform the traveling show. She will also play a lead role in the development and performance of the annual shows in February, as well as participating in science outreach events and connecting with Wisconsin science teachers.

The Wonders of Physics traveling show started in the late 1980s as an offshoot of The Wonders of Physics annual shows, which first ran in 1984. Two graduate students at the time, David Newman and Christopher Watts, approached Prof. Clint Sprott — the creator of The Wonders of Physics — and suggested that they take the show on the road.

Over the years, The Wonders of Physics traveling show has gone from an all-volunteer, graduate student-led effort to one that has employed part- or full-time outreach specialists. Past funding has been provided by NSF and DOE. Now, thanks to the support of generous donors — including a successful Day of the Badger fundraising campaign — the department expects that the traveling show will be run by a full-time staff member for years to come.

“I’d like to make this show accessible to all ages, all walks of life,” McLean says. “I’d like to hit all areas of the state, if possible, and bring the university to the kids that wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to experience all that our campus has to offer.”

McLean is already busy prepping the show and hopes to be in schools by late fall 2021 (if university and school district COVID-19 policies permit it). She expects to have a general show available that is as hands-on and interactive as possible. She also plans to make the show customizable as needed, where she can work with teachers to focus the performance on the specific areas of physics that they are teaching at the time.

“My hope for the traveling show is that it’s fun and engaging, gets kids excited, and helps spark an interest in the next generation of scientists,” McLean says.

Sprott, now an emeritus professor with the department who still stars in the annual shows each February, is enthusiastic that McLean will be involved in those shows and that she is reviving the traveling show.

“After several difficult years, I’m delighted that Haddie McLean has joined us to head the Department’s nearly 40-year tradition of physics outreach and public education for people of all ages throughout Wisconsin and beyond,” Sprott says.

Anyone interested in scheduling The Wonders of Physics traveling show can email wonders@physics.wisc.edu or visit wonders.physics.wisc.edu for more information.

The shows are free of charge, but donations are encouraged.

Related: See the winning entries from The Wonders of Physics 2021 video contest!