UC Merced Update

Diverse Physics Group Lands Major Awards


Linda Hirst

Linda Hirst



UC Merced’s physics group is defying the odds while also earning major research grants.

Women make up 14 percent of physics faculty at U.S. degree-granting institutions, according to a 2010 survey by the American Institute of Physics. At UC Merced, three of the eight professors are women, or more than a third. Also, one of the two lecturers is a woman.

Rachel Ivie, who tracks hiring trends in physics departments for the institute, said UC Merced is doing better than a lot other campuses in terms of hiring a diverse physics faculty. She noted 10 percent of university physics departments in the United States don’t have any women.

“UC Merced has a good start with three women,” Ivie said. “Congratulations to your campus for doing that.”

The campus' physics group was formed six years ago when the campus opened and will continue to expand, as resources are available. Undergraduate students can earn a bachelor's degree in physics, and graduate can students study under the Physics and Chemistry emphasis.

Many women entering college don’t consider studying physics, which leads to fewer women with doctoral degrees who could go on to conduct research at universities, Ivie explained. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, though it may be that physics is considered a male science field.

Physics, historically as a discipline, has had a problem with gender equity in faculty ranks. Soft-matter researcher Linda Hirst said the startup nature of UC Merced’s group has set it apart, helping it attract a diverse pool of applicants and hire the strongest candidates, whether they are men or women.

“With physics hires, we are going for excellence,” Hirst said. “Our standards for recruitment are as high as any other campus.”

The caliber of the research is underscored by the fact that half of the members in the physics group — Kevin Mitchell, Linda Hirst, Lin Tian and Sayantani Ghosh — have been awarded National Science Foundation’s prestigious and highly-competitive CAREER award. The honor is given to junior professors “who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.” Tenured faculty are not eligible for the award.

Seven researchers at UC Merced have research funded by a CAREER award. Hirst was awarded the grant just before she left Florida State University in 2008. Mitchell secured his award in 2008. Tian’s award was given in 2010, and Ghosh’s award was given this year.

The researchers study topics such as solar concentrators, nonlinear dynamics, soft matter, cell transport, quantum dots and quantum optics.