Department of Physics

  • UAB graduate students receive Alabama EPSCoR Graduate Research Scholars Program Round 17 awards

    Five UAB graduate students received more than $118,000 in awards to strengthen graduate research projects.

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  • NSF award will boost UAB research in machine-learning-enabled plasma synthesis of novel materials

    The $20 million National Science Foundation award will help UAB and eight other Alabama-based universities build research infrastructure. UAB’s share will be about $2 million.

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  • More faculty share the stories behind their development grants

    Plant-based diets, biased language in the courts and the trouble with night lights: Recipients of 2022 Faculty Development Grant Program awards explain how they will use their funds.

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  • Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration partners in $20 million statewide effort funded by NSF

    Nine Alabama universities and one private firm are partnered in a new $20 million, five-year effort to develop transformative technologies in plasma science and engineering.

    Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., working with physics graduate student Chris Perreault.Nine Alabama universities and one private firm are partnered in a new $20 million, five-year effort led by the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) to develop transformative technologies in plasma science and engineering (PSE) funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

    The grant is entitled “Future Technologies enabled by Plasma Processes” (FTPP) and will be for a five-year duration (2022-2027) to explore plasma synthesized novel materials, surface modified biomaterials, food safety and sterilization, and space weather prediction.

    Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., associate dean for University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and professor university scholar in the Department of Physics, serves as a co-principal investigator and UAB’s Institutional lead for this statewide award. The UAB research team, led by Vohra, includes the following members from the UAB Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration (CNMB), which is based in CAS:

    Scott Snyder, Ph.D., professor in the UAB School of Education, will provide internal evaluation for this grant and will monitor management, statewide workforce issues, and internal projects.

    The grant will support two postdoctoral research scholars at UAB—along with several graduate students—who will work synergistically with other academic institutions and an industrial partner in this consortium. In addition, the grant offers the opportunity for faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars to take the laboratory-based pilot synthesis of novel materials to their full commercial potential.

    “The funding is the result of a team effort from the co-investigators in assembling the group, who generated the concepts and ideas underlying the proposal and executed the plan by writing a successful proposal,” said Gary Zank, Ph.D., FTPP’s principal investigator, director of UAH’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) and the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the Department of Space Science.

    Although different in aims, research goals, and scope from a previous $20 million NSF EPSCoR grant awarded in 2017, the new FTPP grant will continue to build plasma expertise, research, and industrial capacity, as well as a highly trained and capable plasma science and engineering workforce, across Alabama.

    Yogesh Vohra. “Plasma is the most abundant form of matter in the observable universe. PSE is a technological and scientific success story, translating advances in fundamental plasma science to technologies that address society’s needs,” said Vohra. “UAB’s role in this consortium is to develop future transformational technologies enabled by PSE including data-driven approaches in plasma synthesized high-entropy and quantum materials.”

    According to Vohra, the research team will employ machine learning techniques to speed up the process for materials discovery and guide the materials synthesis effort using microwave plasma chemical vapor deposition and plasmas generated by high-powered lasers. The plasma synthesized materials will be especially designed for their applicability in extreme environments, including elevated temperatures as well as thin-film superconductors which can be used in quantum information devices. An additional effort is devoted to plasma assisted metal nanoparticle deposition for their antimicrobial properties to be employed in biomedical devices for reduction in infection rates.

    Partnered with UAH and UAB are the University of Alabama (lead: Dr. R. Branam), Auburn University (lead: Dr. E. Thomas), Tuskegee University (lead: Dr. V. Rangari), the University of South Alabama (lead: Dr. E. Spencer), Alabama A&M University (lead: Dr. R. Mentreddy), Alabama State University (lead: Dr. K. Vig), and Oakwood University (lead: Dr. A. Volkov), together with a commercial/industrial partner CFD Research Corporation (lead: Dr. V. Kolobov), that specializes in computational fluid dynamics software and is located in Cummings Research Park.

