Determined to Learn, Inspired to Teach

Long before he became a scientist, Brad Conrad (M.S. ’06, Ph.D. ’09, physics) was a curious kid, determined to learn everything he could about the world around him.

“My favorite story is when I was three or four my mom found me in the living room where I had found a screwdriver and I’d taken apart the videocassette recorder,” Conrad explained. “I did that because I had put my peanut butter sandwich in the VCR and was trying to figure out how to get it out. I was always determined to learn about things.”

Conrad’s passion for learning and an interest in science—and maybe one too many questions in a high school chemistry class—helped him find his niche.Brad ConradBrad Conrad

“I was doing well in chemistry, but I kept going to the chemistry teacher asking things like ‘What do orbitals mean?’ and ‘Exactly how do atoms do this?’ and he threw up his hands at some point and said, ‘You just need to go talk to the physicists—you’re a physicist,’” Conrad recalled. “That’s when I decided that I should probably do physics instead of chemistry.”

Conrad’s fascination with physics launched a successful career that’s taken him from state-of-the-art research labs and university classrooms to the American Institute of Physics (AIP) where he supported thousands of undergrads and alums as the national director of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and Sigma Pi Sigma, the honor society for physics and astronomy. 

In 2023, Conrad took on the role of education and workforce development manager in the Partnerships and Outreach Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). There, he works to build education and workforce development partnerships for NIST’s Office of Advanced Manufacturing to promote awareness and training opportunities for manufacturing jobs in STEM.

“I work across government agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA—so it’s an all-of-government approach to solving the problems that we have in manufacturing today,” Conrad said. “It’s helping people realize that now when we say manufacturing jobs, it’s programming robots, doing advanced electronics and using lasers to do really cool stuff. My mission is to make the world a better place with science.”

Beyond the “middle of nowhere”

When Conrad was young, his dreams stretched far beyond the “middle of nowhere” Pennsylvania town where he grew up. 

“I went to my high school guidance counselor to figure out what I should do, and they said I should be a truck driver because it paid really well,” Conrad recalled. “That rubbed me the wrong way because I’d already decided I was going to be a scientist.”

Determined to be the first one in his family to go to college, Conrad enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) as a physics major, but fitting in was harder than he expected. 

“It was definitely a tough major and I didn’t have a support network at all. I had this feeling that I didn’t belong,” he explained. “But, then, the summer before my junior year, one of my undergraduate teachers called me and said ‘Hey, I was wondering if you’d be the president of the Society of Physics Students when you come back in the fall,’ and that made a world of difference to me. It made me feel like somebody cared.”

With SPS activities and events keeping him busy and connected, Conrad stayed at RIT, earned his bachelor’s degree and went on to graduate school at the University of Maryland, where an active, engaging community took his passion for physics to the next level. 

“At Maryland, there was a physics talk or multiple talks every day of the week, different topics, different people coming in, different labs, it was so inspiring,” he recalled. “I felt like I was at the hub of science, and it was great to be in one of the biggest, highest-ranked places in the country for physics.”

After exploring a variety of research opportunities from astrophysics to lasers, Conrad landed in Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Physics Ellen Williams’ surface physics lab conducting cutting-edge semiconductor research.

“When I started, she was doing nano stuff, semiconductors at the smallest level—so, individual molecules and interfaces between semiconductors and metals and graphene and carbon allotropes, and that was all really hot stuff at the time,” Conrad explained. “My Ph.D. ended up being on the interface effects of nanoelectronics. It was a great decision.”

In 2009, Conrad accepted a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship to conduct organic electronics research at NIST. 

“There was a chemist at the University of Kentucky making new organic semiconducting molecules. Nobody else in the whole universe was looking at them and they were being shipped to me and I was trying to grow single crystals of them and then determining if they were semiconducting or not,” Conrad said. “I was literally on the bleeding edge of organic semiconductor research and that was very exciting.”

Meanwhile, he was also teaching an introductory physics class at UMD. Inspired by the challenge of working with students, Conrad joined Appalachian State University in 2010 and spent the next eight years teaching physics and astronomy, building workforce and outreach opportunities for his students, and enjoying life on the doorstep of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Everyone there had four-wheel drive vehicles so they could get up and down the mountains, and I could see the Blue Ridge Parkway from my house,” he recalled. “I could just go off from my backyard and find one of the paths and connect up with the Appalachian Trail, so I definitely became a hiking person.”

Conrad also became a popular teacher and mentor, committed to providing the support and guidance he knew his physics and astronomy students needed. But he was just getting started.

Joining AIP in 2016 allowed him to do even more. As the director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, Conrad impacted thousands of U.S. physics and astronomy students and alumni by building programs and sharing best practices to enhance physics education.

