Rice-Columbia course examines frontiers of physics research

Course highlights Rice’s strength in condensed matter physics

Though massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are all the rage in online education, a smaller, quieter experiment has played out Tuesday and Thursday afternoons this semester in an old office on the third floor of the Space Science building.

Faculty at Rice and Columbia University used technology to jointly teach a graduate-level course that was designed to give students — especially first-year grad students and undergraduate upperclassmen — an overview of leading-edge discoveries in condensed matter physics.

PHYS 601 highlighted Rice's faculty strength in condensed matter physics. On Nov. 26, Rice phycisist Andriy Nevidomskyy (third from left) told the class about his work on strong electron correlations.

The course, Frontiers in Condensed Matter Physics, was a one-credit course at each university, as well as a showcase for Rice’s faculty strength in condensed matter physics. This branch of physics seeks to understand the physical behavior of solids, liquids and other condensed phases of matter. According to the American Physical Society, about one-third of American physicists identify themselves as condensed matter physicists.

“Condensed matter research covers a wide spectrum, and it’s easy for students to miss out on what’s happening,” said course instructor Pengcheng Dai, a professor of physics and astronomy, who joined Rice this fall after 12 years at the University of Tennessee. “One goal of the course is to expose people to new ideas early, before they’ve invested several years on a particular research path.”

Dai and Columbia physicist Yasutomo (Tomo) Uemura began teaching the joint course in 2010 with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) initiative.

For Rice graduate student Eteri Svanidze, the course had an immediate pay off. In the first lecture, Uemura spoke about an experimental technique called “muon spin relaxation.” Svanidze had been struggling to analyze some samples of weakly magnetic materials for her thesis research, and the technique sounded like it could provide the answer. She and her advisor, Rice physicist Emilia Morosan, met with Uemura, and that conversation led to a 10-day research trip for Svanidze this month at TRIUMF, Canada’s premier high-energy physics laboratory in Vancouver.

“The muon spin relaxation method is particularly advantageous when applied to the weakly magnetic materials that comprise my thesis work,” Svanidze said. “Dr. Uemura’s group had some beamtime, and they graciously offered to help us with our samples. Being completely new to this technique and consequent data analysis, I was particularly excited to meet and work with the researchers at TRIUMF, including some from Columbia University who were taking the Frontiers in Condensed Matter class with me.”

Eteri Svanidze

Uemura said the TRIUMF trip, which also involved visiting graduate students and postdoctoral collabortors from Canada, Japan and China, is an example of early-career, international collaboration that the PIRE-funded course was designed to promote.

The PIRE grant includes travel funds for some students in the class to have a PIRE workshop in China next March. In addition, a selection of the lectures is available online so that students at other universities can share in the knowledge.

“The PIRE project is a research collaboration between Tomo’s group, mine and several collaborators in Europe and Asia,” Dai said. “One priority for PIRE was educating undergraduates and graduate students about the latest work of the collaborators, but this was particularly difficult, given that we were at different universities. Tomo hits upon the idea of doing the course online.”

When Dai joined Rice, he decided to take advantage of Rice’s breadth in condensed matter by co-hosting the course with Columbia. Rice faculty who guest-lectured this fall include Electrical and Computer Engineering’s Junichiro Kono and physicists Andriy Nevidomskyy, Doug Natelson and Qimiao Si.

The location of the class — the old office of the late Richard Smalley — involved a bit of serendipity. Most classrooms were already booked when Dai got to campus, so Morosan asked the Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology if they could help.

“We’d just finished renovating Dr. Smalley’s office to create a space where we could have meetings,” said John Marsh, director of operations for the Smalley Institute. “You don’t normally think about booking classes into conference space, but it was a great opportunity for everyone. It’s the right size for this class and it gave us a great opportunity to get some experience with the videoconferencing technology that had just been installed.”

To access the publicly available lectures, use the password “public” at http://fcmppublic.pbworks.com.


About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.