May 25, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Impact of Physics Faculty Research Funding Reaches Beyond OHIO

Dr. David Ingram, a professor in and chair of OHIO’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, conducts research inside the W.M. Keck Thin Film Analysis Facility, located within the Edwards Accelerator Lab on the Athens Campus. Photo by Rob Hardin

Dr. David Ingram, a professor in and chair of OHIO’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, conducts research inside the W.M. Keck Thin Film Analysis Facility, located within the Edwards Accelerator Lab on the Athens Campus. Photo by Rob Hardin

At the core of Ohio University’s very being is a University-wide commitment to research, a hallmark of OHIO noted in its mission, vision, core values and guiding principles. And behind every external dollar that comes into the University to fund research – nearly $115 million in the past four years alone – are the faculty who develop the ideas, write the funding proposals and conduct the research and the staff whose expertise helps to facilitate the entire process.

Stories of research funding success can be found in every Ohio University college and on every Ohio University campus, but one department has had so much success in this arena that it stands at the forefront of a new forum designed to pass its expertise on to both colleagues and students.

The history of OHIO’s Physics & Astronomy Department dates back to the early days of the University, and over the course of that history, faculty and staff within the department have been building a scientific community and culture dedicated to the furtherance of knowledge through innovative research. In the past four fiscal years alone, the department has generated more than $11.5 million in federal research funding, according to annual award reports from the Office of the Vice President for Research and Creative Activity.

Faculty within the department who have been successful in securing research funding are quick to note that these achievements are not theirs alone. Rather, they are the result of a critical partnership with the University’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs whose staff guides and assists the faculty through every aspect of the process.

The benefits of these individual and group efforts ripple throughout OHIO’s campuses and into the communities they serve and the world as a whole, providing an academic environment that feeds the passions of both faculty and staff, that cultivates the next generation of scientists and great thinkers, and that promotes the University both at home and abroad.

Providing faculty the funds and facilities, people and programs to advance knowledge

Research funding has universal implications, furthering our understanding of the natural world and shaping our place within that world. (See recent articles about how the department’s faculty members are advancing scientific knowledge.) But on a smaller level, the research being done as the result of the work of OHIO faculty and staff touches the lives of every member of Bobcat Nation.

As chair of Physics & Astronomy, Dr. David Ingram is keenly aware of the importance of securing funding – and particularly federal funding – when it comes to the vast amount of research conducted within the department. Amongst the department’s largest federal funding agencies are the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Energy, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and NASA.

“It, in my view, is seen as critical for faculty to succeed in physics – they must have funding,” said Ingram, an experimentalist whose research in condensed matter and material science has generated numerous grants. “Without these funds, many of my colleagues could not do what they want to do and neither could their students.”

Ingram added that the expertise of these faculty members, combined with their research efforts, has also paved the way for faculty within the department to assist the federal government in its research endeavors. Many of the department’s faculty members serve on the NSF and Department of Energy review panels. Ingram noted Dr. Ken Hicks, who recently served two years as the program director for experimental nuclear physics at the NSF in Washington, D.C.; Dr. Nancy Sandler, who is traveling to Washington, D.C., to serve on a review panel; and several members of the department, including Drs. Carl Brune, Charlotte Elster and Daniel Phillips, who have been working with the Department of Energy on various aspects of nuclear physics planning.

“These efforts give national recognition to the accomplishments of these faculty members, as well as giving us a voice in the future of important research programs,” Ingram said.

As the special projects assistant for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Jean Andrews sees on a daily basis the benefits research funding provides to OHIO’s faculty.

“It allows them to pursue their field of study in a way that they could not do otherwise,” Andrews said. “That is part of the mission and the research mission of this University – to advance the knowledge and creative activity across disciplines.”

The grants received by faculty within the department (See a list of grants the department has received in the past two years.) fund everything from faculty pay for their research work during the summer; to travel for faculty who are conducting research at other facilities and for attending conferences; to the hiring of staff, undergraduate and graduate students, as well as postdocs to help with the research.

“Having research funding is invaluable,” explained Dr. Sergio Ulloa, Professor of Physics & Astronomy, who is about to celebrate his 31st year in the department. “It provides you the means to complete the work.”

