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From left, MCLA’s physics department is comprised of Dr. Emily Maher, Dr. Kebra Ward and Dr. Adrienne Wootters.

Physics professors: Students enjoy advantages of small department

08/05/15

Ask the professors in MCLA’s physics program about the most important skill they want their students to learn from them and they will tell you: It’s how to tackle a problem. The best approach, according to the department’s chair, Dr. Emily Maher, is a combination of research, problem-solving skills, and collaboration with colleagues.

Dr. Adrienne Wootters who has taught physics at MCLA since 2001, and Dr. Kebra Ward, who is new to MCLA and joined the physics department just this week, agree with Maher.

“We want curious students who know how to formulate a question, and then can figure out how to answer it,” Wootters said. “One of the things that is great about a physics degree is its versatility. We want our students to have the capacity to teach themselves – or figure out where to learn – anything they need to tackle a problem.”

Ward was drawn to MCLA because of this mindset. She wants her students to ask difficult questions.

“I want my students to get curious, and question the world around them,” Ward said. “I think knowing what questions to ask is just as important as being able to answer them. The physics department at MCLA has worked hard to foster that curiosity, particularly through their advanced labs.”

While the three professors’ philosophies are similar, their specialties are diverse. Maher, who begins her ninth year at the College this fall, focuses her research on experimental particle physics. Wootters’s research field is experimental low-temperature physics, and Ward’s field is experimental optics.

Maher specifically studies a particle called a neutrino. “Neutrinos are the most abundant, yet least understood fundamental particles in the universe,” she explained.

Maher is part of the MINERvA collaboration, which consists of approximately 60 particle and nuclear experimental and theoretical physicists from all over the world. These scientists built a detector to study the neutrino, which began taking data in 2010 at Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois.

“We are interested in understanding how often the neutrino will interact with other particles; we call this the neutrino cross section,” Maher said. “During this time, we have made some of the most precise measurements of neutrino cross sections in the world. We look forward to taking more data over the next several years, which will allow us to measure even more precise cross sections.”

Wootters has worked with superfluid helium at 1 degree above absolute zero.  

“This kind of research demands equipment and facilities not possible at a small liberal arts college, but I have used that expertise to focus in past years on developing the advanced and modern physics labs,” she said.

Next year, Wootters will develop and run a technology “makerspace,” where students can innovate, build and create.

Ward investigates how light interacts with materials, particularly organic semiconducting crystals.

“Semiconductors are in almost all the electronic devices that you probably have within your arm’s reach right now,” Ward explained. “Most of those semiconductors are made from inorganic materials, like silicon. I study how energy moves in the organic crystals so we can learn about the physical process that would make these crystals suitable for use in optoelectronic devices.”

Within MCLA’s physics department, students enjoy a number of advantages.

“Since we are a small major in a small school,” said Maher, “we have the opportunity to get to know our students well. We know what they are interested in, and we can tailor their education to help them achieve their goals.”

She continued, “Because the department is like family, we keep in touch with our students after they graduate, and we get to hear all of the wonderful things they are doing – from succeeding in graduate school, to teaching at local high schools, to programming in Boston, to tasks that we do not have the security clearance level to hear about.” 

Wootters added, “As a small department, each of us teaches multiple levels, so each of us will work with a student multiple times during their time at MCLA.  It is gratifying to see our students grow and mature.”