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Department of Physics Newsletter

 A Guide to GW Physics News and Events

Winter 2012

Message from the Chair

SCALE-UP Physics

Welcome Dr. Alessandra Corsi

Welcome Dr. Evangeline Downie

NSF career award

Department News

Alumni News

Parke's Puzzler

Thank you to our Donors

Upcoming Events
Frances E. Walker Lecture Series: Dr Chryssa Kouveliotou
Thursday, Jan 17, 2012 4 pm
Corcoran Hall 101

Barry Berman Memoral Lecture Series: Professor John Boone
Apr 25, 2013, 4 pm
Corcoran Hall 104

Congratulations to the 2012 Bachelor's degree graduates in Physics/Biophysics:

  • Jordan Farber
  • Junaid Ghauri
  • Nathan Huffer
  • Tiffany Lewis
  • Samuel Lipschutz
  • William Smith
  • Ryan Varricchio

Congratulations to the 2012 Master's degree graduates:
  • Hina Ayub
  • Yuzhong Chen
  • Chenghang Du
  • Ashwin Shenoy

Congratulations to the 2012 PhD graduates:
  • Tutun Harsono
  • Yoshihisa Ishizuka
  • Hideko Iwamoto
  • Katherine Myers
  • Carl Pearson
  • Jianwei Sun
  • Wenjing Yang
  • Nicholas Zachariou

Message from the Chair

Dear Friends and Collegues of the George Washington University Department of Physics!

I am delighted to report to you that the Department is growing in the following exciting ways:
  • We have nearly 50 undergraduate students majoring in physics or biophysics.
  • We had the largest incoming class of graduate students in memory.
  • Three new faculty members have joined the Department since the last newsletter of December 2011.
In response to the large number of grad students and new postdocs being hired by faculty, we converted a computer lab room into office space for the newcomers.  The physics and biophysics majors have a room in Samson Hall that is dedicated for their use as a study-hall.  We also have a new studio-style room for the labs associated with Astronomy-1001 and -1002.  Please stop by and ask for a tour the next time you are in
the area.

The GW administration, with input from faculty working groups, has formulated a new Strategic Plan to take the University into the next decade and submitted the plan to the Board of Trustees for their approval.  It is an aspirational plan with many areas in which the Physics Department can contribute and grow.  With that exercise nearing completion the Department is beginning work on its own ten year Strategic Plan that will build on our strengthes in research and teaching.

The Frances E. Walker Lecture Series, part of the Walker Endowment to support programs that encourage and increase the participation of women in physics, will have its inaugural speaker on January 17.  The speaker will be Dr Chryssa Kouvelioutou, an astrophysicist at the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville Alabama.  Dr Kouvelioutou will visit with our female undergraduate students and give a colloquium to the Department.

We invite you to communicate with us with your stories and anecdotes about your time in our Department. (You can reach me at

New Teaching Method in Physics

Teaching in the SCALE-UP Mode Great teaching has long been a hallmark of the Physics Department, but, at GW and at other places like MIT and the University of Colorado, benchmark testing has shown that students sometimes understand less after taking an introductory physics course than they did before taking the course. In response, our faculty, starting with Cornelius Bennhold and Jerry Feldman, have kept a close watch on the latest advances in Physics Education Research (called PER by those in the field) to see what is being done to help introductory students develop a deeper understanding of the physics they are being taught even as they learn to solve complex problems. With that in mind, a major shift in our teaching practice for the introductory students occurred in 2008 with the addition of SCALE-UP pedagogy to our calculus based sequence.