    In addition, FTPP cooperatively partners with three national laboratories: Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Lab, and Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. FTPP will harness and share cooperatively the project team’s collective expertise, resources, and workforce.

    “Not only are the problems to be investigated in the FTPP program among the most challenging intellectually, they have enormous societal benefits and commercial implications,” said Zank.

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  • Yager selected for a NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities fellowship award

    Yager is the first UAB student to receive the NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities fellowship award since its inception in 2011.

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  • Vohra receives $540k grant from U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration

    A UAB physics professor has received a grant to synthesize novel materials for hypersonic applications and study their response under extreme conditions.

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  • 22 faculty receive grants to fund developmental projects at UAB

    The grant program funds early-career faculty to advance their skills and careers across campus and beyond.

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  • 22 faculty receive grants to fund developmental projects

    The UAB Faculty Development Grant Program supports junior faculty with funding to pursue research, creative works and scholarly activity.

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  • Five Blazers accepted to Clinton Global Initiative University

    Clinton Global Initiative University engages student leaders in developing innovative solutions to campus, community or global challenges.

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  • UAB Professor Emeritus honored through gifts to his academic department – and one of his favorite pastimes

    The sister of Dr. Edward L. Wills chose to celebrate her brother’s career in physics and his lifetime of trumpet-playing.

    When giving back to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in her brother’s memory, Physics Professor Emeritus Edward L. Wills’ sister Mary Buckman chose both a professional and a personal recipient: Naturally, the Physics department, housed within the College of Arts and Sciences, and the UAB Summer Community Band, which Wills participated in each summer and deeply enjoyed.

    A $100,000 gift to the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences established an endowed scholarship in his name, The Edward L. Wills Endowed Scholarship in Physics. Alongside it, a $50,000 gift was given to the UAB Summer Band, comprised of adult amateur and professional musicians from around the Birmingham metro. The band rehearses Monday nights in June and performs an annual Fourth of July concert on UAB’s campus. Wills played the trumpet in the band while a student at Auburn University (he’d later return annually to Homecoming to play on the field with the Auburn Alumni Band). After retirement, he joined the UAB Summer Community Band, where he formed friendships and continually honed his trumpet-playing skills before his death in September 2020.

    “Ed spent a lot of time in his last years playing the trumpet with the Birmingham Community Concert Band, and also played each Fourth of July with the UAB Summer Band that has always performed before the fireworks show at UAB,” said Todd DeVore, Ph.D., one of Wills’ colleagues in the UAB Department of Physics. “One of his yearly highlights, until his very last years, was playing with the Auburn Alumni Band at the halftime of Auburn’s Homecoming football game. He is missed by friends who knew him from all these activities.”

    Wills’ gift to the Summer Community Band will allow it to grow as an ensemble, said Dr. Sean Murray, Director of Bands at UAB.

    “We will use this support to offer more diverse musical offerings and allow for a more professional presentation at our annual July 4 concert,” he said.

    Wills was born and raised in Birmingham and graduated from Woodlawn High School before heading off to Auburn and, later, the University of Virginia for graduate school and the University of Georgia for a post-doctoral appointment, where he studied nuclear physics.

    “Ed loved Birmingham, so getting hired by UAB Physics in the early days of the department was a good fit for him,” DeVore said. “Ed quietly supported several Birmingham institutions and organizations he cared about over the years. When I attend an event at the Alabama Theatre, I like to sit in the chair with his name on it.”

    Wills was committed to seeing his hometown of Birmingham thrive, DeVore said; he was equally as passionate about UAB. In his later years, Wills–known affectionately as “Doc” to his closest friends at UAB–bought season tickets to UAB football games and, even when he was no longer well enough to attend himself, shared his tickets with others who might enjoy attending. As a professor, students appreciated his down-to-earth nature and sense of humor, DeVore said, and his $100,000 gift to the department will help others appreciate the discipline as much as he did.

