Illuminating Our World and Beyond: The APS Meets at NJIT

Written by: Dean Maskevich,
Conceptual illustration of a black hole absorbing matter from a companion star.

In November, more than 300 scientists and educators affiliated with universities, national laboratories and other research organizations came to NJIT for a three-day meeting of the Mid-Atlantic Section of the American Physical Society (MAS-APS). The theme of the meeting was “Illuminating Our World,” in recognition of the centennial anniversary of Albert Einstein’s publication of "On the Quantum Theory of Radiation." This 1917 theoretical paper on stimulated light emission foreshadowed the demonstration of the first working laser in 1960 and the first continuous output ruby laser two years later.

For the past century, researchers on the frontiers of physics have been illuminating our world despite times of troubling darkness, including two devastating world wars. This illumination has been literal as in the case of the laser, and metaphorical with respect to new knowledge in numerous other areas ranging from the quantum level, to the cellular level, to the greatest distances that we can see into the universe. The physics of gravitational waves, neurophysiology, and superconductivity were among the many diverse and scientifically timely topics explored at the event sponsored by the NJIT Provost’s Office and the MAS-APS.

Afterwards, Professor Andrei Sirenko, chair of the NJIT Physics Department, shared some thoughts about the meeting and the NJIT physics program.

What is the significance of the American Physical Society coming to NJIT for this meeting?

I was very pleased that NJIT was selected as a venue for the MAS-APS 2017 meeting, and that the local organizers were able to bring together so many great scientists at various stages of their careers. NJIT provided opportunities for hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students from the East Coast to hear about cutting-edge research in the field of physics. About 80 invited and four plenary speakers, who represented leading universities and research organizations, accepted our invitations and came to the NJIT campus for the meeting. With any conference of this type, it’s an indication of the reputation of the sponsoring organization.

In addition to NJIT, participating universities included, just to name a few, Columbia, Drexel, Johns Hopkins, Lehigh, the University of Maryland, the University of Pennsylvania, Penn State, Princeton, Rutgers and Stony Brook. We had presentations by researchers from Brookhaven National Laboratory, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Flatiron Institute, the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. There were also international speakers from Canada, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

This response and attendance really speak to the recognition that NJIT has achieved in the physics community as one of the leaders in research and education.  

How were NJIT faculty and students engaged in the meeting with respect to their research?

Our faculty members and students were very well represented. Of some 240 talks and posters, NJIT students, researchers and faculty gave more than 35 presentations. Our faculty from the Physics Department gave two Invited talks and one plenary talk.

Of course, with physics being such a broad field, our presentations focused on the areas where we have special expertise, such as solar-terrestrial and plasma physics, biophysics, optics, condensed matter physics and materials science. Both the College of Science and Liberal Arts and Newark College of Engineering were represented as well, with contributions on topics at the intersection between physics, materials research, biomedical and chemical engineering.

NJIT students were very involved at the meeting with multiple talks and posters. For example, our Ph.D. student, Arooj Aslam, received one of the five Best Poster Awards for her research on ‘High Speed Imaging to Measure Vibrational Modes of Microtubules.’ This research is carried out in the lab of Associate Professor Camelia Prodan from the Physics Department.

It was very gratifying for me that in addition to NJIT undergraduates and grad students, five high school students who had participated in summer research at NJIT also presented the results of their very high-quality work. These students, from the Union County Magnet High School, did research in solar physics at the Center for Solar-Terrestrial Research (CSTR), mentored by Distinguished Research Professor Gregory Fleishman, Research Professor Gelu Nita, and Dr. Natsuha Kuroda. The efforts of these young people were so impressive that their work was accepted for oral presentations at our meeting, and they received special recognition at the end of their session on solar tomography. It was really exciting to see how high school students can do work that merits presentation at such a high-level professional conference.

Let me conclude my comments at this point by thanking the NJIT Provost’s Office for support of this meeting. Many thanks are also due to the local organizers and all presenters who contributed to the excellent scientific program. This meeting would have been impossible without the coordinated efforts of dozens of individuals at NJIT who worked together for more than a year advertising this event and doing ‘invisible’ work behind the curtains so that the ‘scientific show’ could go on smoothly for three days in November, highlighting the reputation of NJIT for excellence in scientific research and education. The Physics Department will be happy to host another MAS-APS meeting in the future.

As a final question, in general, what would you say those attending the meeting from outside the NJIT community learned about our physics program?

I think they gained a greater understanding of what we mean when we say that the key descriptive word for our physics program is ‘applied.’ Essentially, it means that participation in hands-on research, and many research opportunities where theory is applied to specific projects, are part of the experience of our physics students from the time they begin their studies. At NJIT, majoring in physics is significantly more than reading the textbook, memorizing the formulas, earning good grades and maintaining a high GPA.

There are both summer and year-round research opportunities with the CSTR and other labs of individual faculty researchers — for example, in areas such as optics, 3D printing and additive manufacturing, the design of medical devices, and biophysics. This engagement is a defining aspect of the success of our graduates. While it is an advantage when going on to more advanced study, it is especially valuable for those starting their careers in the workplace.

At employment interviews, our graduates can speak very specifically about involvement with challenging research projects, the experience of applying theoretical knowledge to the problems of hands-on research. We know this is exactly what interviewers want to hear from applicants. It is a great advantage if a student can speak about spending a summer working in a lab on 3D printing and additive manufacturing, for instance. For our most recent graduates, the reaction everywhere they applied for positions was super-positive, and most had more than one job offer by the time of their graduation.