This was the best start to a semester that I have had in a long time. My first day of class was Tuesday, and my course has hit a major milestone this semester. My ATLAS colleagues and I are making excellent progress on analysis work and a conference note for the Moriond Conference in March. I started hosting “Tea Times” in my office this week, now that it is a comfortable space for work and interaction. Our department was proud to see another graduate student complete the qualification milestone that puts then into formal Ph.D. candidacy.
First Week of Class… for me
This was not the first week of class at SMU – that honor goes to last week, but only because classes began on the Friday before the three-day weekend celebrating the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. However, it was the first week during which I had to teach. My introductory physics course (on electricity and magnetism) meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This semester, my course has passed a certain milestone: demand for the course has outpaced our ability to host all the students. Normally, this class has an enrollment somewhere between 18-35 students; this varies strongly by semester. Last fall, I had 25 students in my course. This semester, the course filled to its original cap of 55. The classroom booked for the course holds 57, so my department administrator opened enrollment up to 57… and it promptly filled to that cap. Then we had to open a waiting list, because we had three more students that wanted to take the class! The last time this course had 57 students was Fall Semester of 2010, but back then no waiting list was needed. So this marks the first time that we’ve hit the 57 magic number AND then needed a waiting list.
Why not just move to another classroom? Well, because of the way SMU allocates classroom space. Classrooms are assigned months before the start of class, based on a projection of the enrollment in the course. We were blindsided this semester by an overwhelming demand for seats in my course. The problem, then, is that there are no rooms available at my time slot that I can switch to. So I have had to tell students on the wait-list that they cannot take the course, because no one has dropped the course who was already enrolled. I don’t like tell students “No” when it comes to taking physics… but I can’t have students blocking aisles and violating fire code in an already-cramped and confined classroom (my classroom is crap to begin with).
There was sunshine this week. I am a huge fan of “Star Wars,” though my fandom ebbed during the “Episodes 1-3” era of the franchise, improved again when the “Clone Wars” TV show was on the air, and kicked back into high gear with the “Rebels” TV show and the new “The Force Awakens” movie. I showed the students a clip from “The Empire Strikes Back” where Luke Skywalker summons his lightsabre using only the Force, and used that to motivate an exploration of the electric force where students charge a plastic rod and use that to “summon” an empty soda can to them using only the Coulomb Force. I also made “Star Wars”-themed opening title crawl  for the second day of class to summarize what I said on the first day of class. That was a ton of fun!
Progress toward the Moriond Conferences
I can’t say very much about my ongoing work on ATLAS – at least, not very specifically. Very broadly speaking, for the second run of the LHC I decided to alter my physics focus from the physics of electrically charged Higgs Bosons (would-be cousins of the Standard Model Higgs Boson) to the physics of Standard Model Higgs Bosons and their interactions with bottom quarks. There is a whole suite of measurements to be made here, from the nitty gritty of the Standard Model to searches for physics beyond the Standard Model (BSM). I work with a great group of people committed to this area of physics, and we’re pushing hard to bring some results to the Moriond Conferences this coming March. I am a co-editor of a conference note related to this area of physics, and my co-editor and I made some good progress over the last week on writing the skeleton of the note as the core analysis team finalizes their work on the study. It’s a big effort, and I am excited to see it make it to Moriond.
“STEM Facul-Tea” and Physics Tea Times with Students
Last semester, I had a small budget to do some re-decorating on my faculty office. When I was given the office in 2009, it came with a huge, L-shaped clunky faculty desk. It was ridiculous. In the modern area of laptops, I don’t need a desk that large. I wanted a simple work table, leaving room for comfy furniture in the office intended to encourge socialization and relaxation. I wanted my office to be a space for thinking and creating, not a space for working.
So I hit the IKEA catalogue and selected a small couch, a coffee table, a simple plain work table, and a tall bookcase (to replace drawer storage lost by tossing the big desk). I finished the rearrangement of my office by Winter Break, and now I have a comfortable meeting area (with a small round table I’ve had for years), a comfortable coffee area (with espresso machine, Keurig machine, tea kettle, couch, and coffee table), and a comfortable work area (with work table and desktop PC). My whiteboard continues to be a big centerpiece of the space, perfect for thinking on your feet and having an argument with eraseable ink. I really love my office now.
In the spirit of using it to encourage socialization, I’ve started a weekly (or maybe bi-weekly) “STEM Facul-tea” get-together. I’ll rotate through a long list of colleagues at SMU with whom I’d like to arrange interactions, but I started with some of my very good colleagues in SMU Chemistry this week jsut as a test case (and because I’ve wanted to share some coffee and conversation with them for a very long time – call me selfish). The space seemed to work well for this, and I got to learn about their research and quest for funding, ongoing faculty successes and challenges, and share info about my own field. It was perfect. I can’t wait to continue this!
I am also beginning a similar series of student tea times. I want to bring together pre-majors, minors, and majors, and physics student enthusiasts (the students whose head may be in another major but whose heart has a special place for physics) around coffee and tea so they can meet each other, interact, and maybe form new friendships or partnerships in the department. I want to use my office as a space to facilitate bringing students together. I’ll mix in graduate students as the time goes on, but for the beginning I want to just get undergrad physics students in the same room. The first one will be next week; I’ll mention something about it in my next “week in review” post.
Newly Minted PhD Candidate
The Department had its second oral PhD candidacy exam this week, during which a graduate student in their 3rd year proposes a course of work for a PhD thesis and a committee grills them on physics questions, instrumentation and data analysis questions, and basic notions of organization and preparation for executing PhD research. Our latest candidate, Ryan, passed his committee’s exam (the first 45 minutes of which were conducted in public as a presentation with open questions). Congrats to Ryan!
This, for now, marks the last time we’ll be doing one of these in our department. We had a couple of students whose candidacy had to be assessed differently (it’s a boring, technical story), but perhaps in the future our department will choose to incorporate this process into what we have traditionally done: assess candidacy using a written exam.