News from School of Physical Sciences

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Physical Matters Spring/Summer 2012

In this Issue

Dean's Message

Luminaries in the News
Discovery Could be 'God' Particle
UC Irvine Ranks
Warming Will Unlock Carbon in Forests
MATHCOUNTS Competition
Science Study Author? Fresh From High School
Weighting the Earth's Fate

Radiant Awards
Alessandra Pantano
Yifeng Yu
Sergey Nizkorodov
Sarah Eichhorn
Scott Rychnovsky
Jonathan Feng
Aaron Esser-Kahn
Alice Silverberg


Orbits and Announcements
Honoring Professor Rowland
UC Irvine Observatory
Collaborations with Israel Universities
PS Mentor Program
Remembering Doug Mills
LEAPS Program
Mathematical Contest in Modeling
Chemistry Lectures Online


Student Elements
Congratulations Class of 2012
2012 Honors Recipients
Featured Undergraduate Student: John Naviaux

Supporting the School

PS the Numbers

Connect With Us

Dean's Message

Dear Colleagues:

The 2011-12 academic year has been an eventful one for the School of Physical Sciences. We welcomed our largest freshman class in the history of the School—322 students—and graduated our first CAL TEACH students who will begin teaching careers in our local schools. Our physicists played a key role in the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in Geneva, and our Department of Mathematics faculty worked with local high school students who placed competitively in an international math modeling competition. We forged research collaborations with leading scientists from Israel and garnered international attention to the issue of global groundwater depletion. With the help of the Extension program, we are launching an effort to create an online core undergraduate Chemistry curriculum, which will be available for enrichment to anyone, anywhere, any time, at no charge. Closer to home, we experienced record-breaking attendance at our Breakfast Lecture Series, and we mourned together the loss of our beloved professors -- F.S. Rowland and Douglas Mills. In every aspect of my daily responsibilities within the Dean’s office—from academic to administrative considerations—I am reminded how very much we rely on the support of friends.

The generosity of alumni and friends resulted in nearly $1 million in support of our School programs to supplement state, federal and foundation funding.  Approximately $300k was designated for undergraduate scholarships, equipment, and research support, and approximately $700k was allocated for graduate research.  Supporting students remains our top priority. 

The UC Irvine campus has also been abuzz with the recent announcement by the Times Higher Education of London that UCI ranked fourth in the world and first in the U.S. among the world's "new" universities—that is, universities founded within the past 50 years. We are particularly proud as this ranking is based on impact, with a significant weight on academic research and publications, areas in which our School of Physical Sciences is clearly a leader. Our exceptional founding faculty set a high bar for the School. Over the past five decades, the continued dedication of our students, faculty, and community have contributed to this achievement. It now rests on our shoulders to ensure that we continue to lead the world in life-changing research.


Kenneth C. Janda
Dean, School of Physical Sciences

Luminaries in the News
Scientists: Discovery Could be 'God' Particle
By Pat Brennan, Orange County Register
  UCI Ranks First in the Nation on List of Top 100 Universities Under 50 Years Old
By Cathy Lawhon, UC Irvine Today
Scientists have discovered a new particle that matches the properties of the long-sought Higgs boson, often called the "God" particle, though they stopped just short of declaring that they had actually found the elusive Higgs. Researchers at CERN on the French-Swiss border, home of the massive Large Hadron Collider, made the announcement just after midnight on July 4th. An audience of scientists listened to a detailed presentation of the data, then burst into applause. It was one of the most significant physics announcements in decades. "That level of excitement -- standing ovations for various people, applause -- that is highly unusual," said Jonathan Feng, a UC Irvine physics and astronomy professor and theorist who worked on aspects of the collider, and who watched a webcast of the announcement. "Physicists are trained to be reserved, trained to be skeptical." Read more.   UC Irvine ranks first in the U.S. and fourth in the world among the 100 best universities less than 50 years old, according to an analysis by Times Higher Education. Founded in 1965, UCI also is the youngest university to gain membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities. UCI and UC Santa Cruz – coming in seventh globally – are the only American universities to make the top 10. South Korea’s Pohang University of Science and Technology leads the list; there are six East Asian institutions in the top 20. The United Kingdom has more universities on the roster than any other nation, with 20. Read more.
Warming Will Unlock Carbon in Forests
By Felicity Barringer, The New York Times
  Mathletes Compete in State Competition for MATHCOUNTS
By Tatiana Arizaga, School of Physical Sciences Communications
Scientists have identified another feedback loop that may be accelerating the loss of carbon dioxide from the topsoil of forests in the United States, contributing to climate change. In the published study, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that as temperatures rise, activity increases among the microbes that eat the topsoil and exhale carbon dioxide afterward. Read more.  


