Department News, Spring 2019

Message from the Chair
Department Spotlights
Department Announcements
Alumni Updates/Class Notes
Donor Recognition

Message from the Chair


Bill Briscoe





Dear Friends of GW Physics:

After our big move into our wonderfully renovated Corcoran Hall, we have been busy setting up our offices, teaching labs and research facilities. We have also seen many of our students complete their degrees and our post-docs move on to new horizons. Since we are limited in space I will give up my usual executive summary in deference to the articles that follow. I thank those who have been generous to us in the past, and ask that you consider a gift to our Physics Department. 

Best regards,

Bill Briscoe, Chair


Department Spotlights 

Department Returns to Renovated Corcoran Hall



A collage of 9 photos of newly renovated classroom and hallway spaces in Corcoran Hall set on a cream colored background.

Our newly renovated spaces

The renovation of historic Corcoran Hall was completed and the department moved back to its permanent home in January 2018. The renovated building features open floor design with abundant places for conversations and student study, seminar rooms, bright classrooms, well-lit hallways and a beautiful stairway. The building also features advanced lab space (be sure to read about the Innovations Lab!), SCALE-UP classrooms and a well-equipped eat-in kitchen! The latter is a favorite place to meet over lunch for both faculty and students. 

Those who are interested in history, will enjoy a brief travel to the past to learn about William Wilson Corcoran, the 1924 construction of Corcoran Hall, the new renovations and historic photos and documents related to the building.

William Wilson Corcoran joined the GW Board of Trustees the same year he founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1869. He became president of the GW Board of Trustees in 1872 and served until his death in 1888.

His partnership with Columbian University (GW) President James Clarke Welling, who was concurrently president of Columbian University and the Corcoran Gallery of Art between 1877 and 1894, laid the foundation for GW’s science and engineering programs. 

In 1874, Welling and Corcoran laid out “The Plan for Columbian University” at a lavish dinner attended by President Ulysses S. Grant. Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, a member of the Columbian board of trustees beginning in 1862, spoke for “Science.” The dinner was held six months before the opening of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. 

Two new schools would be added: a scientific school funded by Corcoran and named after him, and a “Polytechnic School.” 

“To these would be added, as the crowning adornment of the university, a School of the Fine Arts, embracing architecture, sculpture, and painting. The resources of the Corcoran Gallery of Art would be available for use in the same way government establishments would be utilized in scientific instruction.”
—Columbian President James Clarke Welling

When Corcoran died, Welling gave the following statement:

“It is not too much to say that the Columbian University in its present reconstitution, in its new habitation, and in the enlarged scope of its operations is essentially his creation. He gave to us our Medical Building and the ground on which its extension has just been erected; he laid the foundation of the only permanent endowment which the university has ever had, for in 1873 the University not only had no endowment but was $30,000 in debt and had spent in current operation every dollar of the invested funds; he gave to us $30,000 for the erection of the beautiful building in which we are today assembled, and only two years ago at the annual meeting of that date, he added the munificent gift of $25,000 to our permanent endowment and presented a costly work of art for the adornment of the general hall of the Preparatory School.”

It was President Welling who led the planning for the Corcoran Flagg Building, which is now part of GW, and its School of Art. And it was Welling who spoke at the laying of the cornerstone of the Flagg Building six years after Corcoran’s death:

“Happy is it for the repute of our national capital, happy is it for the glory of art in the eyes of the nation, happy is it, let us hope, for the progress of art in the near and splendid future dawning upon our land, that the beneficence of William W. Corcoran has assured to us and to our fellow citizens that the tradition of the fine arts shall for all time to come be here kept alive in a marble palace, which will bear on its very front the proclamation of its mission. We have taken care that the new temple which we are here to erect shall bear over its very threshold the same inscription which was selected by our founder: “Dedicated to Art.”

GW subsequently had financial difficulties and moved to Foggy Bottom in 1912. Once finances allowed, GW built its first new building and named it Corcoran Hall. 

It is safe to say that Corcoran would be very pleased that GW has adopted the Corcoran and renovated Corcoran Hall to preserve his legacy 130 years after his death.

Welcome Professor Neil Johnson!



