Physics Spotlight

November 2018
Physics Spotlight

Jordy de Vries

Ph.D., University of Groningen - Netherlands

The Physics Department has chosen one of our newest members, Assistant Professor Jordy de Vries, for our November Physics Spotlight! Not only would we like to introduce him, but also highlight his research in fundamental physics focusing on symmetry violations. As one of our Theoretical and Particle Nuclear Physicists, we welcome him to the department and are very excited to have him join us here at UMass. Please feel free to read his Q&A below to learn more about him!

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?

Thanks! First of all, I am excited to live in a new country with my family. My wife, my son, and I moved from the Netherlands to Amherst about 2 months ago. We really enjoy the area so far. Second, I am excited to start teaching. I have always enjoyed this, but so far I’ve only taught short one-week courses or as an assistant. Finally, I am excited to do research here and to start a group. Amherst is well known in the field of fundamental symmetries and interactions and I am happy to be part of the team.


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 studied physics in Groningen, a university city in the north of the Netherlands. I got my Bachelors and Masters degrees there. For my Master thesis, I worked at the KVI, a laboratory with a nuclear accelerator close to the university. During this work, I was offered a Ph.D. position that I accepted. I stayed there for another 4 years to get my Ph.D. in theoretical physics. Afterward, I worked as a postdoc in Germany. At the end of my contract, I applied for and received a Dutch research grant. I then spent 2.5 years at Nikhef in Amsterdam, before moving to Amherst.

I was involved with teaching on several levels at all places where I worked. I always made sure I did some teaching even if my position did not require it, mainly because I enjoy it and in some cases to learn a particular topic. During these years I had several mentors and supervisors whose styles varied a lot. I hope it helped me to understand what kind of supervision style is the most effective and enjoyable for all parties involved.


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 very much enjoyed working on my Master thesis, which was a theoretical study of radiative neutron beta decay. I spent a few months figuring out how to calculate the rate of certain radioactive processes, and when it finally agreed with a recently performed experiment I was hooked. Then, when my supervisor offered me a Ph.D. position, I decided to accept.

With hindsight, this might not have been the best decision. I had very little experience in academia and I knew very few people in the system. I did not even consider applying for a Ph.D. position at other universities; I don’t think I even realized this was an option! My advice would be to not do what I did and to carefully think about where and on what you will spend a significant amount of time. I was lucky that I ended up researching two topics, CP violation, and effective field theories, that I still enjoy very much. But this was in no way because I made a careful decision.


 In 140 characters, explain your research:

The laws of physics obey certain symmetries. I study violations of such symmetries that would provide clues towards outstanding puzzles in fundamental physics. (137 characters!)


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

Probably the class I am currently teaching: P556 Particles and Nuclei. Here we study how elementary particles interact and how they form complex objects like protons, neutrons, and even nuclei. A crucial role is played by the fundamental symmetries that dictate these interactions.


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

It is somewhat tricky because of many aspects of my research deal with quantum field theory, a graduate-level course. That being said, I have worked with several undergraduate students. One Bachelor student I supervised, worked on understanding how the synthesis of atomic nuclei in the early universe would be affected if we slightly change the theory of the strong interaction. I was very impressed by how far she got! We wanted to write this up in a paper but hit some difficulties we could not solve. I still haven’t solved this by the way…  


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

I have only been a professor for 8 weeks or so, so it is difficult to say what I like most. I am definitely enjoying the interaction with the students in my course. Perhaps, I can say what I like about academia by describing a very good day that sometimes comes along. You go to work in the morning, get a coffee, and start discussing physics with collaborators. And suddenly, during the discussion on the blackboard, you realize the solution to a certain problem or at least the way forward. I like those days the best although they do not happen all the time. Another thing I enjoy is the freedom you have in deciding what to work on. This however also brings some stress, at least to me, because there are so many things to choose from.


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

I find this difficult to say. I typically like what I am working on. One project I enjoyed very much was a global study of properties of the Higgs boson. In this project, we tried to see what we can learn from experiments at very different energy scales. On the one hand, we studied very high-energy collisions at the Large Hadron Collide and on the other hand low-energy but high-precision experiments involving atomic and nuclear systems. I very much enjoyed learning the different theoretical techniques necessary to compare this wide range of experiments in a unified framework.


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

I like football very much (although it is called soccer here). I played for many years at an embarrassingly low level. I also enjoy playing tennis at an even lower level. My other hobby is reading. I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, literature and less serious stuff. I am very much enjoying the Jones Library in Amherst and the various used-book stores in the area. I must say that we have an 11-month-old boy at home, which implies there is much less time for hobbies!