“My job at Appalachian State taught me how important teaching is, then what I loved at AIP was I got to direct the conversation and resources nationally, for 32,000 undergrads in physics and astronomy across the country,” Conrad explained. “It was my dream job, the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

Thanks to his own experiences as a student and a college professor, Conrad knew that SPS provided support that can be crucial to students’ success.

“It gives students a common mission and it supports fellowship and interest in physics,” Conrad noted. “The reason students don’t stay in physics is because they don’t feel like they fit, but SPS helps every student feel they belong, and that’s the real strength of SPS—belonging.”

Always a physicist, always a teacher

In his current role at NIST, Conrad still supports students interested in science and technology, but he also supports the high-tech employers who need them. He works to build collaborations between manufacturers and government agencies and advance specialized training and apprenticeship programs.

“Within Manufacturing USA there are 17 institutes, each focusing on a specific technology like robotics, optoelectronics, reuse of electronics and biotech—and all these tech areas need really awesome people to fill these jobs,” Conrad explained. “My role is to work with each of those institutes on their education and workforce development strategies, how they can get people access to those skills, and get people interested in these opportunities.”

Whether it’s teaching a class, connecting people, or creating opportunities in physics and beyond, for Conrad it’s a meaningful investment in the future.

“When people ask me who Brad Conrad is, I’m a physicist and I will always be a teacher,” he reflected. “I may do things that aren’t teaching but it’s always in support of people who want to learn and do good things. It’s more than just advancing science—I also know that every day I’m connecting people who are going to go off and make the world a better place.”


Written by Leslie Miller

Philippov Awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

Assistant Professor Sasha Philippov is one of 126 scientists in the United States and Canada to receive a 2024 Sloan Research Fellowship.

Granted by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the $75,000 award recognizes scientists who have made important research contributions and have demonstrated “the potential to revolutionize their fields of study.” The fellowship, introduced in 1955, is considered one of the most competitive and prestigious awards that an early-career scientist can receive. To date, 71 UMD faculty members have earned this distinction, including 14 from UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences since 2015.

Fellows are nominated by other scientists and selected by independent panels of senior scholars. Philippov was nominated by Eliot Quataert, a theoretical astrophysicist at Princeton University who said that Philippov’s research “stands out” from his peers covering similar topics.

“Sasha has a combination of physical intuition, physics depth, code development skills and computational acumen that is characteristic of the very best computational astrophysicists I have interacted with in my career,” Quataert said.Sasha PhilippovSasha Philippov

Philippov, who holds a Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton, was previously named a NASA Einstein and Theoretical Astrophysics Center Fellow at UC Berkeley, where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship from 2017 to 2018.

After his postdoc, Philippov worked as an associate research scientist at the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute, where he constructed the first models capable of explaining the mysterious coherent emission of pulsars—magnetized neutron stars that rapidly rotate.

Since joining UMD in 2022, Philippov has been busy with several research projects. He used simulations to show the production of gamma-ray flares from the black hole in galaxy M87, which was the first black hole to be pictured. He also demonstrated how kinetic effects change the flow of plasma and produced proof-of-concept simulations of radiative plasma turbulence.

Philippov also serves as deputy director of a Simons Foundation project called the Simons Collaboration on Extreme Electrodynamics of Compact Sources that models electrodynamic processes related to neutron stars and black holes.

Looking ahead, the two-year Sloan Research Fellowship will enable Philippov to delve deeper into the study of plasmas—hot, ionized gas that surrounds neutron stars and black holes, which he describes as “some of the most mysterious and exotic objects in the universe.”

Part of Philippov’s research will involve the study of magnetars, which are neutron stars with the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. He plans to use advanced 3D simulations to better understand the powerful magnetic flares that occur when pulsars release magnetic energy, enabling scientists to connect the dots between what is observed through telescopes and what is actually occurring at a magnetar’s surface.

He will also investigate black holes that accrete plasma “very efficiently,” meaning more plasma falls into those black holes than ones that accrete low-density plasma, such as the one in M87.

“Depending on how much falls in, the properties of the plasma are quite different because their temperatures and density are different,” Philippov explained.

For Philippov, more plasma means more opportunities to study neutrinos, which are weakly interacting particles that can be generated in the environment surrounding black holes. Philippov’s ultimate goal is to create models that explain how protons accelerate and end up producing neutrinos.

The timing is ideal, considering that the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole recently detected neutrinos from a spiral galaxy called NGC 1068.

“There will be more observations with IceCube and future detectors, so it’s a good time to work on theoretical models,” Philippov said.

Ultimately, Philippov is excited to study the phenomena that help illuminate objects like black holes, which do not emit light on their own. In pictures of black holes, what we sometimes see are accretion disks, or rotating rings of plasma that create a glow.