Neil Johnson

Neil Johnson

Dr. Neil Johnson, who joined GW Physics in fall 2018, is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and is the recipient of the 2018 Burton Award from the APS. He heads up a new initiative in Complexity and Data Science which combines cross-disciplinary fundamental research with data science to attack complex real-world problems. His research interests lie in the broad area of complex systems and “many-body” out-of-equilibrium systems of collections of objects, ranging from crowds of particles to crowds of people and from environments as distinct as quantum information processing in nanostructures through to the online world of collective behavior on social media. 

Professor Johnson received his BA/MA from St. John's College, Cambridge, University of Cambridge and his PhD as a Kennedy Scholar from Harvard University. He was a Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge, and later a professor of physics at the University of Oxford until 2007, having joined the faculty in 1992. Following a period as professor of physics at the University of Miami, he was appointed professor of physics at GW in 2018.

He presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures "Arrows of Time" on BBC TV in 1999. He has more than 300 published research papers across a variety of research topics and has supervised the doctoral theses of more than 25 students.

His published books include Financial Market Complexity (Oxford University Press) and Simply Complexity: A Clear Guide to Complexity Theory (Oneworld Publications). He co-founded and co-directed CABDyN (Complex Agent-Based Dynamical Systems) which is Oxford University's interdisciplinary research center in Complexity Science, and an Oxford University interdisciplinary research center in financial complexity (OCCF). You can learn more about Professor Johnson’s research in this article in Scientific American.

Celebrating the Graduating Class of 2018



A group of students in their graduation caps and gowns standing with professors in their regalia.

Students from left to right: Tyler Samuels, Kara Zielinski, Obinna Ome Irondi, Samantha Lumpkin, Sophia Donovan, with Physics faculty 

On May 19, the Department of Physics celebrated seven graduates in the class of 2018: Arthur Cronin, Sophia Donovan, Samantha Lumpkin, Tyler Samuels, Obinna Ome Irondi, George Sangiolo and Kara Zielinski.

The accomplishments of these excellent students were highlighted in a department party in which many family members, other students and faculty members participated. Everybody enjoyed some light snacks and drinks, and many very proud parents, grandparents, family and friends, heard Professors Briscoe and Van der Horst praise the graduates for their achievements.

They also presented departmental awards to several undergraduate and graduate students:

    •    Gus W. Weiss Prize for Outstanding Student in Physics: Kara Zielinski
    •    Berman Prize for Excellence in Experimental Physics: Jack Hirschman
    •    Parke Prize for Excellence in Theoretical Physics: Daniel Sadasivan
    •    Craig Futterman Prize for Best Graduate Student in Biophysics: Yan Kai
    •    Peverley Prize for the Best Poster Presentation by a Undergraduate Student: Sophia Donovan
    •    Chair's Prize for the Best Poster Presentation by a Graduate Student: Ben Kopchick
    •    Bennhold Family Award for Best Teaching on the Part of a Graduate Student: Michael Moss

At the end of the award presentation, all the graduating students received two gifts that will remind them of their time at GW for decades to come, one of which the traditional GW Department of Physics mug. After donning the robes, the faculty and students participating in the Columbian College celebration had a photo shoot on the steps of Corcoran Hall.

The department is very proud of this graduating class. Congratulations to the graduating students, and we wish them every success in the future!


Department Announcements

Faculty Kudos

Professor Alexander van der Horst was elected to the executive committee for the High-Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society.

Professor Harald Griesshammer is now a vice chair of the Few-Body Systems & Multiparticle Dynamics group in the American Physical Society.

Professor Evangeline Downie is chair-elect of the National Organizing Committee of the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

Current Students

Four new graduate students joined the GW Physics program in fall 2018: Hui Yang, Natalie (Pi) Nuessle, Stinson Lee and Katha Ni. Let’s congratulate them on passing a competitive selection process and help them to feel like home at the department!



Collage of Society of Physics Students meetings and flyers advertising meetings set on a cream-colored background.