Hundreds of middle-school students rambled around the UC Irvine Student Center as they participated in the Southern California State MATHCOUNTS competition last quarter. This year's Mathletes prepared for months to finally compete with fellow students from all over the state. Orange County's Rancho San Joaquin Middle School students took the winning title for Team Competitions. The annual competition, hosted by the UCI Department of Mathematics, has taken place at UC Irvine for many years. Fifty-two schools from all over Southern California were represented in the state competition. Read more.
Science Study Author? Fresh From High School
By Pat Brennan, The Orange County Register
  Weighing the Earth's Fate
By Kathryn Bold, University Communications
An Orange County man is co-author of a new UC Irvine study that offers precision analysis of smoke plumes from tropical burning — a feat in itself, because he began the work as a 17-year-old high school student. Alex Krolewski, now a 19-year-old freshman at Harvard University, says he simply thought it would be “cool” to do some scientific research while in his junior year at University High School in Irvine. Read more.   Isabella Velicogna's office in UC Irvine's Croul Hall looks like it belongs to an artist instead of a university scientist. Her paintings and drawings — including charming sketches of mice — adorn the walls, and colorful, handcrafted mobiles dangle from the ceiling. "In my next life, I will be a children's book illustrator," says Velicogna, who loves to paint, draw and sew. For now, though, she's too busy conducting pioneering research on global warming and publishing her less-than-rosy findings on the planet's shrinking ice sheets. Read more.

Read more PS News.

Radiant Awards
Mathematics Lecturer Alessandra Pantano Awarded MAA Grant   Professor Yifeng Yu Receives NSF Career Award
Mathematics lecturer Alessandra Pantano was awarded a grant from the Mathematical Association of America to lead the MAA National Research Experience for Undergraduates Program (NREUP). Dr. Pantano's project will lead five UC Irvine undergraduate minority students in an intensive 6-week summer research program in the field of Group Theory. In the first project, students will be engaged on a mathematical exploration of the Escher’s drawings; in particular, they will determine generators and relations for the symmetry group underlying a given drawing and compute its signature (in the sense of Conway). Read more.   Assistant professor of mathematics Yifeng Yu has won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, one of the most prestigious awards available to a young faculty member. Recipients are "junior faculty 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." Yu, who came to UC Irvine in 2008, will get more than $400,000 for a project on nonlinear partial differential equations theory and its applications in science and engineering, such as optimal control and combustion. Read more.
Chemistry Professor Sergey Nizkorodov Receives Chancellor's Award   Mathematics Lecturer Sarah Eichhorn Honored at Celebration for Teaching Awards
Chemistry professor Sergey Nizkorodov wins a 2012 Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research. This annual award recognizes a faculty member from each school who has outstanding commitment to advancing undergraduate student research.   Mathematics lecturer Sarah Eichhorn was honored with a 2012 Celebration for Teaching Award for TA Professional Development and Mentoring. This highly competitive award honors faculty for their extraordinary commitment to preparing teaching assistants.
Chemistry Professor Scott Rychnovsky is the 2012 Pedler Award Recipient   Physics and Astronomy Professor Jonathan Feng Awarded a Simons Fellowship
Professor and Chair of the Department of Chemistry was awarded the 2012 Pedler Award for the introduction of innovative methods for organic synthesis. Dr. Rychnovsky's research has focused on the synthesis and structural assignment of natural products. He has also collaborated in the development of new cross-linkers for protein complex analysis, and was the first to report a synthesis of the unnatural enantiomer of cholesterol, which is a useful probe of cholesterol's role in cells.   Physics & Astronomy professor Jonathan Feng has been awarded a prestigious Simons Fellowship in Theoretical Physics. The newly created fellowship, similar to a Guggenheim Fellowship, will allow Feng to take a sabbatical from teaching and service to focus on research in the 2012-13 academic year. His work concerns theoretical particle physics and cosmology. The Simons Foundation, based in New York City, was incorporated in 1994 by Jim and Marilyn Simons. Its mission is to advance the frontiers of research in mathematics and the basic sciences.
Chemistry Professor Aaron Esser-Kahn Receives AFOSR Award   Mathematics Professor Alice Silverberg Receives 2012 School Honoree Award
Professor Aaron Esser-Kahn earned an Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) award for his research in the fields of chemistry, biology and materials science. Dr. Esser-Kahn is an assistant professor of Chemistry at UCI and obtained his Ph.D. at the University of Illinois - Urbana Champaign. AFOSR awarded $18 million in grants to 48 scientists and engineers who submitted winning research proposals through the Air Force's Young Investigator Research Program (YIP).   Professor Alice Silverberg was recognized by Dean Janda as the School of Physical Sciences Honoree for Excellence in Undergraduate Education. She was acknowledged at the 2012 Celebration of Teaching Awards.