    “I would say his gift is important to physics because it helps support scholarships for Alabama students who may follow in his physics footsteps,” DeVore said. “We have many talented high school students in this state, but many do not see regular evidence of STEM opportunities we have here in Alabama and at UAB. Scholarships are an important tool to help students and they help us promote the attractive physics tracks we have to offer.”

    After joining the UAB faculty in 1973, Wills oversaw the undergraduate lab program for many years and was involved in numerous experimental research efforts while at UAB, including blood flow studies with the Department of Neurology. He taught both undergraduate and graduate classes and, when he wasn’t teaching or playing trumpet, was an avid organizer of class reunions for his fellow graduates of Woodlawn High School. He was also a board member of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve and a frequent supporter of Birmingham’s Jimmie Hale Mission.

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  • Refer a Future Blazer and kickstart the next generation of UAB students

    The Refer a Future Blazer Program gives UAB employees the information needed to support an undergraduate student who may be considering UAB.

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  • Two UAB College of Arts and Sciences professors recognized for research efforts by NSF CAREER Awards

    Researchers in UAB’s Departments of Physics and Biology have been awarded distinguished research grants by the National Science Foundation.

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  • Seven students receive 2022 Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate and Graduate Students

    Each academic year, the UAB College of Arts and Sciences receives departmental nominations for the Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate Students and Outstanding Graduate Students.

    Each academic year, the UAB College of Arts and Sciences receives departmental nominations for the Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate Students and Outstanding Graduate Students. The dean’s selection committee gives these awards to exceptional undergraduate and graduate students in the College who have made significant contributions to the UAB community.

    After carefully reviewing the 2022 nominations—which include detailed recommendation letters from faculty members and mentors—Dean Kecia M. Thomas, Ph.D., and her committee have selected four undergraduate students and three graduate students for the awards. At the upcoming 2022 commencement ceremonies, the College will acknowledge and celebrate the recipients.

    Congratulations to the following students for receiving this prestigious award:

    2022 Undergraduate Dean’s Awards

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    2022 Graduate Dean’s Awards

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  • Searching for the holy grail of room-temperature superconductors with seriously big data and supercomputing

    With a prestigious NSF CAREER grant, physicist Cheng-Chien Chen, Ph.D., is working on a problem that could lead to a new generation of electronics — and giving UAB students a front-row seat to the action.

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  • $417,000 in grants awarded to Research Experiences for Undergraduates program

    UAB’s College of Arts and Sciences was awarded two grants that will help fund its Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

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  • TACC features UAB Physics Assistant Professor Cheng-Chien Chen’s research

    The Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) has a clear mission: To enable discoveries that advance science and society through the application of advanced computing technologies.

    The Texas Advanced Computer Center (TACC) has a clear mission: To enable discoveries that advance science and society through the application of advanced computing technologies. TACC, which is located at the University of Texas at Austin, offers innovative resources to researchers as they work to solve complex problems. Also, TACC highlights valuable research from scientists and scholars across the world that is based on innovative uses of advanced computing techniques.

     

    Recently, TACC featured UAB Physics Assistant Professor Dr. Cheng-Chien Chen’s research on quantum materials using advanced high performance computing, in an article entitled, “Thriving in Non-Equilibrium: Computational studies of laser-induced non-equilibrium reveal new states of matter." In the article, TACC notes, “Chen’s theoretical work suggests it is possible to generate superconductivity at higher temperature than previously possible using this method, opening the door to revolutionary new electronics and energy devices.”

    The piece also notes Chen’s past research that has been supported by the National Science Foundation and his recent publication in Physical Review X entitled “Fluctuating Nature of Light-Enhanced d-Wave Superconductivity: A Time-Dependent Variational Non-Gaussian Exact Diagonalization Study.”

    Chen is leading the Department of Physics efforts on Data-driven Materials Science using Machine Learning and High-Performance Computing. He also teaches a popular UAB course entitled “Machine Learning Applications in Physics and Materials Science.”

