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American Physical Society honors nine with MIT ties for physics research

Faculty, staff, and alumni recognized for outstanding contributions to physics research, education, and policy.
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Three by three grid of headshot photos of Edmund Bertschinger, Nikta Fakhri, Robert Jaffe, Gene Dresselhaus, Peter Fritschel, Sean Robinson, Sylvester James Gates Jr., Terence Tai-Li Hwa, and Sanat Kumar.
Nine Institute community members were selected for American Physical Society spring 2022 prizes and awards. Top row, l-r: Department of Physics faculty members Edmund Bertschinger, Nikta Fakhri, and Robert Jaffe. Middle row, l-r: MIT staff members Gene Dresselhaus, Peter Fritschel and Sean Robinson. Bottom row, l-r: Alumni Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77; Terence Tai-Li Hwa PhD ’90; and Sanat Kumar ’84, ScD ’87.

Nine MIT community members have been selected for the American Physical Society (APS) spring 2022 prizes and awards. Those awarded include Professor Edmund Bertschinger, Associate Professor Nikta Fakhri, and Professor (post-tenure) Robert Jaffe; late Research Scientist Gene Dresselhaus, Research Scientist Peter Fritschel; and Lecturer and Junior Lab Manager Sean Robinson; as well as alumni Sylvester James Gates Jr. ’73, PhD ’77, Terence Tai-Li Hwa PhD ’90; and Sanat Kumar ’84, ScD ’87.

These highly regarded honors represent critical recognition from the recipients' peers.

Excellence in Physics Education Award

The TEAM-UP Task Force at the American Institute of Physics, which included Bertschinger and Gates, earned the 2022 Excellence in Physics Education Award.

For a team, collaboration, or individual with a “sustained commitment to excellence in physics education,” this award cited the Task Force to Elevate the Representation of African Americans in Undergraduate Physics & Astronomy (TEAM-UP) for its research into persistent under-representation of African Americans in physics and astronomy and its recommendations to “catalyze cultural change.”

Commissioned by the AIP Board of Directors and launched in 2017, TEAM-UP’s report “The Time Is Now: Systemic Changes to Increase African Americans with Bachelor’s Degrees in Physics and Astronomy includes recommendations to increase the number of Black scientists earning physics and astronomy bachelor’s degrees. TEAM-UP also hosts workshops supported by the Heising Simons Foundation, webinars, and other efforts to help physics and astronomy departments develop action plans for systemic change.

Bertschinger was TEAM-UP co-chair and is a physics professor with an affiliation in the Program in Women’s and Gender Studies. A member of the MIT faculty since 1986, he served as MIT’s inaugural Community and Equity Officer and has worked actively for many years to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion at MIT and through professional societies including the American Physical Society, American Astronomical Society, American Institute of Physics, and American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Task force member Gates received MIT degrees in math and physics in 1973, and a physics PhD in 1977. Formerly the John S. Toll Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland at College Park, Gates is now the Brown University Theoretical Physics Center director and Ford Foundation Physics Professor. He has served on national committees including the U.S. Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Commission on Forensic Science, and was cited regarding an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on the value of minorities in physics. Gates is a fellow and vice-president of the APS, and a fellow and past president of the National Society of Black Physicists.

Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize

Dresselhaus, a research technical staff member with the Plasma Science and Fusion Center, received the 2022 Oliver E. Buckley Condensed Matter Physics Prize for his research on spin-orbit coupling in crystals, including the foundational discovery of chiral spin-orbit interactions, which continue to enable new developments in spin transport and topological materials.

He received the Buckley Prize shortly before his passing on Sept. 29 at age 91, and shares the award with Emmanuel I. Rashba of Harvard University. Dresselhaus was a longtime research associate and husband of the late MIT Institute Professor Emerita Mildred Dresselhaus, the “queen of carbon science” who herself received the Buckley Prize in 2008 and died in 2017. Other MIT physicists receiving this award include Pablo Jarillo-Herrero (2020); Xiaogang-Wen (2017); and Jagadeesh Moodera, Paul Tedrow, and Robert Mersevey (2009). The Buckley Prize recognizes outstanding theoretical or experimental contributions to condensed matter physics and includes a $20,000 award.

