Physics Spotlight

June 2016
Photo of Professor Rory Miskimen

Rory Miskimen

Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1983)

We have chosen Professor Miskimen to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his work with electron accelerators at the Jefferson Lab in Virginia, his interest in tests of fundamental symmetries and low-energy QCD, and his role as the Head of the Department of Physics. Professor Miskimen specializes in Experimental Nuclear Physics. Please take a few minutes to check out the Miskimen website.

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’m a native Californian, and I went to college at U.C. Berkeley, majoring in Physics.  For graduate school I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, specializing in experimental nuclear physics.  I think that my background in experimental physics has helped my teaching.  I always tell my students that Physics is a science driven by experiment.

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?

After graduation I knew there were still lots of physics I wanted to study, so it was a relatively easy decision to go to grad school.  I was interested in going to a large department that did lots of things very well, and M.I.T. was a good fit for me.  My advice for students going to graduate school is to look for the overlap of what you’re good at and what you’re interested in, and then find a PhD program that is a good match.  Don’t worry so much about where the job is going to come from after the PhD.  While at UMass, spend time working in a research group.   Your best reference letters for grad school will come from your research group.

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

Broaden your experience as much as you can.  The iLab course is great experience.  Take the electronics course and take as many of the advanced 500 level electives as you can.  Acquire competence in a programming language, look for summer internships in industry, and network!  Keep in touch with your graduating cohort of 40-50 students to see where people are getting jobs.

Briefly, explain your research:

I work at electron accelerators at the Jefferson Lab in Virginia, and in Mainz Germany, using GeV energy photon beams to study electromagnetic properties of the nucleon.  The experiment I spend most of my time working on is a measurement how much a sub-atomic particle called the “pion” stretches when you apply an electric field.  Sub-atomic particles are rather small objects to begin with, about 10-15 m.  The amount of stretch is just a small fraction of that, so you can probably appreciate that this is a difficult measurement!  We are effectively determining the dielectric constant of an elementary particle.  The experiment will help us understand the fundamental symmetries of nature they are responsible for the presence of complex nuclei in the universe.

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

The electronics course, Physics 531, is fairly close to the types of things we do in my lab.  Also, the iLab course 440, and the Nuclear and Particle Physics course 556 are close to 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 had four undergraduates working in my group last spring.  Two of the students graduated. One is going to work for Kayak and the other will start in our PhD program this fall.  Student projects include electronics design, assembly and testing, detector design and construction, development of data acquisition systems, and data analysis and simulation.  We’ve even constructed a class 10,000 clean-room.  So far, I haven’t published papers with undergraduates, but I hope to.

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

The electronics courses, 531 and 532, have been my favorite teaching assignments.

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

I enjoy riding motorcycles and playing the violin.  Also, Barb and I enjoy dance of all types.

We know you are the department chair, are there new initiatives in the department you have instigated that help students?  Are there any things you are particularly proud about from your time as chair?

The two biggest initiatives during my term as department head that will have the strongest positive impact on students are faculty hiring and the campus wide implementation of a laboratory fee.  This coming academic year I expect four new assistant professors will join our department, allowing us to offer additional advanced courses and new opportunities for undergraduate research.  With the lab fee, the department will finally have the resources needed to modernize the teaching labs.  Over the next few years I expect to see a huge improvement in our teaching labs.  As for other areas of the teaching program, in the coming year we’ll be thinking about a 5th year masters degree and movement towards our “epic” goal of a research experience for all undergraduates.

The reunion is coming up soon?  What can alumni look forward to if they visit the department?

On June 4th we’ll host our 3rd annual Physics Department Reunion.  This is a great opportunity for today’s undergraduate students and tomorrow’s alumni to come and meet graduates from years past.  Alumnus Robert Deegan ’91, Assoc. Professor University of Michigan, will tell us about his career path after the B.S. degree.  Afterwards, we’ll have a poster session highlighting undergraduate research in the department.  I hope to see everyone there!