SCALE-UP is Student-Centered Active Learning and Environment for Undergraduate Programs. This development follows the approach of studio-physics, started at RPI to create a classroom of students more actively engaged in learning than in a typical lecture. Robert Beichner at NC State University pioneered SCALE-UP to bring active engagement to classes as large as 100 students. Interactive engagement was developed to increase the level of understanding, so that students know and understand more rather than less after taking our physics courses.
How does it work? A typical SCALE-UP class relies on the students taking responsibility for their learning. For example, readings are assigned, and the content and derivations from the readings are not repeated in the classroom. Rather, a series of structured items, theoretical (ponderables) and hands-on (tangibles) are presented to the students for work in groups of three. In a classroom designed to optimize learning, three groups sit at a table. With nine tables in the room we can teach up to 81 students at a time in this way. Once the students have completed an exercise, which are usually designed to elicit common misconceptions or to give practice in working problems, there is a short discussion to review the ideas learned. The classes meet in two 2-hour session and one 1-hour session each week, and typically ¾ or more of that class time is spent with the students working, learning, discussing, and presenting rather than listening to one of us faculty lecturing. Labs are integrated into the course with the foundational material that they support in order the bring the students from model-building to the experimental investigation of the great ideas of physics.
Does it work? In a word, yes. While many students are initially uncomfortable with being put on the spot and with having to work and show their knowledge in each class period, most adapt and appreciate the opportunity to work closely with the professor and teaching assistants. A typical 81-student class is led by a professor and two, well-trained teaching assistants. Misunderstandings of physics are addressed as they arise and not at some later time close to the midterm or final exam. Students in SCALE-UP have typically (but not always) outperformed those in the parallel lecture section on exams and on nationally certified benchmarks of conceptual understanding such as the Force Concept Inventory. Indeed our students are moving forward in their understanding of physics and in their enthusiasm for learning the subject that inspires all of us.
Where do we go from here? SCALE-UP implementation has been so successful that starting in January of 2013, there will be no introductory physics classes taught in the traditional lecture mode. Also, the biology department is replicating our SCALE-UP experiment for themselves by teaching an 81-student section in our specially-designed classroom to go head-to-head with their other lecture sections. We anticipate a successful launch for them as we help our colleagues reach our students with a deeper understanding of the science they are learning. If you are interested, feel free to stop by Monroe 111 and visit a SCALE-UP class in action. We are already on the tour for prospective freshman, and we welcome our friends of the department to visit the SCALE-UP classroom as well.  

New Faculty Member: Dr. Alessandra Corsi
Observational Astrophysics

Professor Alessandra Corsi received her Laurea in Physics in 2003 from the University of Rome “Sapienza”, from which she also earned her Ph.D in Astronomy (2007) working primarily at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome (INAF/IASF-Rome). In 2008, she was awarded a " L’Oreal UNESCO National Fellowship “For Women in Science”.  Between 2008 and 2010, Professor Corsi worked as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Rome “Sapienza”, and as a visiting post-doctoral associate in the Astronomy Department of the Pennsylvania State University. Later on (2010-2012), she was a post-doctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology.  

Professor Corsi’s primary interest is the physics of gamma-ray bursts - powerful stellar explosions in the Universe - and their relation to supernovae and neutron stars.  She will work in collaboration with the Astrophysics group at the GWU, using panchromatic observations (radio through X-rays) to understand the physics of these spectacular astrophysical sources.  Professor Corsi’s work spans several aspects of the phenomenology of gamma-ray bursts, including the analysis and modeling of their broad-band afterglow, the study of their GeV emission, and the mystery of their relation with core-collapse supernovae. 

Last but not least, Professor Corsi seeks to clarify the nature of gamma-ray burst progenitors using multi-messenger studies. In fact, her work bridges two different worlds: the one of ‘’traditional astronomy’’, where the sky is explored using photons as messengers of information, and the one of gravitational wave physics. Gravitational waves, ripples in space-time whose existence has been predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, have never been observed directly. Ground-based gravitational wave detectors like LIGO and Virgo are currently being upgraded to their advanced, more sensitive configurations, and will soon open a totally new view of the Universe. 

Professor Corsi’s research is motivated by the fascinating prospect of a future where the mysteries of the most powerful astrophysical sources will be clarified via the joint study of their electromagnetic and gravitational wave emission.

New Faculty Member: Dr. Evangeline Downie
Experimental Nuclear Physics

Professor Evangeline Downie joined GWU in January 2012 from the The Institut fuer Kernphysik of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany where she was a Carl Zeiss Research Fellow.  Her research focuses on the investigation of the nucleon: protons and neutrons, using photon beams. The majority of her research is carried out under the auspices of the A2 Collaboration, using the tagged photon beam derived from the Mainzer MIkrotron (MAMI) electron accelerator. 