A theorist, Ulloa conducts research in the area of condensed matter physics, studying materials with a goal of understanding what gives them their unique properties. Ulloa is currently in the second year of a three-year grant from the NSF. During the academic year, Ulloa conducts research as frequently as his teaching and other classroom responsibilities allow, but one of the largest personal benefits of the NSF funding is the salary it provides him during the summer.

“Having the grants means that during the summer I don’t have to teach and can focus 100 percent on research,” he said.

It’s a benefit shared by several of Ulloa’s colleagues, including Brune and Dr. Julie Roche, whose research is also federally funded.

Roche, Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy, joined OHIO 11 years ago. An experimentalist in nuclear physics, Roche has brought in five NSF grants in her time at OHIO. She earned her first NSF grant in 2007 and is currently funded by two NSF grants that require her to conduct research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, where she studies and generates data about what is occurring inside protons and neutrons and how those particles react to weak force. Another one of Roche’s grants has her working in collaboration with colleagues at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and Old Dominion University in Virginia to build a major research instrument to investigate the quark structure of the proton.

“Without the research funding, I could not do the research because I could not go to the Jefferson Lab to do the experiments,” Roche explained.

Brune, Roche and Ulloa are quick to note the other significant benefit their research funding provides them – students who help them conduct their experiments and who, in turn, gain valuable scientific experience.

“The grants also fund graduate students who are working full time on this research,” Roche explained. “My research productivity is increased a lot by having them work on the topic, too.”

Roche’s grants are funding two graduate students full time as well as an undergraduate student who is working with her over the summer.

For Ulloa, the grants he has earned allow him to hire graduate students and postdocs, which keeps the research process moving forward particularly during the academic year when he is teaching.

“Having the graduate students and postdocs working with you is important because it helps you to get the job done and keeps you on your toes,” he said. “It’s so easy to get distracted while you’re doing all of the other things a professor does. … To have students that are telling you the results of their work, reminding you of your last conversation – it’s that constant feedback that keeps the research going.”

A professor of physics and astronomy who came to OHIO in 2001, Brune’s research in nuclear physics is funded by two branches of the Department of Energy as well as Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. An experimentalist, Brune’s research is focused on low-energy nuclear physics, which, he’s quick to note, is a little misleading as low-energy nuclear physics involves the energy scale that you might find in the core of a star or in certain processes that would happen inside a nuclear reactor.

“Doing nuclear physics experiments in the lab is a labor-intensive thing, and if I was going to do all the work myself, very few experiments would ever get done and analyzed,” said Brune. “Having more manpower allows you to get more done, but it also allows you to specialize in a certain sense, drawing together research scientists and graduate students to collaborate on a research project. You can bring together strengths that no one individual could ever have.”

Federal funding, Ingram explained, is particularly important because that funding often includes dollars that support the department’s overhead costs – costs that don’t go directly to research expenses but rather to the people, maintenance of equipment and facilities, and other aspects that support the research.

“I would say that federal funding sources are the most important source of research support outside of the University,” added Brune. “We don’t want to take for granted the support of the University in terms of the faculty positions and the various things that support our students and our facilities, but beyond the University, the federal government is the most important source of support.”

In addition to serving OHIO as a professor, Brune is the director of the John E. Edwards Accelerator Laboratory. Tucked away near the center of OHIO’s Athens Campus, this nuclear physics and materials science research lab is the largest and highest-energy particle accelerator in the state of Ohio and serves researchers both at Ohio University and around the world.

“This lab has had continuous funding since sometime in the early 1970s from what at the time was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission and later became the Department of Energy,” explained Brune. “This funding stream has existed for many decades and through multiple generations of faculty, and I think it’s a tribute to the University that they’ve had the foresight to sustain that by hiring people in this research area.”

The research funding Brune and his colleagues continuously work to earn helps to offset the significant costs of maintaining the equipment and supplies used within the lab and the department’s other facilities, which are critical to not only the cutting-edge research conducted within these facilities but also the University’s academic mission.

Dr. Roche noted the various institutes and programs that are funded in part or completely by overhead from the research grants – initiatives, she said, that help solidify the sense of community prevalent within the department and that keep it and the University at the forefront of the scientific community.

