National Science Foundation (NSF) awards are one of the top measures of a scientific program's success, and Virginia Tech's physics department students received five awards this year.
NSF recently gave 32 fellowships to graduating physics majors. Three of the students receiving the awards (nearly 1/10th) are receiving their degrees from Virginia Tech this spring, and two from the University of Texas at El Paso have chosen to do their fellowship work at Virginia Tech. That means about one-sixth of the recipients in physics are affiliated with Virginia Tech, said Beate Schmittmann, professor of physics. The NSF gave five other awards to current Virginia Tech students in fields other than physics.
According to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship web page, "NSF Fellows are expected to contribute significantly to research, teaching, and industrial applications in science, mathematics, and engineering. These contributions, in turn, will broadly impact society and the community."
The three current Virginia Tech physics student award winners offered proposals for work of interest to society. Jay Mettetal's proposal, said physics Professor Royce Zia, is "to use statistical physics in predicting the stability of a protein's structure by mathematically analyzing the order of the amino acids in the protein."
Beth Reid's proposal, Zia said, involves "the application of techniques of statistical physics to study the distribution of biological populations in space in order to understand issues about habitat loss and fragmentation." Mike Zwolak's proposal is to study "the electronic properties of fullerenes to explore their use in photovoltaic applications."
The two students coming to Virginia Tech on the NSF fellowships are Russell and Juliette Mammei from the University of Texas at El Paso. They will work with Mark Pitt, Virginia Tech associate professor of physics, on a new experiment called "Qweak" at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News. "This experiment is a test of the validity of the Standard Model of elementary particle physics, and it is very sensitive to possible 'new physics' not described by that model," Pitt said.
"We are really proud that Virginia Tech garnered so many NSF fellows in physics this year," said John Ficenec, professor and chair of the department.