    Recently, Chen received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study magnetic topological systems. In an article for UAB News, Chen noted, “The goal of this study is to have the ability to control magnetic and topological properties without the need to apply external magnetic fields, which can open revolutionary opportunities for the U.S. Department of Defense in creating next-generation device technologies.”

    Access the full TACC article.

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  • A New Day: Navigating a pandemic and looking to the future

    Arts and Sciences faculty gather to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

    From left to right, Shahid Mukhtar, Kecia M. Thomas, Verna Keith, Rich Gere, Lauren Rast, and David Chan. Photo by Nik Layman.There is an ebb and flow to the world that stretches across the centuries. Breakdowns are followed by breakthroughs. Desolation sparks inspiration. Harsh reality is softened by imaginative artistry.  And so, the plague of the 14th century led to the revival of the Renaissance. The flu pandemic of 1918-19 was followed by the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties. And the horrors of World War II were replaced by an outpouring of aesthetic creativity and scientific advancement. 

    The world stands at the edge of another historic transition, as we emerge slowly from the COVID-19 pandemic. As difficult as the past 18 months have been (and the immediate future still appears to be), this is not unprecedented territory. There have always been challenging events to endure. And yet, the world somehow has always recovered, usually with a big assist from the arts and sciences. 

    “The humanities are going to be needed when the pandemic is over,” said David Chan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy. “One of the things you’re finding nowadays is that people need to find meaning… because it all seems so random. That’s where literature, art, philosophy all come in. They help people cope with change and disasters.” 

    “How do you tell a story about all this so it helps [people] find meaning? These are questions that are being addressed in every branch of the humanities, and that’s where [the College of Arts and Sciences] brings something,” said Chan. 

    Or as Rich Gere, MFA, professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History, says, “Historically, if you look at resilience within community, after every major disaster, [society] looks to the arts to bring it back. Right after the first responders, the second responders are artists.” 

    It is a daunting task, but one that the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is ready to handle. In August 2021, Dean Kecia M. Thomas, brought together five members of the College to discuss the challenges of the previous year, and the opportunities that are on the horizon. 

    Even this roundtable was affected by the ongoing pandemic, as the late-summer surge in COVID-19 cases led to the scheduled in-person gathering being changed to a Zoom meeting. Still, the participants expressed optimism about the future and acknowledged the way CAS has handled things so far.

    From left to right: David Chan, Rich Gere, and Verna Keith

    The past year

    Thomas took over as dean on Aug. 1, 2020. Not only did it mark a dramatic change in her life after spending the previous 27 years at the University of Georgia, but the move occurred in the midst of the pandemic.

    “This has been a really eventful year, and it’s not over,” Thomas said. “I’ve had to learn to give myself a little patience and grace as I’ve learned this new role in this new place in this new city.” 

    Of course, life changed for everybody last year in some way, and the key was to adapt to the situation. For CAS faculty, that included suddenly being required to teach students through remote learning. 

    “We had to learn the technology very quickly,” said Shahid Mukhtar, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology. “CAS Information Technology helped us tremendously.” 

    “It actually made us better teachers in the classroom, because now we know how we can effectively communicate with our students even when we’re not present in the same place. And when we come back to campus, we can utilize some of those newly acquired skills.” 

    Indeed, the entire interaction between faculty and students has changed since the start of the pandemic. And, in an odd way, being apart actually helped bring both parties closer together. 

    “One of the things that I learned was how to talk to students on a different kind of level,” said Verna Keith, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. “Since I’m the chair, they’re expecting a certain kind of interaction. But when I had to call them at home and check on them during this pandemic because we hadn’t heard from them, it generated a totally different kind of conversation.” 

    “I realized that the position of chair when you’re in an office creates one kind of dynamic, but when you’re talking with somebody on the phone it created a different dynamic. They saw me in a different light, so we had a different kind of conversation.” 

    This, in turn, created a different kind of relationship. One in which the teachers also depended upon the students for their own grounding. 

