Chair Warren S. Warren on the Future of Duke Physics

Monday, February 22, 2016

Prof. Warren Warren became chair of Duke Physics on September 1, 2015, replacing interim chair Prof. Dan Gauthier.

Since then, he’s been taking the long view, asking himself and other faculty members what the department should look like in 10 years, and what investments are needed to make that happen.

Warren is a James B. Duke Professor, with appointments in physics, chemistry, radiology, and biomedical engineering. He came here from Princeton in 2005, drawn to Duke’s interdisciplinary culture and the possibility of collaborating with the medical and engineering schools.

In January, he put forward a strategic plan for Duke Physics, together with a committee including several former chairs of the department. The plan calls for more space for table-top experimental physics and more hires for the department as a whole, which is smaller than it was a decade ago.

These measures are critical, he believes, for maintaining the reputation of Duke University. “Physical sciences are the major limitation to Duke’s status as a world class university,” he says.“It is not because we don’t have some very high quality people here. It is because since CIEMAS and French Family Science Center there have been no serious investments in physical sciences and our competitors have made a lot of investments in terms of building space.”

The Pratt Engineering/Physics building that is planned for the area between physics and the Levine Science Research Center is on hold pending fundraising, but the conceptual design has been approved. When the building does go forward, Warren is pushing for more of it to be devoted to physics. He’s also pushing for 2,000 square feet of unfinished space in French to be built out as a physics lab.

"We have to get table-top experimental physics out of this (current) building,” he says, citing out-of-date HVAC equipment and structures and lack of electrical shielding, to name a few of the issues.

The interdisciplinary culture that attracted Warren to Duke in the first place is what demands an increased investment in physics and other physical sciences now. “There are universities where individual departments can work as islands unto themselves but Duke is not one of them,” he says. “You need to have research groups that are bigger than the sum of their parts because they include people from a wide variety of disciplines.”

The new building and the space in French would not do away with the need for the current building. It could be reconfigured to meet the needs of theoretical physicists and experimentalists whose experiments take place in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. For example, part of the building could be opened up to make places for theoreticians to get together, share ideas, and collaborate with colleagues in the math department.

The Triangle University Nuclear Laboratory, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last fall, is another departmental asset. “TUNL is one of a very small number of DOE Centers of Excellence in nuclear physics,” Warren says. “We need to be able to leverage the investment made in the past and to understand where the opportunities are going forward.”

Warren’s own research straddles the line between chemistry and physics. “What I do is just as easy to classify as physics as chemistry,” he says. “I am not the sort of chemist who mixes a yellow solution and a blue solution to see if it turns pink.” Rather, he is the sort of physicist who uses ultrafast laser spectroscopy to peer into the layers of human tissue or layers of paint on valuable artwork. (For more, see this article on the Pratt School of Engineering website.) He also uses nuclear magnetic resonance to improve the capabilities and resolution of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) used in medical applications.

Dan Gauthier, professor of physics at The Ohio State University and former chair of Duke Physics, says that Warren’s table-top research gives him connections and experience that will benefit Duke Physics. “He’s very familiar with the needs of researchers in this area,” he says. “He’ll be a great champion of the department in discussions with the university and architects in developing new space.”

Warren also has experience chairing a department: from 2007-2012, he was chair of the chemistry department. He believes that experience helps him now, giving him a fresh perspective and ideas for doing things differently. “It’s like coming in as an outside chair except I know the Duke system,” he says. He’s hoping to keep his stint as chair of the physics department fairly brief, saying “A huge part of my job is to find my replacement.”

But for now, he’s focusing on helping to guide Duke Physics into its next iteration—maintaining the disciplinary core while fulfilling the department’s mission as an integral player in interdisciplinary research among the physical sciences, the engineering school, and the medical school.

In ten years, if Warren’s goals are met, the department will have plenty of state-of-the-art lab space, more faculty, and will be more involved in interdisciplinary collaboration. “A decade from now,” he says, “this is a completely transformed physics department.”

Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.