Larry Lee can look out over his classroom of physics majors and empathize. As an undergrad he struggled with the very same course—down to the identical textbook. Yet classical mechanics became one of his favorite classes once he saw how it fit into everyday life. Helping his students make those connections for themselves is part of what he’s excited about as a new assistant professor.
When he joined the department in August, Lee hit the ground running both in teaching and research. He taught undergrads and a graduate seminar. He expanded UT’s research involvement at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. This path would have surprised him as kid, back when he had no idea what a physicist was. But the makings were there, as he knew at a young age he wanted to understand the most fundamental ideas.
Lee hails from South New Jersey, in the suburbs of Philly, and explained that "everyone from South Jersey is contractually obligated to mention that South Jersey and North Jersey are entirely different places."
Having grown up on food stamps, scarce funds meant he had to turn down more expensive colleges in favor of his home state school, Rutgers University. Even so, he still had to work multiple jobs to finance his education. At first he was focused simply on getting a degree that would lead to a good job and financial stability. Halfway through his undergraduate studies, a specific route came into focus.
"I started to really fall in love with my physics classes, but I soon started to understand that research was a profession," he said.
What’s our universe made of? This is the fundamental question that intrigued him, and physics helped point him in the right direction.
"In college I started to see that the technical skills I had—computing, electronics, etc.—could be put to use to try and answer this question," he said. "So I was really pulled in. It felt very human to fall down this particular hole."
The journey wasn’t always glamorous. His introduction to research came in a loading bay, where he spent hours painting metal tubes (in Rutgers scarlet) for an experiment at Fermilab.
"It was initially hard to see the connection between this and research," he said, "especially when other students were doing coding, and other things less like painting."
Still, it paid enough to let him take fewer shifts at his other jobs and showed his advisers that he was competent and reliable. Soon, they trusted him with greater responsibilities.
"In the end, it worked out great," he said.
After graduating in 2009, Lee enrolled at Yale University, where he earned both a master’s and a PhD in physics. From the beginning his research interest has been elementary particle physics, a field that suits his inquisitiveness about nature. He found a perfect fit when he joined the ATLAS Collaboration at the LHC.
The largest detector ever constructed for a particle collider, ATLAS records billions of collisions per second to answer questions like what are the building blocks of matter and what forces govern how subatomic particles interact. Not only is this fundamental physics, it also requires sophisticated computing and provides a large international community working together to move science forward—all elements important to Lee. Postdoctoral appointments took him to Australia (the University of Adelaide) and Harvard, but ATLAS was always a common denominator.
When he came to UT, he moved to the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, joining Professor Stefan Spanier and Assistant Professor Tova Holmes, who’s his real-life partner as well as his colleague. (He pointed out that since the beginning of 2020, the CMS group has grown by more than 200 percent.)
Lee explained CMS and ATLAS have the same physics goals and fundamental design philosophies. They sit on the opposite ends of the LHC ring and are separated by a 20-minute drive. His move to CMS magnifies UT’s presence there.
"If you look out onto the collaboration, you see a lot more orange, metaphorically," he said. "This growth really means that to the highly international community of CMS, UT will have a strong record and be a major player. I see this as a moment for UT to become a significant powerhouse of LHC physics in the southeast, in the US, and throughout the international particle physics community."
Over time Lee realized another benefit from working on these huge experiments.
"I learned that I really love mentoring," he said. "I love training people to become physicists (and) sending them out into the world to be successful. That’s the best," he said with genuinely happy emphasis. "Nothing beats that."
As a faculty member he carries that optimism into the classroom. He taught classical mechanics in the fall, where the syllabus began with "Welcome to PHYS 311! This is one of my favorite classes and is a real foundational course in your undergraduate physics education. I have the privilege of introducing you to some of the most elegant techniques in the field."
His love for the subject took some time to evolve. Lee made it a point to tell students he did terribly when he first took the class at Rutgers.
"I literally have the same copy of the same book that I learned from," he said. "I hated it. I just felt so lost, because I was really unprepared when I took it."
By the second semester, however, he started to understand what the actual physics was.
"In a course like this, you can relate everything you learn to everyday experience. It was the eventual understanding that the system can describe everything: earthquakes; why a saxophone sounds different from a flute; all the way up to what the Higgs Boson is. It’s all the same math. It’s such a fundamental piece of physics. Once I understood how applicable it was to my everyday life, it was a game-changer."
"The real beauty of state schools, of public education, is that … the departments are so large and so full of world-class work that anyone can have access to a world-class education."
That’s the experience he wants his students to have. He’s especially pleased to be teaching at a public university, where opportunities are available to a much larger community.
"I see in UT a community that is very similar to what I had in undergrad," he said. "The real beauty of state schools, of public education, is that if you can wade through the sea of people between classes, the departments are so large and so full of world-class work, that anyone can have access to a world-class education. I grew up on food stamps—I’m the first in my direct familial line to graduate college, let alone get a PhD and become a university professor."
From the classroom to enormous international collaborations, Lee attributes success to a few fundamental elements: communicating well, being open-minded, and sharing a creative spark.
"Collective creativity—that’s how you create new knowledge," he said. "Someone comes up with something and others catch that spark. In physics the only way to effectively increase our understanding of the universe is in collaboration."
In the best collaborations, he explained, "just conversing with someone who has a different view or a different skillset, you can really produce something that is far greater than what you could have done individually. Open-mindedness is super important, which of course also means supporting DEI initiatives because the more perspectives, the better for the research."
Creativity underlies his hobbies as well. He’s a mushroom hunter and passionate cook, as well as a scientific musician. Lee designed the ColliderScope project, combining oscilloscope music with sights and sounds from the LHC, and, in collaboration with Holmes, played European festivals before the pandemic hit.
"COVID really shut down my budding electronic music career," he said, though he hopes to revive it stateside when life gets back to normal.
Until then, teaching and research will help provide a creative outlet for sharing that collaborative spark. "Being able to be here and provide opportunity to those that don’t know they can have it—that’s the thing I’m most excited about," he said.