Physics Spotlight

December 2018
Physics Spotlight

Ben Heidenreich

Ph.D., Cornell University

This month, the Physics Department would like to highlight one of our newest professors, Ben Heidenreich! We chose Ben to not only introduce him, but to highlight his research focusing on quantum gravities and quantum field theories. As one of our theoretical physicists, his primary focus aligns with string theory, quantum gravity, non-perturbative quantum field theory, particle, and string phenomenology as well as cosmology. We are very excited to welcome Ben to our department here on the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus! To learn more about him, read his Q&A below!


Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus! As a new professor, what are you excited about the most with regards to your first semester here?

Since I graduated from Amherst College, just across town, being back in Amherst is almost like coming home for me. However, I am most excited about learning a new job and building a research group here at UMass.


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 attended Amherst College and majored in Physics and Music. I took a year and a half off after graduating. Much of that time I spent working at Amherst College in research and teaching positions. I then went to Cornell University for my Physics PhD.

Something unusual about my educational background is that I switched from an experimental focus at Amherst College (I worked in Larry Hunter’s lab for three years) to a theoretical focus at Cornell. I was definitely under prepared for a student wanting to study high energy theory, but with a lot of excellent advice from my future advisor, Liam McAllister, I managed to make the transition. After two years, I had taken two semesters of quantum field theory and a semester of string theory (in the wrong order!) and was able to join the theory group. Another year after that, I had my first paper, with Liam and Gonzalo Torroba.

I guess the lesson I learned from this is that there can be many paths to the same goal, and you don’t always have to do things in the “right” order (though probably it is easier that way). Also, finding a good advisor is crucial to your success in graduate school.


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 went to graduate school because I wanted to become a professor. I loved physics as an undergraduate major and I wanted to make a career out of it.

I was split between continuing in experimental physics and studying high energy theory, so I looked for places which seemed good in at least one of these two things. I was fairly systematic; I found a list of graduate programs in the US and Canada somewhere and then worked by process of elimination. I had requirements on the location (nowhere too hot). I also read department websites to get an idea of what the professors in my chosen areas worked on. On this basis, and from some campus visits, I picked ten schools to apply to.

My final decision was between UC Berkeley and Cornell. After visiting both, I picked Cornell because of location (!) and because of a two-body problem. I think I made the right choice, for a variety of reasons.


My advice to students is:

(1) Make sure that graduate school is really what you want to do. Don’t do it as a default option. Graduate school will be hard (not just hard in the sense of a difficult class; hard in new ways you won’t expect) so you’d better really love doing physics or you will never make it through.

(2) Being a graduate student is very different from being an undergrad. Think of graduate school as professional training. In most graduate programs, grad students are expected to address faculty by their first names; you should start to think of them as your colleagues. Interact with faculty members regularly, especially those in your chosen research area. Don’t try to fly under the radar.

(3) Graduate-level courses are not like undergraduate-level courses; they are substantially harder and require considerably more independence.

(4) Find a good advisor, who is available and who you get along well with. Unless your interests are extremely specific, this is more important than what exact topic they are working on.

A lot of this advice was given to me before I went to graduate school, but mostly I ignored it and only realized that it was good advice later on after learning things the hard way.


In 140 characters, explain your research:

I investigate quantum gravities and quantum field theories using string theory, black holes, and other techniques.


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

General Relativity (PHY-568) is probably the closest. Nuclei and Elementary Particles (PHY-556) is also closely related.


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

Not so far, but who knows what I will do in the future. The most likely way for an undergraduate to contribute to my research group would be by first learning general relativity (taking the course, PHY-568) and then starting a research project with me involving black holes.

Most other aspects of my research require quantum field theory or even string theory, so it is difficult for an undergraduate to achieve the necessary preparation.

However, if you are interested in my research, feel free to come talk to me! I can at least point you in the right direction.


In general, what class is your favorite to teach, past or present?

I have only taught one class so far here at UMass, Methods of Mathematical Physics (PHY-605), so that is my favorite.


What do you like best about being a professor and a physicist at that?

Doing productive physics research is definitely the best part of being a physicist. I also really enjoy teaching (and I learn a lot from doing it.)


What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on in the past?

Generally, I like whatever I am working on, except that when I am trying to put everything into a paper at the end I often get sick of it. Needless to say, it is important to keep going and finish the paper!


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

I have had various hobbies in the past. Hiking, playing ultimate frisbee, singing in a chorus, playing the piano. This semester I have not had time for any hobbies, but hopefully, I will again in the near future.