One of those entities is the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics (INPP). Established in 1991 to bring coherence to the department’s diverse nuclear and particle physics activities and to coordinate the activities of both theorists and experimentalists, the INPP is funded entirely on overhead generated by external grants secured by INPP faculty.

Some of the faculty from the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics gather for a photo in September 2016 in OHIO’s Living Learning Center.

Some of the faculty from the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics gather for a photo in September 2016 in OHIO’s Living Learning Center. They are (front row, from left) Kenneth Hicks, Julie Roche, Charlotte Elster, Zachary Meisel, Madappa Prakash; (back row, from left) Distinguished Professor Emeritus Steven Grimes, Alexander Voinov, Carl Brune, Director of the INPP Daniel Phillips, Justin Frantz, Paul King, Thomas Massey and David Ingram. Photo by Daniel Owen

In addition to supporting research faculty and staff as well as postdoc research fellows and summer undergraduate students, the INPP seeks to enhance the department’s and the University’s intellectual climate by organizing one seminar per week during the academic year. The seminars feature speakers from outside the University who share their expertise with anyone from the OHIO community who is interested in learning.

“These programs allow for cross-pollination of ideas and theories and practice,” said Andrews. “A lot of really good ideas come from this constant collaboration and just getting together.”

“And, they allow us and our students to be educated on the most current topics in the field,” added Roche, noting the need for faculty to stay current in their discipline and to interact with colleagues outside of the University.

And while the seminars are directly funded by overhead from the research grants, Brune noted that the department’s colloquium series, which also features experts from outside of Ohio University, also benefits indirectly from the funding.

“If you want to be able to invite good speakers, they will only want to come here if there are people here with whom they would want to interact,” he said.

Facilitating life-changing opportunities for students

It is the research opportunities provided to OHIO’s students as a result of these grants that moves the learning experience beyond the traditional classroom.

According to Ingram, many of the grants faculty receive contain funding for both undergraduate and graduate student research.

For undergraduates, those funds typically support students during the summer and pay for research project supplies throughout the year.

“The undergraduate gets the benefit of putting that on their resumes when they’re applying for positions at graduate schools or for employment opportunities,” Ingram said. “We often find that our undergraduates are taking advantage of a research experience at the end of their freshman, certainly by the end of their sophomore year. … This allows them to gain experience and to learn about what areas of physics they’re really interested in.”

Roche noted that participating in research projects is often undergraduates’ first experiences as scientists.

“Research is the best way to practice physics. There is a difference between learning and practicing,” she said. “Research gives them the kind of experience that they absolutely cannot get in a setting that is closed – they can’t even get that full experience in a lab class.”

“There are examples throughout this department of providing the kind of fertile ground for young scholars to develop themselves as scientists,” added Andrews. In addition to the research opportunities, Andrews pointed to the opportunities provided by the department’s institutes, including regular open houses where students are able to promote their research and practice discussing their work with the general public. “These opportunities provide students a better sense of themselves, where they are going and what direction they want to take. … They are just another resource for students – for them to become better scientists and better communicators.”

Colton Feathers, a senior from Fostoria, Ohio, who is majoring in astrophysics, spent last summer conducting research with Brune at the Edwards Accelerator Lab. Feathers assisted Brune with an experiment to test the theoretical cross sections of a target consisting of copper and carbon-13, collecting data over the course of a couple days and then analyzing that data.

“This research helped me get a feel for the actual research that actual physicists do, and I’m grateful for the opportunity,” said Feathers, who will be conducting research this summer with Dr. Ryan Chornock, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy. “These opportunities are giving me valuable experience for when I graduate and head to grad school.”

And the fact that OHIO faculty strive to include undergraduates in the research process often helps faculty members secure external funding.

“The fact that we are getting undergraduates working with us during the summer is one of the reasons for which the NSF is keen on our proposals, because we truly are involving the students,” Roche added. Moreover, Ulloa said, “Students have the chance to explore a variety of research fields, as our faculty work includes areas from those in INPP, to astrophysics (in the Astrophysical Institute), biophysics (in the Quantitative Biology Institute) and different areas in condensed matter physics and beyond (by interacting with faculty in the Nanoscale and Quantum Phenomena Institute, NQPI, and the Condensed Matter and Surface Sciences Program, CMSS).”