The new year brought some extra good news to the GW chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS), and especially to the SPS Outreach Chair Jason Starita. Late last year Jason wrote a proposal entitled “I can Science” in an effort to acquire extra funds to support GW’s science outreach efforts, submitting it for consideration as a SPS Future Faces of Physics Award. The goal of the SPS Future Faces of Physics Award is to promote the recruitment and retention of people from groups historically underrepresented in physics. Jason’s proposal was to use the funding from the award to purchase take-home science items such as slinkies and diffraction rainbow glasses for the young boys in the Life Pieces to Masterpieces after-school program as reminders of the science lessons that the GW SPS chapter members provide on Fridays throughout the spring. In addition, he proposed purchasing an expansion of the demonstration equipment, including a free-fall vacuum demonstration, small wind tunnel and a bicycle wheel gyroscope. Jason got word just before the new year that his proposal was a winner of the 2018-2019 Future Faces of Physics Award for the requested amount of $340.63! Congratulations to Jason and to GW SPS!

Nick Gorgone received the Andrew John Knox Endowment Scholarship which supports his PhD thesis research on the Swift/XRT Deep Galactic Plane Survey (DGPS). The DGPS is a multiwavelength survey that leverages the X-ray telescope (operating in 0.3-10 keV band) and the Ultraviolet and Optical Telescope to systematically tile the inner regions of the galactic plane in search for X-ray emitting objects such as pulsars and X-ray binaries, their counterparts, and other transients. As of January 2019, the survey is half completed. It has found approximately 190 sources, ~40 new or unclassified sources. The brightest and interesting sources are being followed up with deeper dedicated observations. Congratulations to Nick on receiving the scholarship!

Department Achievements



Physics faculty stand with Berhan Taddesse Demissie after presentation.


Ten PhD students successfully defended their dissertations in 2018. The topics of their PhD theses encompass high-energy astrophysics and astronomy, experimental and theoretical nuclear physics, biophysics and condensed matter. Congratulations to students and their advisors!

Here are examples of job placements for students who graduated from GW with a PhD in physics in 2018-2019:

  • Dr. Jeremy Hare is now a postdoc in the Space Science Laboratory at UC Berkeley continuing his research in high-energy astrophysics of compact objects studying accreting binaries using the NuSTAR space telescope.
  • Dr. Noel Klingler is now a postdoc in the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory team at the Pennsylvania State University and working in the exciting new area of following up LIGO gravitational wave detection events and looking for their electromagnetic counterparts.
  • Dr. Oleksandr Koshchii is now a postdoc doing research in theoretical nuclear physics in the Institute of Theoretical High Energy Physics at Mainz University, Germany. 
  • Dr. Oksana Chubenko is now a postdoc in Center of Bright Beams (NSF’s Science and Technology Center) at the Arizona State University and is working on near-threshold photoemission electron spectroscopy.
  • Dr. Chuxuan Yang is now a machine learning research scientist at the Mokobio Life Science Group in Rockville, Md.
  • Dr. Yan Kai is now a postdoc in in computational biology in the Department of Biostatistics and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard University.
  • Dr. Zhouhao Zeng is now a research scientist at Facebook.
  • Dr. Berhan Taddesse Demissie is now a software engineer at IBM.
  • Dr. Dehua Guo is now a research analyst at Bayview Asset Management in Miami, Fla.
  • Dr. Jianlei Chen is now a senior data scientist at CarMax.

2018 APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics 



Collage of 7 photos from the APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics 2018 that was hosted at GW.


GW was the host site for the 2018 APS Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP). The conference took place from January 12-14th, 2018, in the Science and Engineering Hall on the Foggy Bottom campus. The conference included lots of fun and exciting activities including opportunities to learn about new, cutting-edge physics from senior women leaders in their fields; workshops and panels on professional skills, life as a physicist and career opportunities in physics; opportunities to tour NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and other local labs and programs; a career fair; and a vibrant social program and outreach fair organized by the local Society of Physics Students (SPS) chapter.

The whole Physics Department actively participated in organizing the conference. The organizing committee included Physics Department Chair Professor William Briscoe, CCAS Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Physics Evangeline Downie, Professor Chryssa Kouveliotou, Professor Alexander van der Horst and several graduate and undergraduate students (Kelly French, Isabella and Lucia Illari, Samantha Lumpkin, Maria Solyanik and Kara Zielinski). There were 100 undergraduate participants and 40 speakers and panelists. We were particularly proud that 20 men from the Physics Department took a very active role in the conference organization, and logistical support. They helped encourage the women attendees, and staffed the registration desk so all the women could participate fully in conference events.

The conference was so successful that our GW conference chair was elected to be the incoming chair of the National Organizing Committee of the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. Thank you to all who participated to make CUWiP such a success!

