Do big wheels go faster than small wheels and why?
Dear colleagues, alumni, and friends,
Watch us now! This will be a very exciting year in the Department of Physics as a phase transition that will sustain and enhance our excellence in education and research starts to take place. For several years, I have been telling everyone in our Physics community that forces are aligning that will enable us to make substantial investments in our program—transformative investments that will boost our faculty size and strength, enhance the educational experience for our students, expand our infrastructure, and allow us to launch new and exciting initiatives in teaching, research, and outreach. We hope that these investments will increase our stature and ranking, raise our visibility, and make our alumni and friends proud.
Driving these unique opportunities are many factors, most significantly strong, engaged leadership in the campus and College administration; availability of resources generated by sound campus financial practices, successes in acquiring federal grants by our faculty and a boost in major donor gifts; and rising enrollments of students taking and majoring in Physics that is bringing added tuition funds into our program. This comes following a difficult period for our University and for our department—a period that saw a financial crisis in the State of Illinois and inappropriate behavior by high-ranking officials that led to decreasing revenues, serious attrition in our faculty size, and uncertainty about what to do next. Although many challenging issues still remain, we find that a window of opportunity has opened up that gives us a chance to rebuild our core strengths, explore new directions, expand our space and infrastructure, and share the creativity and impact of our work with the world.
Watch our faculty! After dropping to a faculty size of just over 50 two years ago following decades at our traditional level of 60-70, we have focused on growing back our size and doing so by targeting specific areas in which we want to be the best. With the three faculty members who came to Physics Illinois last academic year and the six who will start in January of this academic year, we are now approaching 60. This growth has also depended on retaining our best and most productive scholars against aggressive efforts by some of our peer institutions to attract them away. We have been successful in recent years at doing that, not by blatantly trying to outbid them, but instead by understanding what our faculty are passionate about and providing what they need and want to carry out their careers and lifestyle ambitions. And more growth will come—we have four searches underway this year and special opportunities for additional faculty hires through aggressive campus dual-career and diversity programs and via the Grainger gift to the College of Engineering that will fund 35 new professorships and chairs, some in Physics. We are happy with this trend—nothing energizes an academic program more than bringing in new people and ideas.
Watch our staff! In addition to hiring stellar faculty, we have also been able to hire exceptional people in our staff to enhance our ability to deliver our courses, support our research operations, and expand our capabilities in communications and information management. As a team, our faculty and staff work closely together to meet the demands of our growing enrollments and expanding commitments in academic activities and public engagement.
Watch our research! With new faculty come new ideas, and we are poised to launch several new initiatives to expand the breadth and impact of our research portfolio. On the horizon are plans to establish a leadership role in the rapidly emerging field of Quantum Information/Quantum Computing that will encompass both existing schemes for qubit architectures as well as new ideas based on topologically protected quantum states. This effort will leverage our traditional campus strengths in Condensed Matter and AMO (Atomic-Molecular-Optical) Physics, Materials Science, Electrical Engineering, and Computer Science, and will integrate the unique computational resources on campus provided by the new Blue Waters supercomputer and the ability to attract and manage large university, industry, and government partnerships provided by the new Advanced Research Institute that has just opened in the University of Illinois Research Park. Blue Waters will also contribute to initiatives nucleating in Astrophysics/Cosmology, Biological Physics and Quantitative Biology, and Particle Physics.
Watch our teaching! Big changes are coming to our educational programs as well—we strive to be as innovative and impactful in our teaching as in our research endeavor. High on the list is a renovation of Physics 101-102, our algebra-based introductory sequence that is taken by students in the environmental and biomedical sciences, including premed students. We are modernizing these to incorporate the multimedia and active learning enhancements that have been successful in our 211-214 sequence; to better serve the needs of students in those disciplines; and to bring the content into alignment with the new standards for the MCAT exam. Attention is also being paid to our highly successful upper-level laboratory courses and senior thesis courses, to accommodate growth in the number of Physics majors. At the same time, we are keeping an eye on the groundswell of interest in and growth of online education and MOOCs; to reach more students in more places more efficiently, we are seeking opportunities to incorporate this into our curriculum and outreach activities.
Watch our building! This spring semester, Loomis Laboratory will undergo a $4-million classroom renovation funded by the campus to increase the size and improve the quality of our classrooms. It will be a challenge to accommodate all of our students and maintain normal operations during the (disruptive) construction period, but in the end it will be beautiful and transformative. We encourage you to follow our progress on our website. Once the classroom renovations are completed, we will proceed with construction of a flexible active-learning classroom and a new kitchen/faculty-staff lounge in the space behind the Interaction Room that had formerly been filled with research journals. Down the road we have even bigger dreams—an expansion on the west side of Loomis Laboratory that will bring up new lecture halls, space for the departmental and faculty offices, and an open atrium for events, along with a modern, new gateway to the campus on the corner of Goodwin and Green. There is also a plan in place for an experimental research building adjacent to MRL to accommodate advanced instrumentation that requires high-bay, low-vibration, acoustically and electromagnetically shielded space. This additional space would be transformative to our programs, and we are thinking creatively about how to acquire the funds to make this happen.
Watch for our story! The Department of Physics has always made significant accomplishments in our complementary missions of teaching, service, and research, but we have been less adept at telling the world about them. We are committed to become as good at telling our story as we have been at creating one. The image we convey is crucial to raise our ranking and stature, position us to recruit the best people, and enable us to attract significant funding sources for our research from agencies, foundations, and donors. This goal has prompted us to invest in building a dedicated staff in Physics to address outward-looking issues—anything that affects how we are perceived from the outside. We have just inaugurated a new committee in the department tasked to craft a strategy that will enable Physics Illinois to “make a splash,” appropriately named ORCA, which stands for Outreach, Recruiting, Communication, and Advancement. We will not be hard to find—we will be sending out newsletters, electronic reports, and brochures, and you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and on our website. And if you like what you see, partner with us in our quest for excellence through your engagement and donations.
Watch us now! We are on a mission to enhance our academic excellence and to make a difference to science and society. Watch closely now!
Dale J. Van Harlingen, Head and Professor
Department of Physics
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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