When Associate Professor Julie Roche isn’t conducting research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, she is teaching physics and astronomy at all levels on the Athens Campus.

When Associate Professor Julie Roche isn’t conducting research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, she is teaching physics and astronomy at all levels on the Athens Campus. Photo by Rob Hardin

For graduate students studying physics, research is an essential part of earning of their degrees.

“They’re supposed to create knowledge, and that’s what we’re doing,” Roche said. “We’re exploring new phenomena.”

Working alongside Roche is Mongi Dlamini, a graduate student from Swaziland who came to OHIO in 2011 to pursue his doctoral degree in physics.

In the fall of 2013, Dlamini started assisting Roche with her NSF-funded research at the Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia. That funding, Dlamini said, has benefitted him in countless ways – from helping to fund some of the expenses of traveling between Athens and Virginia and to attend conferences and meetings to the professional and personal growth he’s had as a result of the research.

“As an aspiring scientist, I’ve gained so much knowledge – knowledge that I don’t think I would ever have been able to gain if I had not engaged in this research,” Dlamini said. “Then there are the skills you gain while you’re conducting the research. At the Jefferson Lab, I get to work with experts in various fields – learning how things work and making things work myself – and it really has fulfilled something in me and exposed me to so many levels of professionalism.”

Roche works within a large collaboration at the Jefferson Lab that is made up of smaller specialized groups. That setup, Dlamini explained, has allowed him to work with individuals and groups both small and large.

“One of the things I like about working with Dr. Roche is, if she knows someone who has expertise that she thinks you need, she’s happy to see you go work with them as well,” Dlamini said. “I’ve been able to work with so many experts in the field, gaining knowledge as well as connections with people who are likely to employ me later.”

His work at the Jefferson Lab has also provided him a platform to promote both himself and his research locally, nationally and internationally. Dlamini has presented his work at everything from the Jefferson Lab’s bi-annual meetings to an American Physical Society meeting and the National Nuclear Physics Summer School.

“Without Dr. Roche’s funding and support from the Department of Physics and Astronomy, it would be impossible for me to do these things and to get the training that is fundamental to my ambitions and to pursuing my dreams,” Dlamini said.

Reaching throughout campus and into the community

The research funding generated by OHIO faculty stretches well beyond feeding the intellectual and professional passions of these educators’ and their students’ as it also helps them meet their individual and the department’s outreach mission – both to OHIO and the local communities.

“A university is not only a place where you pass on knowledge but where you create knowledge,” said Roche. “Federal funding helps to make this part of the University possible.”

And having an academic community filled with opportunities to engage in research and creative activities helps the University both recruit and retain faculty and students.

“What makes our University a place where students want to study is because we do this research,” added Roche. “In a certain way, us doing this research contributes to the reputation of the University, and we couldn’t do that if we didn’t have funding and the time needed to do it.”

Doctoral student Oscar Avalos credits Ulloa as the reason he is studying physics at OHIO. A native of Chile, Avalos became familiar with Ulloa and his work as a student in his home country.

“Dr. Ulloa has done some collaborating with my adviser in Chile, so I knew his name,” Avalos explained. “Dr. Ulloa has done a lot of work in the field of theoretical condensed matter physics, so his name is kind of famous in some topics of that field.”

Avalos enrolled at OHIO in the spring of 2013 with a goal of conducting research alongside Ulloa – a goal he achieved starting in the summer of 2014.

(From left) Professor of Physics and Astronomy Sergio Ulloa poses for a photo with postdoctoral researcher Diego Mastrogiuseppe and doctoral student Oscar Avalos.

(From left) Professor of Physics and Astronomy Sergio Ulloa poses for a photo with postdoctoral researcher Diego Mastrogiuseppe and doctoral student Oscar Avalos. The three men have been conducting research together for the past few years. Photo by Jean Andrews

As Avalos prepares to graduate in 2018, he reflected on the many benefits he has received as a result of working with Ulloa and his colleagues.

“I have had very good training here,” Avalos said. “In science, it’s very important to be exposed to different perspectives and areas of expertise. … Here I’m exposed to perspectives from Dr. Ulloa’s research group as well as groups within the department and the University. You can find experimental groups, computational groups – things I did not have access to in Chile.”

