With a nationally-renowned department that houses three of UCSB’s five Nobel laureates, the physics department has seen a notable increase in its enrollment of undergraduate students.
This year, the department enrolled over 100 incoming freshmen — a remarkable leap from the mere 34 students that enrolled back in 2008. Physics department chair and professor Omer Blaes said the large enrollment phenomenon occurred as a result of many factors, including a general trend of increased enrollment in the hard sciences as well as a boost from UCSB’s inclusion in notable top rankings.
“The UCSB Physics Department has received numerous accolades recently … it was ranked number five in the National Research Council’s 2010 rankings of Physics graduate programs,” Blaes said.
According to Blaes, a graduate program’s success is directly connected to a school’s research capabilities. The physics department actively recruits prospective researchers and faculty who “have the potential to develop into internationally-recognized leaders in their fields,” Blaes said.
“Our faculty have won numerous prestigious awards — including Nobel Prizes and memberships of the National Academies and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” Blaes said. “We have made some really major and high-profile research breakthroughs.”
UCSB alum Michael Beall, who received a Bachelor’s degree in physics last spring, said UCSB gives students the unique opportunity to work with professors conducting world-renowned scientific breakthroughs in their field. However, Beall said these opportunities can largely go unnoticed, and he encourages students to actively seek them out.
“There are a lot of opportunities, but unfortunately, they aren’t all presented on a platter,” Beall said. “Talk to all the professors of classes you have, and any others who have research that might interest you.”
The physics department’s top undergraduate student of 2013, Erica Mason, said her studies have allowed her to develop a versatile skill set that will prepare her for various careers.
“It teaches students how to think and analyze critically and from first principles,” Mason said. “The skills physics majors hone during undergrad are applicable to countless career paths.”
According to Beall, physics majors are trained in ways that move beyond basic memorization, opening the way for them to rapidly adapt to a variety of subjects and scenarios in their post-graduation endeavors.
Beall said students are primarily tested on their “understanding of what rules are relevant, which approximations you can and can’t make, what factors to test and which to ignore and how to dissemble unknown and unfamiliar problems to make them solvable.” He said an understanding of these basic concepts is what makes up the backbone of this scientific field, “This enables physics.”
Physics professor David Stuart said undergraduate students lend a great hand in assisting and facilitating the success of research projects, many of which culminate into breakthrough research in science and technology.
“Several undergrads helped with the construction and testing of the particle detectors using in our Large Hadron Collider experiment,” Stuart said. “Some helped to analyze the data collected by the experiment, and others are working on developing sensing technology for future experiments.”
According to Blaes, a physics undergraduate at UCSB can expect a lot of hard work but, more importantly, the valuable ability “to think quantitatively and critically as you learn the basic underlying laws governing the physical universe.”
This article appeared on page 3 in the the Wednesday, October 2, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.