Dresselhaus studied physics at the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked on early cyclotron resonance experiments on semiconductors and semi-metals. After postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, he was a junior faculty member at Cornell University for four years. He was a research scientist at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in the 1960s and early 70s, and later joined the Francis Bitter National Magnet Laboratory at MIT, which eventually melded with the Plasma Science and Fusion Center.

Early Career Award for Soft Matter Research

Fakhri, an associate professor of physics, received the Early Career Award for Soft Matter Research for her “groundbreaking and inspiring developments in probing and analyzing biological systems as emergent non-equilibrium systems, elucidating how molecular-scale processes form cooperative functional structures at cellular and organismal scales.”

This award, which recognizes outstanding and sustained contributions by an early-career researcher to the soft-matter field, provides $5,000 and the cost of travel to the APS March meeting. 

Fakhri received her undergraduate degree at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran, Iran, in 2002, and her PhD at Rice University in 2011. She was a Human Frontier Science Program postdoc at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen in Germany before joining MIT’s Department of Physics in 2015 as an assistant professor.

She has received the 2017 Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship in Physics, the 2018 IUPAP Young Scientist Prize in Biological Physics, and the 2019 NSF CAREER Award. Her group focuses on discovering underlying principles of collective dynamics and complex spatio-temporal patterns in far-from-equilibrium living systems.  

Richard A. Isaacson Award in Gravitational-Wave Science

Fritschel, a senior research scientist at the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, and chief detector scientist for the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), received the Richard A. Isaacson Award in Gravitational-Wave Science for his work on gravitational wave detectors, and for leading the design and commissioning of Advanced LIGO. His research was key to detecting gravitational waves.

This $5,000 award, which recognizes outstanding contributions in gravitational-wave physics, gravitational-wave astrophysics, and the technologies that enable this science, is supported by MIT Department of Physics Professor Emeritus Rainer Weiss and his fellow Nobel Prize in Physics winner Kip S. Thorne of Caltech. The award honors the contributions of Richard Isaacson, the retired program director of gravitational physics at the National Science Foundation, to the development of LIGO and to the entire field of gravitational-wave physics.

After receiving his BS in physics from Swarthmore College in 1984, Fritschel was an MIT doctoral student when he developed techniques for gravitational wave detection using interferometry. He has received the 2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the 2018 Berkeley Prize in Astronomy, and Optica’s Charles H. Townes Medal in 2018 “for advances in quantum-limited precision measurement in the Advanced LIGO detectors, leading to the first direct detection of gravitational waves.” He is a fellow of the APS and the Optical Society of America.

Joseph A. Burton Forum Award

Jaffe, the Jane and Otto Morningstar Professor of Physics, received the Joseph A. Burton Forum Award for “bringing a physics perspective into policy discussions in academia and government over the last half-century, from the development of the Stanford Workshops on Social and Political Issues to influential work on policy and education regarding critical elements, energy, and climate.”

The annual Burton award, in honor of APS’ former treasurer Joseph A. Burton, was the former Forum Award for Promoting Public Understanding of the Relationship of Physics and Society. The $5,000 award recognizes outstanding contributions to the public understanding or resolution of issues involving the interface of physics and society.   

Jaffe (Princeton ’68, Stanford PhD ’72) is a theoretical physicist focusing on the physics of elementary particles and quantum field theory, especially the dynamics of quark confinement and hadron structure, the Standard Model, and the quantum structure of the vacuum. At MIT, Jaffe served as chair of the faculty and director of the Center for Theoretical Physics, and has received many awards for teaching and course development. Over 50 years ago, Jaffe cofounded the Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues, and more recently helped found the School of Science and Engineering at the Lahore (Pakistan) University of Management and Science, where he led its International Advisory Board from its inception until 2015. From 2008 through 2016 Jaffe served as a member and then chair of the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA). In 2011 Jaffe led the joint POPA/MRS study on “Energy Critical Elements.”  Together with MIT Professor Washington Taylor, Jaffe developed a new course on “The Physics of Energy,” leading to the definitive textbook of the same name; the book won the 2019 PROSE award from the Association of American Publishers for the best textbook in mathematics and the physical sciences of that year. Jaffe is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society.