Orbits and Announcements

Celebrating Curiosity and the Finest Spirit of Science: Honoring the Life and Work of
Professor F. S. Rowland

On June 8th, the School of Physical Sciences hosted an event to honor the life and work of Professor F. Sherwood Rowland. Chemistry Professor and leader of the Rowland-Blake group, Don Blake, gave a lecture highlighting the research contributions of the world-renowned atmospheric scientist and 1995 Nobel Prize winner. The lecture was followed by a reception to dedicate the Rowland Hall Exhibit which traces Rowland's ground-breaking work as one of the first scientists to warn that chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) released into the atmosphere were depleting the earth's vital ozone layer. The exhibit explores Rowland's career as a researcher and statesman; his relationship with the media, and his role as a scientist and national advocate.

The event also marked the launch of the campaign for the Rowland Endowed Chair and Fellowship Fund. UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake and University Professor Francisco Ayala serve as campaign co-chairs. An endowed chair and fellowship fund in the Department of Chemistry will facilitate the opportunity to recruit and retain the world's premier chemists and students to build on UCI's tradition of world-changing research. To learn more about the campaign visit or contact Audrey Kelaher at, or (949) 824-8111.

Click here to watch UCI's lecture Honoring the Life and Work of F. Sherwood Rowland.
Click here to see pictures of the event.

UC Irvine Observatory

It's been a busy season for UC Irvine's observatory over the past few months. In one of this year's Observatory Visitor Nights, a solar eclipse put on a show as the moon rolled in front of the solar disk creating a crescent-sun. Thousands gathered for Eclipse Night to gaze at the ring of fire created in the sky.

In June, the observatory hosted a night for the Transit of Venus. Hundreds gathered to witness Venus travel across the face of the sun. Visitors peered through telescopes with solar filters to see this once-a-lifetime occurrence, given the Transit of Venus will occur again in 2117. The UC Irvine Observatory also projected the image of the sun on several large yellow poster boards for safe viewing. The Director of the UC Irvine Observatory and an Associate

Professor of Physics & Astronomy, Tammy Smecker-Hane, explains how when planets dim the light of the Sun, it is an opportunity for discovery. “Transits are the way we actually can find planets around other stars,” she said. “Actually, that’s the more modern reason transits are famous. So, when a planet, like Jupiter, goes in front of a Sun-like star, it dims the light of the Sun because Jupiter actually blocks the Sun’s light from getting to you.”

For more information and to learn about upcoming events at the UC Irvine Observatory go to:

Dean Janda Establishes Research Collaborations With Top Israeli Universities

Dean Janda was among the UC Irvine delegation that visited Israel last quarter to establish research agreements and student and faculty exchanges with the country’s top universities including Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion - Israel Institute of Technology and Tel Aviv University. The academic teams began developing programs designed to help students and faculty collaborate on research.  Dean Janda said he discovered “exceptional shared strengths of chemical synthesis, and theory and nano-science, in addition to many other specialties” among the universities. “They are excellent both in the basic sciences and in the application of science to solving practical problems,” he said. “I was especially intrigued by projects at Ben-Gurion University and Technion to create a sustainable living environment in the Negev Desert." Among the collaboration plans are one-year post-doctoral fellowships. “We plan to host the first successful candidate in the fall,” Janda said.  “The School of Physical Sciences has also sponsored travel fellowships to enable student visits to Tel Aviv University." Underlining the significance of the academic mission, Israel President Shimon Peres met with the UCI delegation in his residence offices. During a 45-minute conversation, he emphasized the shared priorities and importance of international cooperation and educational exchanges. Read the full story.

Physical Sciences Mentor Program

The 2011-2012 Physical Sciences Mentor Program came to a close in May with a reception celebrating another successful year. This year's 70+ students had the opportunity to tour companies such as Boeing and Allergan where they witnessed the latest developments in the sciences. Students received mentorship and guidance from some of the most prominent scientists and entrepreneurs working in the Physical Sciences.