    “I realized I get a sense of purpose from helping my students,” said Lauren Rast, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Physics. “Teaching them in ways that help their future and their careers. … It’s vital, not just for them but also for my own ability to maintain resilience.” 

    From left to right: Shahid Mukhtar, Lauren Rast, and Kecia Thomas

    Lessons learned

    One aspect of the Zoom experience that Dean Thomas enjoyed was the opportunity to see students and professional colleagues in a more relaxed atmosphere. 

    “So many people have apologized during Zoom meetings when a toddler or a cat walked through the background,” Thomas said. “But I love it, because we don’t often get the opportunity to remind each other of our humanity. That we are full, whole people beyond these very limited roles that we occupy. … That we have rich lives outside of work. That’s what I’m going to hold onto coming out of this pandemic.” 

    There also were professional positives to emerge from the remote approach. And in time, Gere said many of the early skeptics came to understand and appreciate those benefits. 

    “I had people who self-proclaimed that they are not technology people and can’t teach online,” Gere said. “About halfway through the semester last fall they said, ‘Thank you for forcing me to do this.’ … Some faculty thought it was going to be a train wreck of a semester, but they did really well.” 

    “One of the things I’ve also noticed is that everybody is always on time to a Zoom meeting. Thirty years in academia, I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

    In addition, the acceptance of remote learning has opened up a wider array of guest lecturers. Keith pointed out that it is much easier for somebody to devote 90 minutes of time to talking with a class through a Zoom meeting, as opposed to traveling to Birmingham and speaking in person. 

    “Zoom opened up a lot of avenues, because now we can expose our students to people all over the United States and internationally,” Keith said. “People have been generous about accepting engagements on Zoom. We’ve been able to bring some fairly prominent folks to talk to our students, and that’s probably going to continue.” 

    Despite the heavier reliance on technology, there remained opportunities to inject a human element into the teaching. Rast said she began opening every remote class by simply asking the students if they were doing OK. 

    Students in facemasks paint an outdoor mural at the UAB Solar House.

    “If you can humanize yourself, that helps you to connect,” said Rast. “It helps them to learn, but also to feel supported in the learning environment. I definitely plan to continue that.” 

    Beyond the pandemic

    While the response to COVID-19 dominated 2020, there were other important topics, including issues involving social justice and voting rights.  

    “Certainly, health and the pandemic are the biggest things on everyone’s mind,” Thomas said. “But there are also the issues of race and social justice, and what people are calling ‘the national reckoning.’” 

    “As we think about health, emerging technologies, and how we engage society—this issue of trying to establish an inclusive community and eradicate the injustices and inequities and disparities—how do the arts and sciences fit in with those [topics]? I think there is space for our disciplines to connect to all those areas.” 

    Keith said one element of community engagement already underway in Birmingham is the Live HealthSmart Alabama project, which was the winner of the inaugural UAB Grand Challenge. The goal of the project is to dramatically improve the state of Alabama’s health rankings by the year 2030. 

    Initially, the project consists of four demonstration communities, including one on the UAB campus. The UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center will work with the communities to promote nutrition, physical activity, and preventive wellness. 

    “This offers a lot of opportunities for different aspects of CAS to be involved,” Keith said. “Some of us are involved in the research side, but you can also be involved as a faculty member or a student. This is one of those things where we can build community engagement into our classes and also involve students in this worthwhile project.” 

    As for the overall social issues, Chan said the pandemic put a spotlight on the ways injustices and inequalities affect communities, providing relevant cases that can be used in coursework. 

    “One of my colleagues teaches a class in Family and Philosophy. She deals with issues about families and raising children,” Chan said. “We have students who are working mothers, and they can have problems taking classes. She found that the pandemic gave her examples she could use in class that students could relate to, because they were actually experiencing that in their lives.” 

    Career development and more

    While one of the primary purposes of higher education is to prepare students for a career, it also is a place where students learn about life itself.  