Jonathan F. Reichert and Barbara Wolff-Reichert Award

Robinson received the Jonathan F. Reichert and Barbara Wolff-Reichert Award for Excellence in Advanced Laboratory Instruction. As associate director of the MIT Physics Helena Foundation Junior Laboratory, he was cited for “pedagogical excellence that extends to the broader advanced physics laboratory community.”    

This award is to recognize and honor outstanding achievement in teaching, sustaining (for at least four years), and enhancing an advanced undergraduate laboratory course or courses at U.S. institutions. Offered annually, the award consists of $5,000 plus travel expenses (up to $2,000) to attend an APS meeting at which the award is presented.

He received his BS in physics and his PhD in theoretical particle physics from MIT and has held academic and administrative staff positions in the physics department since 2005. His research activities range from quantum gravity to computational biology, primarily focused on research and development for physics education in the advanced laboratory setting. He is a member of the American Physical Society; the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the American Association of Physics Teachers, where he has served on the Committee for Laboratories; and the Advanced Laboratory Physics Association, where he served as treasurer from 2018-22.

2022 Max Delbruck Prize in Biological Physics

Hwa, the Presidential Chair and Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of California at San Diego, with joint appointment in the Division of Biological Sciences, received the 2022 Max Delbruck Prize in Biological Physics for “developing quantitative studies that reveal fundamental constraints on bacterial physiology, and for formulating simple phenomenological theories that quantitatively predict bacterial responses to genetic and environmental changes.”

Formerly known as the Biological Physics Prize, the Delbruck Prize is named in honor of the physicist and Nobel Laureate Max Delbruck, whose pioneering quantitative study in genes and their susceptibility to mutations has inspired generations of physical scientists to work on biology, starting with Erwin Schroedinger’s book “What Is Life?” The Delbruck Prize includes $10,000, and is presented annually to recognize and encourage outstanding achievement in biological physics research.  MIT professor of biological engineering James Collins also received this prize.  

Hwa received his BS in physics, biology, and electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1986, and his PhD in physics from MIT in 1990, with a combined theoretical and experimental thesis in soft matter and non-equilibrium dynamics under mentors Mehran Kardar and the late Toyoichi Tanaka. He continued his postdoctoral research in statistical physics and superconductivity at Harvard University and was at the Institute for Advanced Study and SUNY Stony Brook before joining the physics faculty with tenure at UC San Diego in 1995.

At UC San Diego, Hwa develops theoretical and experimental approaches to gain quantitative, predictive understanding of living systems. He is known for quantitative studies of bacterial physiology, with the discovery of phenomenological laws and formulation of theories connecting molecular interactions to bacterial behaviors. Hwa is a fellow of the American Physical Society, a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Polymer Physics Prize

Kumar, Columbia University’s Bykhovsky Professor of Chemical Engineering, was awarded the 2022 Polymer Physics Prize “for fundamental experimental, simulatory, and theoretical contributions to understanding structure, assembly, and dynamics in polymer nanocomposites and thin films.”

The Polymer Physics prize recognizes outstanding accomplishment and excellence of contributions in polymer physics research and includes a $10,000 monetary prize and $1,500 for travel.  

Kumar and his group create, analyze, and model new classes of polymer-based materials, with a focus on hybrid materials with inorganic fillers and polymer upcycling. His group is a pioneer in polymer nanocomposites, where inorganic nanoparticles are added to polymers to obtain materials with synergistic properties. His group’s goal is to advance the science of energy conversion and storage, such as membranes for gas separation and for the selective transport of ions as relevant to batteries, and to mimic biology to guide the assembly of nanoparticles into desired structures.

Kumar studied chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, followed by SM ’84 and ScD ’87 degrees from MIT, and was a postdoc at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. In 2006 he joined the faculty of Columbia Engineering.

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