Professor Downie focuses on a particular aspect of the nucleon: the measurement of nucleon polarisabilities.  Here one investigates how the nucleon responds to an electric or magnetic field.  Such measurements are often used in solid state physics to characterize materials but it is somewhat more complicated to perform these measurements on nucleons.  We provide the electric and magnetic fields using photon beams which we scatter off protons, in the form of a liquid hydrogen or frozen spin polarized targets, in the process known as Compton Scattering. The scattering distribution, and the changes in the scattering distribution which result from using a polarized photon beam and/or a polarized target, allow the extraction of the polarisabilities of the proton.  Two of these quantities have been previously measured but the A2 Collaboration aims to extract the remaining four polarisabilities for the first time ever.

During summer 2012, Professor Downie & Professor William Briscoe took five GWU students to Germany for the summer to work on various projects within the A2 Collaboration.  Jeremy Hare worked on a source calibration of the Crystal Ball Detector, Mathew Mehrian on software development for  the new Time Projection Chamber to be built in Mainz, Johee Chung on simulations of neutral pion production on the deuteron, Alexey Strakovsky on conversion of a hardware control system to run on new CPUs under Linux, and Jonathan Keypour on hardware tests under cryogenic conditions for the new Active Polarized Target that Professor Downie is developing to improve experiments that require polarized targets.

Read more.


Congratulations to Professor Andrei Alexandru for being awarded a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant from the National Science Foundation.  The grant will support his research and educational activities for five years.  Here's the title and abstract of his project:

“Nuclear Physics from Lattice QCD in the Chiral Regime”

A primary challenge of Nuclear Physics today is to understand the internal structure of hadrons and their complex interactions as they emerge from Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD), the fundamental theory of the strong force. The objective of this proposal is to explore the effects of chiral dynamics on hadron spectra and structure. In particular, Professor Alexandru will focus on electromagnetic polarizabilites, the masses of the lightest hadrons, and the behavior of dense nuclear matter at high temperature. To investigate the properties of quarks in the energy region where hadrons are the dominant excitations, he will use a numerical approach, lattice QCD.

On the educational side, he is developing a seminar series, “Modern Physics for Science Teachers” and an undergraduate “Computational Physics” course. The seminars will be designed to help teachers connect the K-12 science curriculum to modern physics research. The seminar series will constitute a valuable educational opportunity to science teachers and local K-12 students, in a area where the socio-economic and educational indicators are particularly low.

From a broader perspective, this proposal is part of an effort to understand the properties of visible matter in the universe.  Complementing a rigorous experimental effort, his research  explores the properties of nuclear particles as predicted by QCD. This will help answer questions relating to the composition of the early universe, exotic phases of matter inside neutron stars, charge distributions inside hadrons, origin of nuclear forces, etc. A significant part of his research involves developing numerical methods for QCD that exploit the tremendous computing power of graphics cards (GPUs).  The expertise gained in using GPUs to solve nuclear physics problems will have direct applicability to all scientific and engineering fields that use finite-difference methods

Department News
In July 2012 Glen Maclachlan published a  Letter in the MNRAS : 
Minimum Variability Time Scales and Pulse Parameters of GRBs --
G. A. MacLachlan, A. Shenoy, E. Sonbas, K. S. Dhuga, A. Eskandarian, L. C. Maximon, and W. C. Parke; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters; July 2012.

Professor Kalvir Dhuga,  Glen Maclachlan and Eda Sonbas (visiting from Turkey) presented 3 papers in the GRB2012 Conference in Munich, Germany.  As a result the astrophysics group has 3 publications in the proceedings.

The  astrophysics group has expanded their collaborative efforts to Include Jeff Scargle, a prominent astrophysicist (currently at NASA/Ames Research Center) who is internationally known for his analytical methods (based on Bayesian Statistics) for analyzing time-series.

Adam Hughes represented GW at the eleventh annual Scientific Computing with Python conference in Austin Texas in July.  He presented a poster on his dissertation research and gave a short talk at a bioinformatics symposium.