The Physical Sciences Mentor Program connects current undergraduate students with science professionals. The goal is to expose students to career and networking opportunities. Mentors provide students valuable guidance in their academic and professional lives. For more information on the Physical Sciences Mentor Program go to: or contact Tatiana Arizaga at

Remembering Professor Douglas Mills

With the death of Douglas Leon Mills in Southern California on March 29, 2012, the world of condensed matter physics and the University of California, Irvine, lost a major figure and a dear colleague. He died after a long battle with leukemia. Doug was born in Berkeley, California on April 2, 1940. He was the first member of his family to go to college. He received the B.S. degree in Engineering Physics in 1961 and the Ph.D. degree in Physics in 1965, both from the University of California, Berkeley. His Ph.D. thesis advisor was Charles Kittel, and the subject of his thesis was the properties of ultrasonic waves in insulating crystals. Read more.

LEAPS Program Expands Scientific Knowledge of Local Middle School Students

The School of Physical Sciences in collaboration with the UC Irvine Center for Educational Partnerships (CFEP) initiated a new outreach program, LEAPS - Laboratory Experiments and Activities in the Physical Sciences, in June 2012. LEAPS' objectives are to offer students from nearby middle schools a “Day at College” experience and to increase their awareness and understanding of chemistry and physics. LEAPS is intended to educate students about the opportunities that exist for them, to help them visualize their lives as students at a university, to engage them in hands-on experiences in research labs, and to provide opportunities to interact with young scientists. During their visit, the students spend one hour in an active chemistry research lab and one hour in an active physics research lab doing hands-on activities and watching demonstrations, have lunch at the freshman dormitory commons, and get an overview and tour of campus. The students are accompanied throughout the day by UC Irvine undergraduates. These undergraduates serve as accessible role models for the younger students, and are able to answer questions and foster excitement about the university.

The first outreach program was a success with 40 participants (6th-8th grade) from Sierra Middle School in Santa Ana, CA. These students are part of the AVID program, and were particularly interested in this experience since their school has limited facilities for scientific experimentation, and science classes are often taught with no laboratory component. Of the 40 student participants, 38 (95%) of them self-identified as Hispanic and 25 (62.5%) are female. Additionally, four and six faculty members from the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Physics and Astronomy, respectively, and over 35 UC Irvine graduate students and postdoctoral researchers participated in the lab sections of the program. UC Irvine also provided several staff members to organize and assess the event. LEAPS will continue into the 2012-13 academic year with one event per quarter. The program is supported by NSF funds with staff and student time provided by the School of Physical Sciences and CFEP.

Mathematical Contest in Modeling

In February 2012, 6 teams of 3 students from UCI participated in the international Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM). The MCM is an international four-day contest in which teams of 3 students compete to address a real-world mathematical modeling scenario. All 6 UCI teams earned certificates, with two teams earning special designations. Particularly striking were: Austin Fringer, Wes Fuhrman and Arturo Vargas, who earned a Meritorious Award, meaning they were in the top 9% of the 3,697 teams in the competition. Only one U.S. team scored higher. Leading up to the MCM, the students met weekly with professors Arvind Baskaran and Sarah Eichhorn to prepare for the competition. The preparation meetings included learning mathematical and computational tools and general discussion of the mathematical modeling process and scientific writing. More information about the contest and results can be found at:

Chemistry Lectures Online!

James Nowick has been distributing his lectures on video using YouTube, iTunesU, and other popular media to reach not only UC Irvine students but also students across the country and around the world. He began this effort in 2009 with Chem 51A Organic Chemistry, drawing upon the resources of the Teaching Learning and Technology Center (TLTC) to record his lectures in lecture hall PSLH 100. The lectures proved so popular, that he continued this effort in several of his subsequent classes.

The Chem 51A lectures have each received thousands of views on YouTube, and James enjoys receiving "fan mail" from students thanking him for making them available. James comments, "At any given moment, people around the world are watching my lectures. It's great to be helping so many students learn, across time and distance, without my having to do any extra work. As teachers and scholars we all want to have impact through what we think, write, and speak. Distributing lectures by video is a great way to do this."

Last fall, James put videos of his graduate-level Chem 203 Organic Spectroscopy on the Web through UC Irvine's OpenCourseWare initiative. Even though this is a specialized course, many of its lectures are receiving thousands of views. These lectures are enjoying tremendous popularity in India and Pakistan, as well as in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the U.S. James comments, "Chem 203 has been fun, because I'm helping hundreds or thousands of students learn specialized advanced topics that I only get to teach to a few dozen graduate students at UC Irvine. It's fascinating to see the hunger for this knowledge in developing nations. I'm proud to be improving global education in chemistry at an advanced level."