Astronomy Night and Other Outreach Activities 



Collage of 7 photos from Astronomy Night set on a cream colored background.


GW faculty and students participated in a public outreach event called Astronomy Night at the National Mall on Saturday June 23, 2018. The largest national outreach astronomy event held annually in Washington D.C., it attracts thousands of visitors of all ages who are curious about astronomy and space exploration.

This free public stargazing is organized by Dr. Donald Lubowich, coordinator of astronomy outreach at Hofstra University. Representatives from NASA and some of the nation’s most prominent scientific institutions, organizations and universities show exciting science demonstrations and answer questions about astronomical discoveries, education opportunities and careers in science.

The GW Astrophysics Group has been sending a substantial delegation to the Astronomy Night on the National Mall event since 2014. This effort has been spearheaded by Professor Oleg Kargaltsev for several years, with enthusiastic participation of other faculty, postdocs and graduate students in the group. The participants have demonstrated the concepts of General Relativity and gravitational waves, shown the scale of the solar system and handed out solar viewing glasses to hundreds of people.

The event is typically held at the National Mall (hence the name), however, in summer 2018 it was held on the GW campus because of inclement weather. This year, GW physics students and faculty again enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the visitors, show them demos illustrating physical laws and tell them about their exciting research and the mysteries of the universe. The antique (manufactured in 1956, property of GW Physics) but still functioning mechanical model of the solar system (called orrery) attracted particular attention.

The Astronomy Night event is scheduled to return to the National Mall on June 22, 2019 at 6 p.m. Everyone is cordially invited to participate!

In other activities, several members of the GW Astrophysics Group are involved with Astronomy on Tap DC, a recurring event at a local bar where astronomers present short public talks and the audience participates in “Astronomy Bingo” and “Astronomy Trivia.” Astronomy on Tap DC events are held every other month. GW professors, postdocs and students have given talks, helped provide trivia questions, volunteered as event photographers and handed out prizes to the audience. In particular, Dr. Justin Linford has been very active in the organization of the events and rallying the Astrophysics Group members to participate.

Dr. Paz Beniamini and Dr. Maxim Mai participated in a science/art crossover event about entropy at Rhizome DC. Dr. Justin Linford attended a career day at Lake Ridge Elementary school to share his excitement about astronomy with elementary school children. Professor Alexander van der Horst gave talks at meetings of the National Capital Astronomers and the Galesville Astrophysical Society. Professor Van der Horst also created astronomy quizzes for The Netherlands Embassy as part of the Embassy Open Days in May.

Innovation Lab Grand Opening Coming Soon!


Students work on computers at the Innovation Lab.


The entire Physics Department is excited about the new Innovation Lab and Innovation Lab clubs. Professor Sylvain Guiriec shared his thoughts on this landmark new addition to the GW community:

The interests of physicists and engineers are intricately connected. The goal of physicists is to model the behavior of natural phenomena. This is based on observations and measurements using equipment, modeling using mathematics and computer simulations and tests for reproducibility using experimental equipment. The goal of engineers is to design systems and devices for facilitating human activities and to entertain us. To do so, engineers use physics for controlling nature at a certain level and shape it to respond to our needs. Thanks to physicists and engineers we know how to make a pile of sand perform billions of operations per seconds: the microprocessor.

The innovation lab of the physics department is set to be the crossroad of these two communities and more. We envision that the innovation lab will host the development of real-scale research experiments for physics with our partners and collaborators, including the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jefferson Lab and the Naval Research Laboratory. We want students to participate in these projects so that they will be the best equipped for their future careers.

However, we have even bigger ambitions for the innovation lab. We want it to be the place for creativity and for sharing knowledge without any boundaries. If you have an idea, which can benefit society, improve our everyday life or revolutionize physics (or at least contribute to it). Then build a team composed of scientists, artists, managers, economists, lawyers, health providers, educators ... and propose your idea to the innovation lab.

This is open to all members of the university: students, faculty and staff. If you have ideas but not the scientific and technical background to complete your project, then you will have the opportunity to join our evening clubs where people can work together on electronics (Raspberry Pi, Arduinos, FPGA, ...) and programming projects, share and show their ideas and brainstorm. These clubs will be open to everybody from the university because knowledge and skills do not only transfer from faculty members to students but also from students to faculty members and from person-to-person across fields, especially so in the case of modern technologies.

