What happens when an academic department steadily adds new professors to its ranks for about a decade? At the University at Buffalo members of the physics department have seen that kind of hiring spate revitalize research, teaching, and enrollment. And the department — which has hired more than a dozen physicists since 2000 — has crunched a bunch of numbers to prove it.
“The university made an investment in the department and the hires that we have made are paying off,” said Hong Luo, department chair.
For instance, Buffalo physics students and professors wrote 100 refereed papers in the 2010-11 academic year — five times more than the department produced five years earlier. The number of students who co-wrote academic papers almost tripled and the number of students who presented research at conferences increased five-fold, too.
The department also graduated 18 physics majors last year, compared to a decade ago when 10 or fewer students graduated annually. The new trend is holding up; more than 20 students are on track to receive degrees in physics this academic year.
Also worth noting, Mr. Luo said, is that eight physics professors at Buffalo have National Science Foundation CAREER awards, which are given to promising scientists and provides them with five years of funding for their research.
One of those CAREER award recipients is Doreen Wackeroth. She’s a member of the department’s theoretical high-energy physics group and was hired as an assistant professor in 2002. Ms. Wackeroth, now an associate professor, says the steady stream of new colleagues has helped strengthen her research. Now that the department has hired two faculty members working in experimental high-energy physics, Ms. Wackeroth can just walk over to visit a colleague to talk about the experimental side of her work.
“Before, I was here alone and I would have to rely on talking to people from other institutions on the phone or by e-mail,” Ms. Wackeroth said. Easy access to physicists who work in the field of cosmology — which wasn’t represented at Buffalo when Ms. Wackeroth came — has been a perk as well, she said.
Meanwhile, the new crop of professors has also put its stamp on teaching. Dejan Stojkovic, at Mr. Luo’s request, stepped up three years ago to revamp an introductory physics course for honors students. The plan was to make the class so enticing that more students would choose physics as their major.
Mr. Stojkovic, a cosmologist who joined the department in 2007, said the course’s overhaul included choosing a new textbook and trading some lecture time for interactive problem-solving activities. Mr. Stojkovic also focused more on his field — talk about black holes is always an attention getter.
Enrollment in the class doubled from 10 or so students to two dozen. “Most of them will decide to become physics majors,” said Mr. Stojkovic, an assistant professor.
Mr. Stojkovic, who is up for early tenure and promotion this year, said although junior professors clearly “have to prove themselves in the department, it’s a healthy competition,” he said. “There’s not any backstabbing here.”; In fact, Mr. Stojkovic noticed right away that the environment at Buffalo was different than that in other departments he visited while on the academic job market.
“The department here works as a family,” Mr. Stojkovic said. “You’re a member of the department first and then a member of your research group.”
Ms. Wackeroth agreed. And she commended senior faculty for the level of support they give to junior colleagues and for being open to new ideas.
“That’s a strength of the existing faculty,” Ms. Wackeroth said. “The new faculty we have had coming in, that’s been viewed as an opportunity.”
Even with the recent hires, the 27-member physics department has only six more professors than it did in 2005 — thanks to retirements and other departures. But the search is on now for another physicist, an assistant professor, to round out the experimental high-energy physics group.
Said Ms. Wackeroth: “It’s just an exciting time to be here.”
Do you think “new blood” in a department makes a difference? In what ways?