CLAS New Heads Series: Barry Wells

Barrett Wells, professor and head of the Department of Physics, on September 18, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Barrett Wells, professor and head of the Department of Physics, on September 18, 2018. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

The CLAS New Heads Series talks with incoming heads and directors of departments, centers, and institutes in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We ask them questions about their department’s research, education and outreach mission, and how they fit into the multidisciplinary context of a liberal arts and sciences education.

Professor Barry Wells began as head of the Department of Physics in August 2018.

What would you say are the physics department’s areas of strength in your field?

The research in our department is concentrated in atomic physics, materials physics, nuclear and particle physics, and there is a new program in astrophysics. A recent strength of our program is the growing and energetic undergraduate population. The number of undergraduate majors has exploded in recent years, providing a great energy around the department. Many of them have had great success with publishing research, getting into prestigious graduate programs, and winning national awards.

What interests undergraduate students in studying physics? Graduate students?

There seem to be as many reasons to study physics as there are students. Some common draws I have heard from students include an interest in recent news about detecting gravity waves from black holes, the discovery of planets in other solar systems, a fascination with the weird behavior of the quantum world, and even the influence of the TV show The Big Bang Theory.

What are the most loved classes taught in physics? Why do students like those classes?

Of course, all of our classes are loved! Among the large gen-ed courses, our introductory astronomy course, Phys 1025Q, has been thoroughly redeveloped by our new astronomers. This course is approachable even for students with limited science background, and students get to conduct actual night telescope viewing sessions.

For majors, one pivotal course is Phys 3401, Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. Becoming comfortable with the counter-intuitive results of quantum mechanics is challenging, but it is the subject that really differentiates physics from other fields. More than any other, this is the course that turns a student into a physicist.

What types of jobs do students pursue after attaining a physics degree at UConn?

The career paths of our undergraduates are quite varied. About a third go to graduate school in physics, some go to graduate school in other fields, and about half end up directly in the work force with a BS degree. Our students have entered all sorts of career fields, like high tech manufacturing, software development, teaching, and the financial services industry.

Have there been recent changes in the physics department that have strengthened the Department? 

One important change is an explosion in the number of physics majors, increasing more than 60 percent over the past five years. This has added energy and excitement to our department. Though, it is also a bit of a scramble to keep up!

Secondly, we have just added a new program in astronomy and astrophysics. Over the past two years we hired three fantastically able and engaging young astronomers who have already developed an astronomy minor along with several new courses.

The Department is also slated to move into a completely refurbished building in the fall of 2019. On top of new research labs with state-of-the-art safety and support infrastructure, we will also have five new Studio Physics Laboratory rooms. These labs will allow us to completely rework the way we teach introductory physics, combining lectures, labs, and problem-solving into unified sessions with close interactions between the students and instructors.

What do you see as upcoming challenges or opportunities for your Department?

The new developments described above are all challenges as well as fantastic opportunities. For example, a great deal of time is being spent by the whole department in not only designing what our new building will look like, but also in redeveloping how we operate as a department to best take advantage of the new facility.

More broadly, we are a research-oriented Department, and these are trying times for finding federal research support for basic science. The department has made some strategic hires of scientists who can fill out our research profile to make us more competitive in developing grant funding, and lately we have done well. We’re pushing to keep that going.

Are there any common misconceptions about the field of physics?

Well, it may not be quite as easy as it looks! Actually, I think there is an idea that any scientist, but physicists in particular, tend to work alone – shut off from other people. That’s not how science works. Not only do we always work in groups on our projects, but we become involved in research networks that span the world. I work with collaborators in Switzerland, France, Canada, and China – and most of my colleagues have more extensive international collaborations than that.

Where do you see your field going in the next 10 years?

The beautiful thing about physics is that the research directions are driven by discoveries of phenomena currently unknown. Thus, the most important areas of research in 10 years are likely to be in areas that do not currently exist.

Still, there are large national scientific infrastructure projects on the horizon that will still be important in ten years. UConn physics is involved with the biggest of these. One is the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Telescope, set to launch in 2021. This new telescope will allow for the study of the furthest galaxies and planets around other stars.

Another is the new x-ray laser and related light sources coming online now and in 2020 that act as time-microscopes to watch processes like electrons moving in materials and chemical reactions occurring.

A third area are the large nuclear particle accelerators in Virginia and being built in Michigan that will reveal the components of the nucleus of heavier atoms and how they form.

If you could sum up your field in 10 words, what would they be?

The attempt to understand everything at the most basic level.

What first interested you in physics?

Three times in my life, I tried to become an engineer; once as an undergraduate student, once as a graduate student, and at my first real job with Boeing Phantom Works. However, each time I kept getting distracted from designing things by pondering what were the fundamental rules that made this stuff work. So, I kept turning back towards physics. The first time I switched majors from aeronautical engineering to physics. The second time I dropped out of a Ph.D. Program in materials science and engineering to switch to one in applied physics. The third time I resigned from my position at Boeing to take a professorship at UConn.

What’s your favorite place on the Storrs campus?

That’s a tough choice between the sculpture garden at the back of the Benton Museum and the Dairy Bar. The sculpture garden is a beautiful, quiet place where I can read papers. However, my 10-year-old son prefers the Dairy Bar, for some reason.

I suspect that in one year my favorite spot will be the atrium in the new physics building.

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