If you ask a random student on American University’s campus for directions to the Sports Center Annex building, you will likely be met with a confused face staring back at you. But ask a physics student the same question and he/ she will happily offer directions to the building that “looks like a trailer attached to the back of Bender Arena.” Though the exterior may not be pretty, the inside holds a treasure: the American University Physics Department. There is no one thing that makes this department what it is. All of its pieces together make it remarkable.
This is a unique physics department for many reasons, from the research opportunities to the diversity statistics. One sophomore doing research for Associate Professor Gregory Harry recalls that when visiting colleges, she was dis- appointed to learn that at many schools students aren’t able to participate in research projects until their senior year, if at all. One reason she chose AU was that undergraduates can, and often do, begin research in their first year. While about half of the graduating physics majors go to graduate school, the others take their physics knowledge into fields such as graphic design and film.
During the school year and over the sum- mer, the physics department always has several students conducting research in labs such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST), and Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). Professor Harry’s LIGO Lab— affectionately known as the Gravity Lab—is a part of a nation- al collaboration. It was the LIGO observatories in Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, that recently made headlines after researchers detected gravitational waves created by the collision of two black holes in space.
Harry has been working on gravitational wave detection throughout his academic career, after his interest was first piqued in high school. Like all AU physics professors, he brings his passion to the students and has been an invalu- able mentor to many. His lab is one of the many factors that make the AU physics department stand out, despite its relatively small size, with an average of eight undergraduate physics majors graduating per year. Of those, 50 percent are women, compared to only 20 percent of physics majors nationally. That may be related to another striking figure: while women make up just 14 percent of faculties nationally, 50 percent of AU’s physics faculty is composed of women.
But it’s not just the remarkable statistics or nationally recognized labs that make American University Physics stand out. What makes it truly special is the community created by the professors and students alike. If you were to walk through its research-poster lined hallways on an average day, you would see office doors open, revealing professors tapping away at key- boards, solving equations on their whiteboards, or talking with students. Perhaps you’d see Nate Harshman, the head of the department, talking with a prospective student or having an intense discussion with a research assistant, pausing to smile and wave as you walk by. The confer- ence rooms are filled with students discussing homework sets, debating complex equations, and holding tutoring office hours. You would see students in every office, talking about work or class, discussing physical theories, or debating who will win the annual chili cook off.
Talented physicists with doctorates from the top physics PhD programs choose American for its DC location and the opportunity to interact with students. Like most physics departments, AU’s is academically rigorous, but its small size and supportive community create a unique, encouraging, and engaging community. While the appearance of the building that houses this department will soon change with the new Don Myers Technology and Innovation Building on East Campus in the coming year, the high quality of the department will undoubtedly stay the same. It is a remarkable program where any student even remotely interested in the subject can develop a lifelong passion for physics.