Scholars Program Infuses Vitality Into Research Efforts Of Physicists Who Mostly Teach Undergraduates

“Coming to Santa Barbara as a KITP scholar is like joining a brotherhood in a place of worship. To physicists it is as Jerusalem is to the Jews or as Mecca is to Muslims with [KITP director] David Gross as custodian of the Holy Shrine,” said Eugene Chudnovsky, whose duties as a physics professor at the City College of New York (CUNY) focus principally on the teaching of many, many undergraduates.

In language plainer, but less gender-specific than Chudnovsky’s, though nonetheless appreciative, Donna Sheng of Cal State University, Northridge, said, “Being a KITP scholar was an exciting learning experience for me. It provided me a best chance to work as a real researcher like others from a research university.”

Carlos Ordonez, a physics professor at the University of Houston, said, “Being able to spend time at KITP is giving me a wonderful opportunity to be where the action is in theoretical physics, which will have a very positive impact on my research and personal life in manifold ways. I dearly thank KITP for this.”

Established for theoretical physicists such as Chudnovsky and Sheng and Ordonez, the KITP Scholars Program, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), aims “to support the research efforts of faculty at U.S. colleges and universities that are not major research institutions,” according to the mission statement. “Applicants from non-Ph.D.-granting institutions, and from institutions with greater emphasis on teaching (as measured, for example, by teaching load), are particularly encouraged.”

The one other certain requirement of applicants is the demonstration of “ongoing research activity.”

“Ten years ago, when I came to the KITP as director,” said David Gross, “I wanted to start a program for theoretical physicists who are endeavoring to continue a research career while working at institutions whose principal mission is teaching undergraduates."

“I thought that it was a pity that some of our students who are educated in theoretical physics who don’t end up at research universities, but at teaching institutions have such a difficult time pursuing a research career. Many, in fact, choose not to continue careers in higher education or even industry, but leave the profession for Wall Street.”

That disaffection, Gross said, “seems an enormous waste of resources.”

He said that he took his cue for establishing the KITP Scholars Program from mathematicians, who have a history of combining research with a career in undergraduate teaching. Mathematics, like theoretical physics, does not require extensive and expensive laboratory facilities in order to do research, but access to an intellectually stimulating and supportive environment.

Each KITP scholar award funds a total of three round trips to Santa Barbara and up to six weeks of local expenses, to be used over a period of up to three years. To date 24 scholars have been selected, and it is expected that seven more will be chosen this year.

“We have been pleasantly surprised by the large number of excellent and highly qualified scientists who maintain research careers at teaching institutions throughout the country,” said Gross. “Every year, we typically have twice as many applicants as we can choose, and the number of new applicants continues to grow from year to year, so there is quite a large population out there whom we are serving by this program.”

Scholars are encouraged to time their visits to coincide with programs and conferences particularly advantageous to their research pursuits. Each scholar is assigned a KITP permanent member as a resource for research support and guidance.

Gross describes the program as a “morale booster for scientists who otherwise can be somewhat isolated either in the small departments of colleges or in institutions where faculty colleagues no longer pursue research at the edge.”

Said Arjendu Pattanayak of Carleton College in Minnesota, “One of the things I’ve realized about myself is that I do a lot of my thinking by talking about it, but that I also need a lot of alone time. That’s hard to do in the context of a small college atmosphere for two reasons — the teaching load means there’s little ‘down time,’ and the small faculty size means that there is a lack of other scientists in my field (or graduate students and postdocs). KITP is a great place for that kind of interaction. I spent an intense few hours talking to an experimentalist — Vladan Vuletic [MIT] — on one trip that helped me greatly clarify what I was doing.”

“If more people could take advantage of career opportunities such as the KITP Scholars Program affords,” said Gross, “it would enormously benefit teaching institutions since these are incredibly qualified people who would make excellent teachers and could introduce young undergraduates to science as it is really performed.”

William Putikka of Ohio State University in Columbus explained how the KITP Scholars Program had benefitted him professionally, “From my point of view, the most important thing is recognition from the larger community of physics. Faculty positions with heavier teaching loads generally make it more difficult to win recognition at the national level (grants, awards, etc.), so it is nice to have something targeted at this population. This kind of recognition carries considerable weight with other local faculty and the university administration.”

Said Gross, “We hope to encourage young people and to promote the idea that there are such opportunities in addition to staying at a top research university and trying to be exactly like their graduate advisors.” He noted that, “The KITP Scholars Program addresses the needs of physicists who really like teaching and prefer to be at a teaching college.”

The KITP Scholars have, of their own accord, gone on to “self-organize” or form a support network aided by a one-week mini-program held four years ago, which attracted about 30 participants from primarily undergraduate teaching institutions.

The experience of that program in turn led to efforts to create a nation-wide organization to promote the interests of this population of physicists. The KITP is sponsoring a two-week workshop this summer, from July 16 to 27, to enable scholars to establish that organization.

Herbert Bernstein of Hampshire College in Massachusetts, who has spearheaded that effort to organize, recalled a chance conversation with three other physicists that took place during a summer workshop on quantum information in Cambridge, England. “Noting that we all taught at liberal arts colleges (and internally marveling at how incredibly good the others were — really smart scientists who had dome something important), I quipped that ‘We should help support each other by forming LARPA — Liberal Arts Research Physicists Association.’"

“And lo and behold, two of the four professors from that chance encounter (myself and Don Spector [Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, N.Y.]) are organizers of a workshop at KITP this summer whose express purpose is to support theorists at undergraduate institutions in America, and to form an organization to institutionalize such support!”


KITP Newsletter, Spring 2007