Avalos also cited the access to professional development and networking opportunities he has had thanks to the department’s research funding.

“You get to go to conferences, so you are actually presenting your work at five or six conferences per year,” he said. “And at these conferences, you always try to search for a collaboration with an experimentalist or your next big idea.”

While at OHIO, Avalos has had numerous successes – from winning a fellowship from the University’s Condensed Matter and Surface Science Program to having three papers published, two as a first author and one as a co-author.

In addition to the academic enrichment his research has provided him, Avalos said he has also enjoyed the “family environment” of the department as well as the community.

“I came here to work with Professor Ulloa,” he said, “and I found a very nice University and a very nice town for living and for working.”

“Universities with a research mission are the types of universities that students want to come to,” said Mo Valentine, OHIO’s assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs. “They want to be in an environment where the learning experience is about exploration, it’s about understanding the world. … If we attract the best research faculty, we attract the best students. If we attract the best students, then we have the greatest capacity for the expansion of knowledge, which benefits the entire world.”

As director of the Edwards Accelerator Lab, Brune sees the impact the University’s research mission and the research funding secured have on recruiting students to OHIO. Several times throughout the year, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions hosts a program called OHIO Up Close. These one-day events are designed for admitted first-year students and include tours of facilities throughout the Athens Campus, including the Edwards Accelerator Lab.

“There’s no question that having something that you can show a prospective student, and in the case of the Accelerator Lab a prospective physics major, is going to improve recruitment, especially of the very good students,” said Brune. “This doesn’t just apply to the Accelerator Lab – it’s everywhere on campus where there are exciting things going on.”

In the case of the Edwards Accelerator Lab, it’s not just prospective students who are drawn to the Athens Campus, but also visitors from both near and far.

According to Brune, approximately 25 percent of the research being conducted in the Edwards Accelerator Lab is by individuals from outside the university. Among the lab’s most recent outside users are researchers from Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and individual’s from as far away as Oslo, Norway.

“We’ve had a couple of Ph.D. students from MIT who actually did their Ph.D. research in our lab, and we’re expecting a group from Ohio State to come in a couple of weeks,” Brune added.

In the 2013 file photo, Professor of Physics and Astronomy Carl Brune conducts research inside the Edwards Accelerator Lab with graduate students Cody Parker and Shamim Akhtar.

In the 2013 file photo, Professor of Physics and Astronomy Carl Brune conducts research inside the Edwards Accelerator Lab with graduate students Cody Parker and Shamim Akhtar. This past fall, Parker, who graduated with a doctoral degree in physics in 2016 and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), returned to the Edwards Accelerator Lab with an MIT doctoral candidate to conduct research at her alma mater. Photo by Rob Hardin

Having these individuals visit the facility exposes them to a University they might not otherwise know about, and benefits the local economy.

“The research funding OHIO faculty bring in to the University also brings a lot of money into Southeast Ohio,” said Ingram. The individuals employed as a result of the funding contribute to the local tax base and local spending. The students who choose to attend the University and the outside researchers who visit Athens because of OHIO’s research opportunities spend their dollars in the local community.

“All of this money would not be here without this external funding,” said Ulloa.

Building a broader Bobcat research community

Seizing on an opportunity to share its success in securing research funding with the greater University community, OHIO’s College of Arts & Sciences launched Research Grant Workshops this academic year.

Ulloa is part of the committee that is organizing and conducting the workshops.

“The purpose of these workshops is basically to try to pass around the expertise that exists on this campus regarding research grants to younger faculty,” Ulloa said, noting that while the workshops are geared toward faculty, they are open to everyone, including graduate students and postdocs. “I think it’s an important part of the training our students receive.”

“Faculty-on-faculty training for how to get a grant is important,” said Valentine. “The Department of Physics and Astronomy has a strong culture of research collaboration.… They know how to go about it, and they’ve been successful in learning from each other.”

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is seen in this group photo taken at the Fall 2016 Welcome Reception at Emeriti Park on the Athens Campus.

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is seen in this group photo taken at the Fall 2016 Welcome Reception at Emeriti Park on the Athens Campus. Photo by Jean Andrews


This special Compass series highlights the ways in which Ohio University staff and faculty are living their passion while making a difference – on campus, in the community, in their fields, and around the world.



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