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Students, academics and professionals benefit from LU’s first physics conference

“I love having the ability to come here and grow in new directions,” said LU student John Pickren, a junior with a dual major in electrical engineering and physics, of the major physics conference hosted recently by Lamar University.

LU faculty coordinators brought together a large number of renowned scientists from across the country to present their work at the Joint Spring 2016 Meeting of the Texas sections of the American Physical Society (APS), the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and Zone 13 of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) from March 31 to April 2.

University students from states as far as New Jersey got a glimpse into the professional world of physics with a multitude of opportunities: 10 plenary talks, 9 breakout sessions, 34 poster presentations primarily by students,  9 AAPT workshops, a Career in Physics workshop with a special guest Lauren van Gerven  from Workforce Solutions, and more— all greater numbers than seen in similar physics conferences, according to conference coordinator Cristian Bahrim, associate professor of physics at LU.

The conference attracted almost 60 science teachers, a record number, and more than 200 participants.

Talat Rahman, Pegasus professor and chair of physics at University of Central Florida, said she was delighted to participate because of the opportunity to reach out to more students.  

“I like to talk to students and excite them about the work I’m doing or encourage them to get into physics and related areas,” she said.

Rahman spoke on the research she’s doing in novel materials. She currently works with students and post-doctorate researchers to study molybdenum disulfide, a lubricant much like graphite. The substance has properties that may allow it to be used in devices like solar cells and transistors as well as a catalyst to remove sulfur from other materials—good news for many industries, as molybdenum disulfide is much cheaper than other catalysts currently in use.

Rahman also spoke for AAPT about challenges with physics education in America. AAPT involves a broad network of instructors from universities, community colleges and high schools whose main interest is to break down learning barriers and ensure that students receive a quality education in physics.

“There are so many people that say ‘I took a physics class once in college and I’ll never do it again!’ We don’t want that. We are working as a community to find better ways to help students learn,” said Rahman.

She explained that less than half of American physics teachers have a degree in physics or a related discipline, so AAPT and APS have organized a program called PhysTEC where they give grants to institutions that train students teach physics. The number of high school physics teachers with a related degree is expected to rise around 80-90 percent as a result.

Stephen Bradshaw, assistant professor and William V. Vietti Junior Chair of Space Physics at Rice University, agreed that its essential for students to develop a sincere passion for physics.

“What drives me to do my job is my fascination with the subject,” he said. “There are times when it doesn’t make sense and things are going wrong. You just want to bang your head on the wall when you can’t figure out a tough problem. It’s during those times that your initial enthusiasm for the subject will carry you through.”

Bradshaw presented his recent work to better understand solar flares. Solar flares are the largest explosions in the solar system and can cause tremendous problems on Earth because they have the potential to harm electrical systems.

“Given that our society is growing ever more reliant on technology, this becomes a very serious problem. Our efforts are to try to understand solar flares, what drives them and how they evolve from a theoretical and computational perspective,” he explained.

Bradshaw said he genuinely enjoyed meeting new students here and seeing their enthusiasm towards physics.

“I commend the conference for giving undergrad students who are just now beginning their research projects to actually present their work, because it is an incredibly valuable experience. Giving presentations is an art, and you can only get better with practice,” he said. 

Bahrim spoke about LU’s research in stopping light at the surface of dielectrics— a discovery that could help in building quantum circuits and optical computers. He says the research could open a new gateway for advanced technology.

Bahrim considers the conference a major success not only for furthering physics education but also for allowing the LU Department of Physics to demonstrate its potential.

“We grew from a small program a few years ago to the top 11 percent in graduation rates nationwide in 2014-2015, and now we have successfully organized a complex, far-reaching conference.  All the support we’ve received has paid off,” Bahrim said.

Kenneth Evans, president of Lamar University, showed his advocacy of the event by attending the conference banquet and listening to the keynote speaker Thomas Killian, the chair of Physics at Rice University, talk about cold plasmas.

The LU physics faculty shares the success of the conference with higher administration members such as James Marquart, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Joe Nordgren, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, who provided encouragement and financial support.

Other important collaborations were with Kumer Das, associate professor of mathematics and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research who made possible the allocation of funds for student travel awards, Kevin Dodson, dean of the the Reaud Honors College who helped organize student volunteers, and the Beaumont Convention and Visitors Bureau, a major sponsor for the conference.