Physics Spotlight

May 2016
Photo of Professor Michael Ramsey-Musolf

Michael Ramsey-Musolf

Ph.D., Princeton University (1989)

We have chosen Professor Ramsey-Musolf to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his internationally recognized scientific leadership in fundamental interaction physics, involvement with LGBTQ issues within the scientific community, and his role as the Director of the Amherst Center for Fundamental Interactions (ACFI). Professor Ramsey-Musolf specializes in Theoretical Physics. Please take a few minutes to check out the ACFI website. Also, please review his presentation from 2012’s APS March Meeting entitled Shattering The Lavender Ceiling: Sexual and Gender Diversity Issues in Physics.

What is your professional background? What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what?  How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I received my B.A. in physics and mathematics at Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Southern California. I knew when I started college that I wanted to be a physicist, but I also love the logic and formal thinking involved in mathematics, was good at it, and decided to double major.

Having a liberal arts undergraduate education has provided me with an invaluable background for a lifetime of inquiry and scholarship. Studying philosophy as an undergraduate helped me place my role as a scientist in a broader context while refining my skills in writing and constructing logical arguments. Studying French literature deepened my appreciation for the humanities and the aesthetic aspects of language. Having an introduction to economics opened my eyes to the level of rigor that discipline aims for and the distinction it has with natural science due to the role of human actors in economic systems.

After Pomona College, I obtained a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1989 and, subsequently, a Master of Divinity from the Episcopal Divinity School while simultaneously holding down a post-doc at MIT. My education in both contexts was a phenomenal experience. At Princeton, I learned to be an independent thinker, problem solver, and investigator. At the same time, I worked closely with my fellow graduate students and learned the tremendous value of my collegial, peer relationships.

I had a unique benefit of having three PhD advisors – one at Princeton and two external, one of whom is our own Barry Holstein. All of them taught me the importance of clarity in thinking, context, and the need to identify the essential physics point in any problem – separating the forest from the trees, if you will.

My experience as a divinity student – leading to my being ordained priest in 1994 — is a story in itself. But it deeply informs my approach to education and mentoring as well.

As an instructor and mentor, I draw on this background in emphasizing the importance of clear thinking, rigorous argument, and context in scientific inquiry, scholarship, writing, and presentation. I also recognize that every student is a unique individual, with unique talents, hopes, dreams, and values. My path was not a “traditional” one. My mentors in physics recognized my potential and supported my dual vocation pursuit outside of the conventional path. I aim to treat everyone one of my students in the same vein. And I take great satisfaction in the process of helping students recognize their talents, challenging them to attain excellence, and encouraging them to pursue their aspirations.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

I knew from my 11th grade physics class that I wanted to be a professional physicist. My parents were both academics, so I knew my path would entail graduate education and doctoral research.

As a college senior, I had several options for graduate school. I was particularly drawn to Princeton because of its reputation for theoretical physics and because it was on the East Coast. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so after attending college in SoCal, I was eager to experience a different part of the U.S.

My advice to a student who wants to go to graduate school is to master as much physics as possible while an undergraduate, keep an open mind about what specific research to focus on until after having some graduate school experience – because you may change your mind. I started out not really knowing if I was a theorist or experimentalist. I worked in an experimental lab at Princeton my first year (under the same professor who was Prof. Pocar’s advisor!) and learned through that process that I really am a theorist.

It will also be helpful to acquire some undergraduate research experience, either formally through an REU program or through work arranged with an individual faculty member. During the summer after my sophomore year, I worked with my academic advisor on numerical simulations of percolation phenomena. This experience opened my eyes to how the challenges of research extend far beyond classroom and textbook learning.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?

Pursue summer work experience in industry.

Although I am an academic through and through, I did acquire some experience in industry during the summers after my junior and senior years. In both cases, I worked for Hughes Aircraft Company. The first summer I was an intern with engineers in a more applied facility and learned about piezoelectricity – a topic that became the subject of my senior thesis. The summer after graduation, I worked at Hughes Research Lab in Malibu on studies of photoluminescence, and very much enjoyed the academic-like environment there. Both experiences gave me a taste of what a career in private industry might be like.

Briefly, explain your research:

I want to know why the universe contains more matter than antimatter.

There are good reasons to believe that the universe had effectively equal amounts of matter and antimatter at the end of the inflationary epoch. I try to construct models that would explain what subsequently tipped the balance, develop theoretical methods for computing the asymmetry, and delineate experimental tests of these ideas.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

Physics 556 – Nuclei and Elementary Particles – is closest. I am still relatively new to the faculty and have not had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course yet, but when I do, this would be the one whose content is most closely aligned with my research.

Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do?  Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

I do. This summer, Aaron Dunbrack will work with our group on the matter-antimatter asymmetry and its connection to new particle searches at the Large Hadron Collider. This work will entail performing detailed simulations of possible LHC signals and exploring how they might be used to discover a new paradigm for creating the matter-antimatter asymmetry.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?

As I noted earlier, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to teach an undergraduate course, but I look forward to doing so!

What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?

I am kind of an exercise fanatic. I run, swim, do “hot” yoga, and body-building. I am slowly learning Mandarin, as I travel to China quite frequently, work with many students and post-docs from China, and would like to be able to carry on simple conversations with them, either here or in China. My husband Darrel Ramsey-Musolf (also a UMass faculty member) and I both love to travel. And I volunteer as a priest associate on the staff of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Northampton, where I help lead worship services and help members of the congregation discern and develop their ministries.

We know you have worked on LGBTQ issues in physics and science, can you explain a little bit about that? Have you faced discrimination yourself?  How did you overcome it?  How are you working to help others?

Thank you for asking about this, as it is an important topic and merits a longer discussion than I can give here. But yes, I have worked on LGBTQ issues and continue to do so.

I came out in graduate school in the midst of the AIDS crisis, a time when there was still considerable homophobia in our society. I did not know any openly gay physicists or other scientists, for that matter. It was a somewhat lonely and scary journey. While my cohort of PhD students was wholly focused on physics, I wrestled with understanding my identity; negotiated coming out with my family, student colleagues, and mentors; and weighed whether or not I could have a career in physics and be openly gay.

I am grateful for the support and encouragement I received from colleagues and mentors, particularly at moments when I encountered prejudice and discrimination. The details are too long to go into here, but prejudice and discrimination are real and painful. I have overcome them through a combination of my faith, the support of my husband, friends and colleagues, and by keeping my focus as much as possible on the questions that drive my scientific curiosity and on achieving the highest level of scientific excellence.

I want the next generation of LGBTQ physicists to have an easier path than I did. Someone needs to try and break through the “lavender ceiling”, so that the next generation knows the sky is the limit. I am proud now to be an internationally recognized leader in my area of research, and I hope that my success will give hope and encouragement to aspiring LGBTQ physicists. They need not feel alone as I did nor be without examples of success.

It is also important to explicitly raise the visibility of the LGBTQ community in physics and to work for a more inclusive and supportive scientific community. To that end, I always include the rainbow flag on the first slide of every talk I give. If I give a talk that is scientifically excellent, I want people to know that is something possible for a sexual minority person. If there is an aspiring physicist in the audience, or someone who feels they need to be in the closet for safety’s sake, I want them to know they are not alone. I also include on the same slide the flag of the Episcopal Church, because there exists considerable stigma against LGBTQ people derived from organized religion, and I want to try and counter that as well.

Most recently, I have been part of a grassroots effort to create more awareness of sexual and gender minority issues in physics. This effort led to the first ever APS invited session on Sexual and Gender Minority Issues in Physics, at which I gave one of the talks ( Our group – including members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies — has a website:

We have developed a best practices guide for physics departments. There is an “outlist” where people can self-identify as sexual or gender minority persons or as allies. It has led to an ad hoc APS committee addressing sexual and gender minority issues. I think it is a very exciting and hopeful movement.

As the Director of the Amherst Center for Fundamental Interactions (ACFI) is there anything else you would like us to know? Do you have any advice you would like to provide students interested in UMass Physics at the undergraduate or graduate levels?

The ACFI is a new entity in the Department and has quickly gained international recognition. It is an exciting time at interface of high energy and nuclear physics with astroparticle physics and cosmology. We are pursuing answers to deep questions and expect more exciting discoveries, like those of the Higgs-like boson and gravitational radiation. The ACFI is a unique environment where colleagues from around the world, working in the different sub-disciplines that address fundamental questions, come together to develop new ideas and research directions. Since the spring of 2014, over 400 people from around the globe have participated in our workshops. I am proud of what we have accomplished in less than three years to be recognized as this kind of center.

I would encourage students interested in physics at all levels to talk with faculty, post-docs, and students here about their research and the “big questions” we are pursuing; to follow your curiosity; to study hard and strive for excellence.