By Abby Weingarten
Physics is one of New College’s shining specializations. Students and faculty in the program have garnered national attention for their groundbreaking collaborations and industry research. And now, New College has added another physics-specific accolade to its credit.
Last week, the Society of Physics Students (SPS) National Office named New College a 2019-2020 Outstanding SPS Chapter for the second year in a row. This designation recognized New College for its excellence as a top-tier student-led physical sciences organization—an honor given to fewer than 10 percent of all SPS chapters at colleges and universities in the United States and internationally.
“This is the highest level of distinction given to our chapters, and is received by less than 15 percent of our top chapters annually (with just 96 of 844 chapters so honored this year),” said Brad R. Conrad, Ph.D., the director of the SPS, an organization that falls under the umbrella of the American Institute of Physics (AIP). “We are consistently amazed each year at how much time, energy and effort everyone devotes to their departments and local communities.”
The SPS is a professional association designed for students, and membership is open to anyone interested in physics and related fields. Chapters are evaluated on their level of interaction with the campus community, the professional physics community, the public, and SPS national programs. The Outstanding Chapter Award recognizes high levels of outreach, as well as unique approaches to fulfilling the mission of the SPS to “help students transform themselves into contributing members of the professional community.”
The SPS chapter at New College is advised by Professor of Physics Don Colladay, Ph.D. He is joined Natural Sciences division in the physics area of concentration (AOC) at New College with Professor of Physics Mariana Sendova, Ph.D., and Professor of Physics and Astronomy George Ruppeiner, Ph.D. Alexandru Sturzu, a third-year physics and mathematics student, is New College’s SPS chapter president.
“The SPS award recognizes the efforts put forth by the officers and members of the club over the past year, as well as the great guidance provided by our club sponsor, Professor Colladay,” said Sturzu, who is a third-year physics and mathematics student. “Since our club’s inception, Matt Mancini, Sarah Gonzalez and I have worked tirelessly at reaching out and offering unique opportunities to students through our club. The members that have become officers since then (Alex Hinton and Madeleine Kienzle) have filled in the shoes of Matt and Sarah, who graduated last year.”
Together, the students have been able to build New College’s SPS chapter into the success it is today. They have raised funds to heavily supplement a group excursion to PhysCon 2019; organized talks with alumni for biweekly meetings; conducted outreach to local high schools; established the New College chapter of the SPS Physics Honor Society Sigma Pi Sigma; orchestrated a banquet to host the SPS national president for the inaugural Sigma Pi Sigma induction ceremony; and provided avenues for students to participate in theoretical and experimental physics research.
“On a club level, this award is meaningful to us because it serves as tangible proof that the actions that club members and officers are taking to provide opportunities and resources for people interested in physics are not only successful—but so much so that they are being nationally recognized,” Sturzu said. “As you can imagine, some of these undertakings have been incredibly time- and energy-consuming. So, to see that our successes have caught the attention of the national organization has provided us with a powerful motivating factor.”
Because of the recognition the students received last year, they were especially motivated to tackle some of the larger-scale projects that led to winning the award again this year. And, while COVID-19 put a damper on their expectations for what could be accomplished this year, the repeated recognition reinvigorated the students’ drive to create avenues for increasing interest in the field of physics.
“On a school-wide level, I believe this national award is meaningful for two primary reasons: The first is the point of pride this award brings to New College students. It shows that, while our school may be small, we pack a hefty punch and can achieve things that students at larger and perhaps more well-funded schools can achieve,” Sturzu said. “Secondly, I believe that this award reinforces a self-perception that New College students have about themselves—that we are community builders and local actors. We provide tangible improvements to those around us and work to ensure that others can achieve success.”
Students who specialize in physics at New College have access to top-notch facilities that are rarely available at other leading liberal arts colleges. For instance, the Optical Spectroscopy and Nanomaterials Lab opened in January 2012 with a $1.7-million grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, making New College the first and only undergraduate liberal arts college in the nation to offer such a lab.
The physics program is designed to provide students with a thorough grounding in the central areas of physics through courses and tutorials in theoretical, experimental and computational physics. Students conducting research in the laboratory use state-of-the-art equipment such as an atomic force microscope, a micro-Raman spectrometer, an X-ray diffractometer, an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer, a micro-spectrophotometer, and a Q switched Nd:YAG laser with second and fourth harmonic emission.
“The SPS chapter at New College has been spearheaded by our enthusiastic students over the past couple of years. They have worked hard to set up our local chapter and to encourage club participation for many students in all areas of natural sciences,” Colladay said. “They have been engaged in social activities promoting physics on our campus and have reached out to local high schools as well. Our students have been providing a great service to our physics program, as well as to the College in general.”
Unlike larger universities, New College is also small enough to allow for close faculty-student relationships and the kind of personalized attention most undergrads never get. With one-on-one mentoring from Sendova, for example, Matt Mancini (a 2020 graduate) went on to pursue his doctorate at Penn State University. He is now in the top-ranked National Science Foundation (NSF) research graduate program for materials science and engineering, on a Shively Weyl Endowed Research Assistantship to study in the lab of John Mauro, Ph.D.
Sendova, a respected scientist with two United States patents, gave Mancini the freedom to experiment in her lab, and worked with him to refine his insights. The two wrote a half dozen papers together, and Matt earned his bachelor’s degree in physics with more publications than a Ph.D. student (a record-breaking achievement).
Now Sendova and Mancini’s paper, Direct Surface Area Measurement from Digital Images via Brightness Histogram Method (published in July in the peer-reviewed journal Measurement Science and Technology), is on the patent track. Their findings will be extremely helpful for scientists studying climate change.
Collaborations like these exemplify the uniqueness of the physics program at New College.
Adding to the excitement of the recent SPS accomplishment, the chapter award came during a week when New College’s innovative dual-degree program with the University of Florida (UF) was given the official go-ahead to begin. This offering will help students interested in STEM fields (physics included) greatly expand their academic pursuits.
For more than a year, leaders at New College and UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering had worked on designing this curriculum to allow students to earn two degrees in five years. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) just approved the program, and it will be available in the spring, as originally planned. Students will be able to work toward a liberal arts and sciences bachelor of arts (B.A.) degree from New College in a science major, and a bachelor of science (B.S.) degree from UF in an engineering major.
“We are hopeful that an engineering option will be a considerable attraction for incoming students who are interested in science in general,” Colladay said of the program. “Often, students who are interested in technical STEM areas have a strong desire to have an engineering option available.”
And, as this program progresses, so will the award-winning SPS chapter at New College.
“To have your group named an outstanding chapter is a testament to your leadership skills and your ability to foster leadership among your students,” Conrad said upon congratulating Colladay an New College. “You and your students have earned this moment of recognition. Your combined efforts supported the department, helped further student development and strengthened the community.”
For more information on the SPS chapter awards, visit spsnational.org/awards/outstanding-chapter
To learn more about the physics AOC at New College, visit ncf.edu/academics/undergraduate-program/division-of-natural-sciences/physics/
Abby Weingarten is the senior editor in the Office of Communications & Marketing.