Media contact: Noelle Lemoine, communications assistant; tele: (413) 597-4277; email: [email protected]
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., October 13, 2015—Benjamin Augenbraun ’15 has received the nation’s highest honor for undergraduate physics research, becoming the fifth Williams alumnus in recent years to win the Leroy Apker Award from the American Physical Society. He joins Chris Chudzicki ’10, Nathan Hodas ’04, Charles Doret ’02, and Brian Gerke ’99.
The Apker Award is presented to just two undergraduates each year—one from a Ph.D. granting institution and one from a non-Ph.D. granting institution. Over the past 20 years, more Williams alumni have received Apker awards than alumni from any other college or university in the country.
“We’re utterly thrilled for Ben, whose work was exceptional and whose future in physics is very bright,” said Williams President Adam Falk. “This is a wonderful achievement, and that Williams alumni have received this high honor five times now speaks equally to the abilities of our talented students and to the opportunities they have at Williams to pursue original research.”
Augenbraun’s research, completed in the lab of Professor Protik Majumder, was a thesis on experimental atomic physics using laser spectroscopy to study complicated, heavy atoms such as indium and thallium. Specifically, he researched the Stark shift, a phenomenon whereby atoms, in this case indium, deform in large electric fields. The Stark shift can be measured by observing how the atom’s light absorption of precise colors changes when the electric field is turned on and off.
“Ultimately, this is interesting because theoretical physicists can independently—and from first principles—predict what we should measure, and comparing our measurement to their predictions is a good way to test whether or not their mathematical models are accurate,” Augenbraun says.
Majumder, his advisor, said the opportunity to work with inspiring undergraduates like Augenbraun is one of the most special aspects of teaching science at Williams. “Ben spent two years working in our atomic physics laboratory, growing from an enthusiastic participant to a true research partner who, by the end of his Williams career, was not only running the complicated experiment entirely by himself, but charting the direction for the future of the project,” Majumder said.
Augenbraun is now pursuing a Ph.D. in physics at Harvard University, where he’s part of a research group studying cold molecules. The physics major from Wilton, Conn., who received a Goldwater Scholarship in 2014 for his achievements in physics, will receive a $5,000 prize with his Apker, and the same amount will be awarded to the Physics Department.
Of his win, Augenbraun says, “I am truly honored and humbled. … Although I was the one representing the Physics Department by name, it was really the professors at Williams who deserve all the credit. In particular, I owe this award to my advisor, Tiku [Majumder]—he is exactly the sort of teacher I hope to be one day. Professors like him make Williams the special place that it is.” After finishing his Ph.D., he hopes to remain in academia in a position where he can balance research and teaching.
The Apker Award was established as a memorial to LeRoy Apker through an endowment donated by Jean Dickey Apker. Augenbraun is the second of Majumder’s thesis students to have won the Apker, and the third to have been named a finalist. The other Apker winner who studied with Majumder as an undergraduate, Charles Doret, is now an assistant professor of physics at Williams. Chudzicki did his senior thesis work with Professor Frederick Strauch; Hodas and Gerke had both studied with Professor Daniel Aalberts.
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s 2,000 students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.