James is now distributing his current Chem 51C Organic Chemistry class lectures on video. He surveyed his students to find out how students are using the videos. Of the students who responded to the survey, most have watched the videos. Most prefer the live class to the videos, but 24% prefer the videos and 19% are not sure which they prefer. Students who use the videos say they use them to review, to take notes, or to make up classes they missed. Unlike his other two classes, James thinks that the video component of this class may have slightly hurt attendance. James comments, "I'm fascinated to see how students use the videos in order to enhance learning and to learn in a style that best suits them. My students did well on the midterm exam, and I am pleased with how things are going this quarter. I also feel that the video component makes me a better teacher, because I want to do a good job not only for my own students but also for the thousands of students beyond my class who will eventually view my lectures."

Check out the lectures at the links below:

Chem 51A:
Chem 203:
Chem 51C:

Student Elements

Congratulations to the Class of 2012!

This month, 8,940 undergraduate and graduate students received degrees from UC Irvine. Among the graduates, over 300 were students from the School of Physical Sciences.

Sandra Tsing Loh delivered an uplifting and entertaining commencement speech during the ceremony of the School of Physical Sciences and the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. Tsing Loh told the graduating artists and scientists that by working together they could resolve the problems of the world. "The communication and social skills of an artist combined with the book-smarts of a scientist is what we need in this country and in the world," she said.

Physical Sciences reached an important milestone this year with the first batch of graduates from the CAL TEACH program. CAL TEACH allows students interested in becoming math or science teachers to earn bachelor's degrees and single-subject teaching credentials at the same time. The intensive training program includes apprentice teaching and other opportunities, and students graduate fully credentialed after four years, instead of a standard five.

To view pictures of this year's commencement events click here.

2012 Honors Recipients

Physical Sciences bestowed 183 awards to the 2012 graduating class. Among the 300+ graduates, 81 received honorary recognitions. Jennifer Blackie, B.S. in Chemistry, and Nicholas Hurtt, B.S. in Mathematics, were named Outstanding Seniors by their respective departments and received summa cum laude ​honors. Wesley Fuhrman, B.S. in Physics, was not only Outstanding Senior in Physics and a ​summa cum laude graduate, but also received the 2011 Maria Rebecca Bellettini Award -- ​a highly competitive award that honors an outstanding student in Physical Sciences. Wesley will be attending Johns Hopkins University to study condensed matter physics in the Institute for Quantum Matter.

To see a complete list of 2012 honor recipients click here.

Featured Undergraduate Student: John Naviaux

John Naviaux wants to make energy more sustainable and more affordable. A double major in economics and earth and environmental sciences, he has been pursuing research on microbial fuel cells and ways to optimize the various electrical properties of microbes in biofilms as a potential energy source. “Our energy needs are only going to continue to grow,” he says. “This work is fascinating to me because it provides a novel approach to meeting this demand in the future.”

As a senior at UCI, he was one of only a handful of non-physics majors to be invited to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to study particle physics in Geneva, Switzerland. “The experience was life changing,” he says. “I was surrounded by incredibly intelligent people and had the chance to participate in cutting-edge research. I realized then how much I loved being in a research-oriented environment.”

A double honors student, Naviaux’s senior thesis focused on the emission benefits of Orange County Transportation Authority busses. He found that, after taking into account bus ridership per mile, percentage of total miles carrying passengers, and the average number of passengers per car, busses need to carry a minimum of seven passengers at a time to produce fewer emissions per person than cars. After graduating in June, he plans to continue working in the UCI microbial fuel cell lab while he applies for graduate programs in environmental science. Eventually he hopes to combine the experience with his background in economics to start his own company pursuing research on unique strategies for sustainable energy. Read the full story.

Supporting the School

We invite you to support the School of Physical Sciences through contributions that directly support our students, our research, and our outreach programs. Please contact the School's Director of Development, Audrey Kelaher, for more information at (949) 824-8111, or

PS the Numbers

183 awards obtained by the PS class of 2012.

The PS 2012 honors graduates took over 12,000 exams at UCI and graduated with an average GPA of 3.7. 

PS bestowed a total of 81 Ph.D. degrees and 50 M.S. degrees in the 2011-2012 academic year. 
Department of Mathematics: 19 Ph.D., 16 M.S.
Department of Physics and Astronomy: 19 Ph.D., 17 M.S.
Department of Earth System Science: 5 Ph.D., 8 M.S.
Department of Chemistry: 38 Ph.D., 9 M.S. 

8,940 undergraduate and graduate students received degrees from UC Irvine.

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For questions or comments please contact Tatiana Arizaga at (949) 824-0218 or