Vision For The Future

Friday, July 15, 2011

Submitted by Prof. and Chair Haiyan Gao

It will be an exciting and challenging way for me to start my 10th year at Duke as the Chair of the Physics department. I am honored and humbled by your trust and support. Duke has been the place where I have spent the longest, continuous time in my life including my birth city and hometown, Shanghai. To me, it is home and the department is my family. It is my good fortune to follow Prof. Dan Gauthier, whose leadership and service to the department have been exemplary, and my privilege to serve the department in my new capacity and I look forward to working with each one of you in the next three years.

Physics is a mature and evolving science discipline which had witnessed many breakthroughs in the 19th and 20th centuries. It is poised in the 21st century for more discoveries, breakthroughs and also for challenges. Interdisciplinary research and teaching has become ever important. Physics, as a discipline, has a long and successful tradition of conducting interdisciplinary research. Faculty, students, and researchers in our department are actively carrying out research in searching for the ultimate laws of nature, quantum physics of the 21st century, uncovering the mysteries of strongly coupled quantum systems, studying order and disorder in non-linear and complex systems, and characterizing and modeling biological phenomena. The search for the fundamental laws and explanations of natural phenomena often leads to technological breakthroughs of great benefit to society. Many of our colleagues are developing new physics-based techniques and technologies for communications, energy, medicine and security. However, the facilities for our students and faculty to carry out research are in dire need of improvements. The physics building is old and unattractive to students and visitors. The quality of our lab space in general is very poor and continues to deteriorate. This is detrimental to our ability to recruit those outstanding faculty members for whom state-of-the-art labs are essential for their research program. The poor lab situation also makes it difficult for us to attract outstanding graduate students in competition with our peers. It is absolutely important to have a new, state-of-the-art Physics building with 1st class laboratory space, open flow common area facilitating interactions among students and faculty. Under the leadership of Dan Gauthier and the support of the Arts and Sciences, the university is fully aware of the dire situation of our building and lab space. Preliminary discussions and exploration have started with the possibility of a new building possibly in a staged approach. I will continue together with colleagues in the department and friends of physics to voice our concern and need, to work with Arts & Sciences and the university until the plan for a new building becomes a reality. The success of our graduate program can only be judged by the success of our students. How to attract top students in the country and in the world to our program? What is the unique strength of our program? The department is a welcoming, warm, friendly and nurturing place. But is this attractive enough for aspiring physicists? The recent graduate curriculum overhaul is one positive development towards this direction and the success of which can only be judged by our students over time. In the 2rd year of my term (2012-2013), which is the 3rd year since the implementation of the new curriculum, I plan to initiate a departmental self-study. The American Physical Society (APS) has documents that describe how to conduct a self-study of a graduate or undergraduate program and we will use them as guidelines in our study. The ongoing discussion and planning of reorganizing our department away from the traditional sub-divisional approach to fundamental, big questions in physics can potentially be very attractive to prospective graduate students. The strength of Duke being interdisciplinary-research friendly and the physics faculty being a very important part of this big picture can certainly help our program. Under the leadership of Dan Gauthier, the news outreach to friends of the department, potential students, etc. has been improving steeply and such outreach and PR efforts are important to continue and enhance further. While the department has been very supportive of our students particularly in providing opportunities outside of physics which may benefit students to pursue careers outside physics, we need to do more for those students who are interested and motivated to pursue careers in academia. We need to provide more opportunities for students to speak at conferences and workshops, and more opportunities for them to meet leading physicists outside of our department in their corresponding areas of research. Our faculty mentors need to be more proactive in nominating students for worthy awards and recognitions. In the end, the visibility of our program can only be enhanced by the success of more of our graduates both in and outside of academia. I look forward to working with Prof. Shailesh Chandrasekharan in his new role as the Director of Graduate Studies. Overall, our undergraduate students are in general happy with our program, and more and more students have been very actively engaged in various research activities. However, the number of physics major is very small, smaller than our peers, smaller than the numbers of major in other natural science departments at Duke. While we hope the number of physics majors will increase with the newly approved biophysics majors, we need to think of more ways to attract potential students and learn from the experiences of others who have successes in attracting majors. Due to the small size of our department, we had not been able to offer a number of more advanced level courses introducing cutting-edge research topics. One possibility could be developing and offering mini-courses centered on big questions in physics that researchers in our department are actively engaging in. Students will have deeper understanding and more appreciation for cutting-edge research topics which in turn may help them and prepare them better for pursuing advanced degrees in physics and other disciplines in science, engineering, medicine, etc.. For those students who do not plan on pursuing advanced degrees, it is important to prepare them well enough so that they can compete in the ever competitive job environment. I look forward to working with Prof. Henry Greenside in his role as the Director of Undergraduate Studies. The next three years will be challenging for me, I am confident, however, that with your support and trust, I will be able to look back and feel good about my decision to serve and be proud of my service to the department.