We want students and citizens to be aware of the importance of physics in their everyday life. We want them to be informed about how the technologies they use all the time work and to apprehend the benefits and the risks. With this goal in mind, Professor Gerald Feldman and I developed a course offered in the innovation lab to students of the University Honors Program: the Physics of Everyday Life. In this course, we explain how physics in our everyday life operates and how devices work. In addition, the students of this class—who are not necessarily physicists and even not scientists—must develop a semester-long research project involving physics and electronics. Via a series of labs, we provide the building blocks for creating basic electronic circuits, for interfacing them with a micro-controller, for programming a microcontroller, for operating sensors and for analyzing data. These projects must be related to student passions because physics is everywhere. For example, a group of students doing boxing wants to measure the strength of a punch, another group playing squash wants to measure the impact of the temperature on the bouncing ball and others want to measure the impact of temperature on the sound emitted by a music instrument. These are only a few ideas in a world where imagination is the sole limit. We hope that this class will become regularly offered as part of the physics curriculum.

I am also currently leading several projects for developing equipment for education and outreach in the innovation lab, which will serve in our physics curriculum at GW and will also help to disseminate physics in community colleges and high schools both in the United States and abroad, particularly in developing countries.

An announcement for the grand opening of the innovation lab and of the innovation lab clubs will circulate soon across the university. If you have any questions, please contact me.


Alumni Updates/Class Notes

Giovanni Angelini, MS ’18, is analyzing data obtained by the CLAS12 collaboration (Jlab) related to the strong nuclear force for his PhD. Soon he is going to present his results in an international conference. He is also working for GW as lecturer for PHYS 1022.

Hans Bode, BS ’60, earned a PhD in biophysics at Yale in 1966 and then worked as a post-doctoral fellow  in Germany for four years after his time at GW. From 1970 to 2006, he was a professor in the Department of Developmental Biology at University of California at Irvine. He is now retired.

Joseph Crandall, BS ’17, is starting work as a data scientist at the NSA.

Bin Hu, PhD ’18, now works as a software engineer in New York City.

Derek Jones, BA ’11, BS ’11, earned the Scenie Award for Lighting Designer of the Year in Los Angeles. He has joined Glendale Community College as adjunct faculty for stage design and production. He has also been promoted to resident lighting designer at the Sierra Madre Playhouse.

Caiyi Lang, PhD ’06, is a senior program manager in the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Matt Palmer, PhD ’01, works in quantitative finance at Bank of America, and serves as board secretary with the Atlanta Shakespeare Company. He recently visited Prague for the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference.

Alex Prengel, BA ’70, is retired and living in Arlington, Mass., after working for 26 years in MIT's information Systems and Technology department. He has also taught physics and computer science overseas in Algeria (1978-80) and at Brandeis University (1981-91).

Christian Smith, BA ’89, served in the Army for nine years, and the corporate world for 20. He is currently a director for Target Corp in operational excellence. He has been married for over 22 years, has three sons (21, 19, 13) and one grandson (3).

Rajyashree (Raji) Tripathi -Chiramal, MA ’72, is working on three books and taking classes in watercolor.

Agung Waluyo, PhD ’06, is involved in finding a new Calvin Institute of Technology in Jakarta, Indonesia. The program is starting with new six study programs in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM).

Stew Wennersten, BA ’93, is now retired and is settling down back in Washington, D.C., after 25 years in the U.S. Navy. He will always treasure his summer out at LAMPF and it is great to see and hear about all the exciting things happening in the Physics Department at GW!


Donor Recognition

Thank you for your support!

The Department of Physics would like to gratefully acknowledge the generous donors who made a gift to the department from January 1, 2018 - December 31, 2018.

Derek A. Brehm, BS ’14

Karen R. Coleman, BS ’85

Mark V. Hughes, III, BA ’69, MS ’77

Peter F. Koehler, Ph.D., MA ’63

Kasey B. Lewis, BS ’09

Robert M. Query, Jr., MS ’83, AAS ’94 

Ilana L. Spar, BA ’08, BS ’08

Michael W. Thacher, BA ’70

Jacquelyn M. Veatch ~

Kara Zielinski, BA ’18

+ Faculty/Staff | # Parent | ~ Student | * Friend