Samuel Lipschutz recevied the Parke Prize for Excellence in Theoretical Physics.

William Simth received the Peverley Prize for Undergraduate Research for 2012.

Rob Coyne won the American Association of Physics Teachers 2012 Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award.

Deepa Raghu received the Futterman
 Prize for Outstanding Biophysics Graduate Student of 2011/2012.

Nicholas Zachariou recieved the Barry Berman Award for Excellence in Experimental Physics for 2012.

Alumni News
Where are they now
Katherine Myers (Ph.D 2012) is a postdoctoral associate at Rutgers University.

Carl Pearson (Ph.D 2012) is at the University of Florida, Emerging Pathogens Institute.  He is a postdoctoral researcher on an Army Research Office grant to indentify clandestine social networks.

Wenjing Yang (Ph.D 2012) is a research fellow in National Institutes of Health.

Nicholas Zachariou (Ph.D 2012) is a postdoc in physics at University of South Carolina.  He is analyzing data from the g13 experiment that was carried out in Hall-B at the Thomas Jefferson Lab in Virgina.

Hina Ayub (M.S. 2012) is a Patent Examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office.  She examines and processes patent applications that pertain to the measurement and testing of optics.
Yuzhong Chen (M.S. 2012) is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Energy Engineering at Arizona State University, where he's doing research of Chaos dynamics and complex systems.

Nathan Huffer (B.S. 2012) is working as an analyst in the Department of Navy.  

Tiffany Lewis (B.S. 2012) is graduate student working toward her Ph.D in physics at George Mason University.  Her research is astrophysics. 

Samuel Lipschutz (B.S. 2012) is a graduate student at Michigan State University doing Nuclear Physics.

William Smith (B.S. 2012) is working toward a PhD in physics at Yale University.

Parke's Puzzler
Continuing our tradition, we present intellectual challenges for our Alumni and Friends, in the form of new physics problems posed by Professor Parke. The problems are invented to be both challenging and fun.

If you solve this problem and submit your solution to Kristin Quam, our Department Office Manager (  We will announce your success in our next newsletter.

There are limits to the speed of a relativistic rocket due to the cosmic background radiation. Suppose, to shield the body of a rocket from gamma rays, the front of the rocket is shaped into a long thin truncated cone, with a given base radius.  In the frame of the rocket going at a given speed relative to us, what is the minimum momentum transferred to the rocket per unit proper time due to the background radiation?

Thank you to our Donors
The Physics Department gratefully acknowledges the generous donors who have made gifts to the department over the years.   The list of donors is long so in our next newsletter, which will go out in June 2012, we will include a list of those people who have contributed to the support of our Department over the last few years.  Those gifts allow us to provide support for faculty and student research and travel, graduate student fellowships, and academic enrichment activities including guest speakers, visiting faculty.  

Gifts may be made to the Physics  Department or to one of the following funds:
  • The Physics Department Student Prize and Enhancement Fund
    Established by GW Physics Department faculty, with significant support from Professors Bennhold, Berman, and Parke, to reconize excellence in experimental research and theoretical research conducted by students, and to enhance the Department. 
  • The Cornelius and Friedrich Bennhold Scholarship in Physics Fund. 
    Established by family, friends, and colleagues of Professor Bennhold to support undergraduate students while they conduct a summer or semester of original research under the guidance of a GW physics professor.
  • The Barry Berman Lecture in Physics Fund. 
    Established by University of Maryland Professor Cedric Yu to inspire young people to study medical applications of physics by inviting nationally and internationally prominent scientists to speak on applying physics principles to medicine.

Each gift, no matter how large or small, makes a positive impact on our educational mission and furthers our standing as one of the nation's preeminent liberal arts colleges at one of the world's outstanding universities.  You may make a gift to the Department in a number of ways:
  • Securely online
  • By mailing your check, made out to The George Washington University and with the name of the department in the memo line, to:
             The George Washington University
             2100 M Street NW, Suite 310
             Washington, DC 20052
  • By phone by calling the GW Annual Fund at 18007892611.



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