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Message from Department Head Hanno Weitering

Hanno Weitering


Change is happening fast, and this year it has been dazzling. At the institutional level, we have witnessed a significant overhaul of our general education curriculum with the introduction of the new Volunteer Core Curriculum in fall 2022. This was needed to better meet the needs of our changing student populations and to improve their readiness for the future workforce. Meanwhile, the university is transitioning from an incremental budgeting model to a new Budget Allocation Model that aims to better align resources with strategic priorities, create greater transparency and accountability, and give colleges and departments more control over their own revenue and expenditures. It is meant to incentivize academic entrepreneurship. Finally, with an eye towards 2050, the university is evaluating its academic organizational structure and is asking us to imagine new structures that would promote greater innovation, agility, and collaboration. Amidst these changes and uncertainties, all of us are still navigating the pandemic and its impact on the work experience and student learning. As a result of the pandemic, college enrollments are dropping nationwide. UT appears to be an exception, however, as our numbers keep increasing. Even in this changing economy, college remains your best chance for landing a rewarding job, and we seem to be getting that message across.

The physics department is undergoing its own transformational processes, trying to anticipate the future lay of the land in terms of increased student numbers, instructional needs for diverse student populations, curricular development, research and innovation. On the research side, we have seen some major programs take off, including several multimillion-dollar initiatives. Associate Professor Andrew Steiner is leading a National Science Foundation-funded Focused Research Hub in Theoretical Physics to probe the properties of hot and dense nuclear matter with advanced computational modeling, simulations, and "multi-messenger" astronomical observations of merging neutron stars. Associate Professor Steven Johnston is leading a multi-institutional collaboration on the design of "Quantum Materials for Transformational Technologies" via artificial intelligence and machine learning. The Department of Energy’s Office of Scientific Research is funding this effort. Meanwhile, the department is moving ahead with the formation of an interdisciplinary faculty cluster in quantum materials and recruited Assistant Professor Ruixing Zhang and Professor Alan Tennant. Both have split appointments with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Dr. Zhang was a postdoctoral fellow at the Joint Quantum Institute and member of the Condensed Matter Theory Center at the University of Maryland. His expertise centers on topology and quantum dynamics in condensed matter systems. Dr. Tennant is a widely acclaimed and prize-winning international leader in quantum matter research and directed major scientific user facilities and renowned research institutes. He will be joining us in January 2022. This spring we hope to hire three additional faculty for the quantum cluster. With these new initiatives, we are also building new interdisciplinary courses at both the graduate and undergraduate levels.

"The physics department is undergoing its own transformational processes, trying to anticipate the future lay of the land in terms of increased student numbers, instructional needs for diverse student populations, curricular development, research, and innovation."

Hanno Weitering

Our high-energy physics program also got a boost recently with the hiring of Assistant Professor Lawrence Lee. Larry came to us with a PhD from Yale and postdoctoral experience at the University of Adelaide and Harvard. He was involved with the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, looking for "long-lived particles and supersymmetry." He recently joined Professor Stefan Spanier and Assistant Professor Tova Holmes with LHC’s sister experiment at the Compact Muon Solenoid detector. Last but not least, we are searching for a junior faculty member in theoretical multi-messenger astrophysics, who will complement our strengths in supernova science, neutron star theory, and nucleosynthesis. With the advent of gravitational wave astronomy, multi-messenger astronomy and astrophysics have become some of the most exciting and fastest growing fields in all of science, and we are excited that the department is venturing into this area.

Arguably the biggest or most notable change is the introduction of a BA program in Physics. It replaces the less flexible BS General Concentration and is part of a comprehensive curriculum overhaul that also strengthens the Academic and Astronomy Concentrations within the existing BS program. The modernized BS program provides a stronger physics and mathematical foundation for the upper-level courses and generates more options for students who wish to enrich their curriculum with elective courses in their field of interest. The BA program, on the other hand, will provide an attractive and less daunting access to the physics major. It will appeal to students who are interested in physics but may be less mathematically inclined, or to those wish to double major with a professional degree program such as a business, pre-health, or pre-law. The overarching objectives are to provide students with many more options, to increase the number of physics graduates, and to shorten their time towards graduation. All these changes will take effect in fall 2022, pending final approval of the new BA program by THEC and the UT Board of Trustees. This has been a major undertaking by the undergraduate curriculum committee, led by Professor Tony Mezzacappa. I would like to acknowledge Associate Head and Professor Kate Jones in particular as chief architect of the BA program and lead author of the proposal to THEC, and Undergraduate Program Director and Associate Professor Christine Nattrass for her always thoughtful advice and help with the practical and administrative implementation.

It is easy to forget that change can only take root in an environment that provides steady support with existing operations and new implementations. In our department, faculty and students enjoy rock-solid support from our support staff, be it the administrative staff, business office, IT and technical support, and others. Their workload increases each year and that is not always recognized. In short, they are amazing and that never seems to change!

I hope the year 2022 will bring welcome changes for you and your loved ones and I wish you a wonderful holiday season and a healthy and prosperous 2022.

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