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Message from the Chair

Welcome to the Fall 2020 issue of Interactions, the Department of Physics newsletter!

Kimberly Strong

Dear Physics community,

I’m very pleased to introduce our Fall 2020 newsletter. This is our second using the new electronic format, and as you can see, we have a jam-packed issue. I hope you will enjoy reading the various profiles, articles, and updates.

A new academic year is well underway here. September is always an exciting and energizing time as we are joined by new faculty, students, and postdocs, and as new courses and research projects get underway. However, although the trees that were blossoming when I wrote my Spring message are now losing their leaves, the COVID-19 pandemic remains with us. This Fall term is unlike any other and much work has been going on to keep Department business running, to move courses online, and to enable laboratory research to resume. I would like to express my deep appreciation to our administrative and technical staff, our faculty and course instructors, our teaching assistants, our students, and our postdocs and research associates, for all you have done, and are continuing to do, under challenging circumstances.

I'd particularly like to thank our Associate Chairs, Peter Krieger and Young-June Kim, for all their work to keep our undergraduate and graduate programs running, as well as our CAO, Peter Hurley, who has 'held the fort' for all of us since mid-March with great dedication. COVID-19 resources and information for the Department can be found at You can read here about some of the ways that we have adapted our teaching and programs, including an article by Carolyn Sealfon describing how she has developed online practicals for the 900 students in PHY131F.

Our PhySU and PGSA student groups continue to be active and have moved their events to the virtual world. The PGSA has also helped to bring members of the Department together by running a weekly Coffee Hour on Zoom. Meanwhile, a team of volunteers organized a Virtual Summer Colloquium series, which brought us fascinating talks about some of the great research going on in the Department.

The regular Physics Colloquium series is now running online – you can view previous talks or subscribe to the mailing list for future talks at Our Physics Career Accelerator Program (physCAP) is also underway, with 54 mentor/mentee pairs. We have gone totally virtual this year, which has resulted in more mentors from around the world! It is wonderful to see our alumni involved as both mentors and speakers at various physCAP events.

Despite the pandemic, we are also continuing our School Visits for Students and offering a series of online interactive workshops and lectures developed by some of our faculty and graduate students. Any alumni who are teachers can sign up for workshops at

Looking ahead, the annual J. Tuzo Wilson Lecture is being moved to the spring, while the Department will be hosting the Martin Family Lecture online at 4PM on November 30, with Chris Monroe (University of Maryland) talking about the rapidly growing field of quantum computing. Keep an eye out for announcements about both events.

Also in the quantum domain, this issue’s Research Spotlight focuses on a recent breakthrough study by Aephraim Steinberg and his group, in which they report on how long it takes ultracold rubidium atoms to tunnel through a micron-thick laser beam. More research highlights can be found at Physics News.

As usual, the Fall newsletter profiles several members of the Department. We introduce our newest faculty member, Zhan Su, who arrived in September and is an Assistant Professor in theoretical ocean dynamics and climate, and interview Nikolina Ilic, who started in March 2019 as an Assistant Professor and Institute of Particle Physics Fellow in experimental high energy physics. You can also read about Physics Specialist Samuel Li, PhD Student Laura Saunders, and Post-Doctoral Fellow Nava Leibovich. Our Alumni Profile highlights Petar Tomic, who tells us how his Physics degree led to his current position as an Associate with TD Securities in Credit Management. We are pleased to introduce an Emeritus Profile section, and to kick it off with an engaging interview with Henry van Driel, whose connection with UofT goes back to 1966, when he started here as an undergraduate student. We highlight our PhD graduates, our 48 incoming graduate students, and our scholarship recipients, including Louden-Hines Gold Medalist Celina Pasiecznik.

We mark three retirements with this issue. Pierre Savaria retired on July 1 after many years as a valued faculty member, particularly as Course Coordinator for PHY138Y and as TA Coordinator. David Rogerson will be leaving us at the end of December after many years supporting the Department’s technical operations, most recently as Manager of Physics Learning & Research Services. And after more than 40 years in the Department, our Undergraduate Coordinator, Teresa Baptista, will be retiring in March, leaving big shoes to fill on the third floor. We plan to celebrate all of our recent retirees in person when that becomes possible.

We remember three colleagues who have passed away since May: David Rowe, who was internationally known for his work in theoretical nuclear physics; Rashmi Desai, who was a leader in theoretical condensed matter physics, and Colin Hines, who did ground-breaking work on atmospheric gravity waves. All three are greatly missed by their friends and colleagues in the Department.

In honour of Lecturer Natalia Krasnopolskaia, who passed away last January, the Physics Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program was renamed as the “Natalia Krasnopolskaia Memorial Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship”. Donations can be made at and will be used to expand and strengthen these student fellowships.

The start of the academic year is an appropriate time to emphasize the importance of creating and maintaining an inclusive environment that welcomes and supports everyone in the Physics Department, including those who are underrepresented in physics. I would like to thank our Inclusivity Committee (with faculty, staff, and student representatives) and Physibility, a student-run equity group, for their efforts in this area. We want to take positive action against racism, and as one example, the Department is taking the lead on PURSUE STEM, a new outreach program to encourage and support Black high school students in a partnership with Leadership by Design ( There is certainly more for us to do, and if you have any suggestions on how we can improve, please send them to me at

We also welcome your feedback on Interactions – please contact our Editor, Sheela Manek at with your comments and news.

I wish everyone good health – let’s continue to support each other in these uncertain times.

Kimberly Strong

Kimberly Strong Signature

Professor & Chair