    “I do believe, of course, that our students should be prepared to pursue a career when they graduate. But I also think that our mission is a little bit broader, and we need to serve the whole person,” Thomas said.  

    The answer, once again, could involve community engagement. Mukhtar said he would like to see even more programs and workshops that showcase the engagement opportunities CAS has to offer, in order to help students determine the career path that might be best for them. 

    “Some kids are first-generation college students. Who can guide them? Where is the information? What are their (career) paths?” Mukhtar said. “We need ... to educate students from the ground up.” 

    One area of opportunity is in the field of data management. According to analysis by the Birmingham Business Alliance, data scientist jobs in the Birmingham region have increased by more than 45 percent over the past five years, and these positions on average pay 65 percent more (approximately $26,000 more annually) than jobs not requiring analysis skills. UAB is engaging in this growing field through the Magic City Data Collective, a partnership with the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Birmingham Education Foundation, with funding help through a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The goal is to bring local students, researchers, and data experts together to work on projects, enabling students to improve their analytics and computational skills. 

    “We recruited a really diverse student population, and in an interdisciplinary hands-on way these students were empowered to come up with results that were relevant to the city of Birmingham and will help make data-driven decisions for our community,” said Rast, who serves as the learning manager for the project. “When we have this information and locals are able to use data to make decisions and impact their community, that’s a positive thing we can do at the College of Arts and Sciences. It was my favorite thing that I’ve done all year.” 

    Looking ahead

    Dean Thomas wrapped up the hour-long discussion by asking each participant for a parting thought. Their messages indicated that despite all the difficulties of the past 18 months (and counting), their outlook remains optimistic, propelled in part by the determination of CAS and UAB as a whole to work together for a better future.  

    CHAN: “My message would be to build connections while you’re here, and stay connected after you leave. See what you can build here and then continue the relationships. This isn’t just some phase in a life—it is something that will be with you all your life.” 

    RAST: “I’d love to engage with my fellow UAB faculty and staff and students across disciplines in ways that break silos. Because of the diversity of our UAB community and our background interests, there is a lot of opportunity for creativity and ideas that benefit our community.” 

    MUKHTAR: “We are a UAB family. And one of the things we learned during this pandemic is that life is so fragile. Today we are together and the next day we are not. We’ve known this, but when you see it firsthand, then you really feel it and it touches you deeply inside. Today at the College of Arts and Sciences, we are closer to each other than we were two years ago. That affects all of us… So my message would be just to be together as a UAB family and be more productive as a member of the family.” 

    KEITH: “I’d like to give a shout-out to the entire faculty in CAS… Our faculty are the people who are creative, who make discoveries, who produce knowledge. Rather than just being people who pass knowledge on, they are doing that work themselves. So students who come to UAB are lucky that they’re exposed to that. It’s something that will last them for a lifetime.”

    GERE: “I’d like to speak on behalf of my colleagues in theatre and dance and music. Because the last 18 months have been a reminder that the arts help pull everybody together… These are great and strong programs, and they attract top-notch students from Alabama and beyond.”

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  • Chen awarded $300,000 grant from U.S. Department of Defense

    A research grant provides opportunity to develop next-generation devices with application in quantum metrology, low-energy consumption spintronics and optoelectronic applications.

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  • With new NSF grant, UAB researchers have a hot ticket to the materials of the future

    UAB will be a statewide hub for developing a new generation of components for spacecraft, power plants and biomedical implants thanks to crush- and corrosion-resistant spark plasma sintering technology.

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  • Physicists explain how to beat automation and navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution

    The first Industrial Revolution, the one that built cities and takes up the most space in history books, was driven by water and steam. The second was fueled by electricity. The third was the result of simple digitization. Today, we are living in the early days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered in part by artificial intelligence (AI), quantum science, and quantum engineering.

    The first Industrial Revolution, the one that built cities and takes up the most space in history books, was driven by water and steam. The second was fueled by electricity. The third was the result of simple digitization. Today, we are living in the early days of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, powered in part by artificial intelligence (AI), quantum science, and quantum engineering. A convergence of physical, digital, human, and biological sciences is forcing companies across all industries to re-examine how they do business and what kinds of employees they hire.

    More and more, repetitive work is being taken on by computers that use AI techniques such as machine learning. What is left for humans? Anything that requires creativity and critical thinking. Research has shown that five skills are of the greatest value to today’s employers. These are what you could call “21st century skills”:

    • problem-solving,
    • critical and creative thinking,
    • collaboration,
    • communication and
    • ethical reasoning and mindset.

    When combined with technical specialized training, these skills make workers more competitive for high-demand, high-paying jobs in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields.

    The Building (IT) Together report from Burning Glass Technologies, commissioned for the city of Birmingham by a consortium of local groups, has identified three main areas for economic growth and workforce development in our region: advanced manufacturing, information technologies, and life sciences and biotech. These recommendations also align with the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Accelerate Alabama 2.0 economic development plan for recruitment, development, and workforce training. As both plans note, employers are seeking candidates who have demonstrated proficiency in using specialized skills to solve complex problems.

    What is the best way to prepare for this future? The 21st century skills are not specific to any individual discipline, but the right blend of training and opportunity is crucial. In the UAB Department of Physics, our existing hands-on research projects and faculty expertise let students pursue highly sought-after experiences in materials science, lasers and photonics, computation, and high-tech instrumentation. These experiences are now critical for all STEMM fields and 21st century jobs.

    Our courses integrate new AI-enabled, socially rich, remotely accessible activities with the best of face-to-face and in-laboratory experiences. In-person or online, our students benefit from one-on-one, high-quality interactions with faculty researchers who have international reputations. You don’t become a physicist by watching a professor talk. You must be a problem-solver, work effectively in teams, have STEMM content knowledge, must be a self-directed learner, and must make ethical decisions.

    The problems addressed by physics research are complex. They require skills such as imagination and the ability to break down a complex problem into manageable parts. You know where you want to go, but you don’t know how to get there. So we train students to tackle situations they have not encountered before through team-based learning and project-based lessons.

    Three examples will give you a flavor of what our students learn:

    • In Machine Learning Applications in Physics and Materials Science, students solve real problems while learning about one of the hottest branches of artificial intelligence and getting hands-on with industry-standard tools.
    • Understanding the World through Data gives students of all disciplines an introduction to computer modeling as a way to develop reasoning, critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving skills. Throughout the course, students make and explore conjectures in physics and data science as well as biology, the social sciences, business, and more.
    • Reasoning through Modeling and Simulation of Data dives deeper into modeling and simulation, with a focus on using acquired knowledge for project-based cooperative learning in the analysis of real-world datasets.

    UAB has always set itself apart by welcoming undergraduates into our research labs as early as their freshman years. Students who discover an interest in any of these areas can join our research teams working on projects in advanced computation, advanced materials, and lasers and photonics.

    The impact doesn’t stop there. Over the past several years, our faculty have developed an online course called Coding with Physics that uses hands-on, experiential learning and “gameful” learning concepts to help teachers in Alabama high schools get their students excited about science. Our Understanding the World through Data course is a foundational class in the Magic City Data Collective project. This public-private partnership aims to help Birmingham students explore careers and gain data-literacy skills while tackling real-world projects for local companies and organizations. We emphasize the development of digital fluency, i.e., an ability to use technology in order to create new knowledge. For example, when learning a new language, a literate person can read and speak, while a fluent person can use it to create a story or a poem. All students and life-long learners must be able to learn and use the new technologies that they will need to solve problems in the future, including those technologies that do not exist yet.

    No one wants to spend a career looking over their shoulder as a robot is trained to do their work. We are doing our part to prepare a generation that looks forward instead.

    Ilias Perakis, Ph.D., is chair of the Department of Physics. Lauren Rast, Ph.D., is assistant professor in the Department of Physics.

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