“We haven’t learned much about black holes themselves yet, but we are able to learn a lot about how they shine,” Philippov said of the study of plasmas surrounding black holes. “Our goal is to understand how all the emission that we see is produced. We can see it, but we cannot really explain why and how, so that’s the underlying question.”


Original story by Emily C. Nunez:

Distinguished University Professor Ellen Williams Retires

Ellen D. Williams, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland and director of the university’s Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC), retired on December 30, 2023, after 42 years at the university. Following her official retirement, Williams is now a research professor of physics and executive director of ESSIC’s Cooperative Institute for Satellite Earth System Studies (CISESS).

“Dr. Ellen D. Williams is an iconic figure at the University of Maryland. Not only was she a trailblazer as one of the first female full professors in physics, but she was a transformational scholar and leader,” said UMD President Darryll J. Pines. “Because of her scholarly excellence, she was recognized with the highest honor that the university bestows on its faculty, which is the title of Distinguished University Professor. I am deeply grateful for Dr. Williams' many contributions to the University of Maryland. I sincerely wish her well in her retirement!”

Williams came to UMD in 1981 for a postdoctoral fellowship and rose to the rank of professor by 1991.Ellen WilliamsEllen Williams

“I have had a wonderful career at the University of Maryland,” Williams said. “It has been my great pleasure to work with talented colleagues in interdisciplinary work that crossed both departmental and college lines. I am happy that I’ll be able to continue engaging with the university as I move into the next stage of my life.”

At Maryland, she established an internationally recognized research program in experimental surface science, exploring fundamental issues in statistical mechanics and nanotechnology. To accomplish this work, she pioneered the use of powerful scanning tunneling microscopy to quantify atomic scale order and disorder on the surface of materials such as silicon. In 1996, Williams founded the National Science Foundation-supported University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, serving as its director until 2009.

“Ellen Williams made fundamental contributions in applying statistical mechanics tools in surface science and nanotechnology,” said Steve Rolston, chair of UMD’s Department of Physics. “In addition, she has provided great insight and tireless effort to finding solutions to immense problems that threaten our entire planet.”

Within the Department of Physics, Williams also championed diversity in hiring and was active in the American Physical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Physics. In addition, she was an early proponent of the importance of computational tools in physics education. In 2004, she developed a Python-based course “Introduction to Programming for the Physical Sciences,” which subsequently became a required course in the undergraduate physics curriculum. 

Williams has a distinguished history of professional service both within the university, including serving as chair of the University Senate, and externally. Her external service includes work on national security, including chairing the development of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2012 report on “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” and providing extensive technical advice to the U.S. government, primarily through the Departments of Energy and Defense. 

“Ellen Williams contributed immensely to the University of Maryland community and the global scientific community during her 42-year career here,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS). “She has demonstrated distinction as an innovative scholar and teacher, valued mentor and colleague, and effective leader.”

Williams took a leave of absence from the university and served as the chief scientist for British Petroleum (BP) from 2010 to 2014, where her work included sustainability studies in collaborations including the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University and the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Illinois. In 2014, she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Williams led the agency in its mission to advance high-potential, high-impact clean energy technologies that are too early in development for private-sector investment. One of her goals while at ARPA-E was to establish a documentation process for research outcomes, so that every project, whether it succeeded or failed, would have a record of what worked or didn’t and a clear explanation of why to help guide future explorations in similar areas.

Williams returned to UMD in January 2017 and began work on bridging policy and technology perspectives for clean energy innovation. She established a graduate course to foster interactions between public policy students and students in the natural sciences and engineering called “Intersections of Technology and Policy in Modernizing the Energy System.” In 2018-19, she led a report to the State of Maryland on “The Present Status and Future Potential of Maryland’s Clean Energy Innovation System,” which was instrumental for continuing state support of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute in UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering.  

Most recently, in 2020, she accepted the role of ESSIC director. As the largest research center at UMD, ESSIC serves a unique role as a collaboration hub within the national Earth system science research community by linking research efforts in UMD’s Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic ScienceGeology, and Geographical Sciences with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Under Williams’ leadership, ESSIC was awarded a new five-year, $95 million cooperative agreement with NASA in 2022 to support research, teaching and career training in Earth system science. In 2023, Williams presented the mid-term review of ESSIC’s cooperative institute, CISESS, to a NOAA committee. This resulted in the highest ranking of outstanding and an endorsement for continuing CISESS.

In 2023, a team led by Williams of researchers from ESSIC and the Departments of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geology, and Geographical Sciences received a three-year, $3 million Grand Challenges Institutional Grant from the university to address climate change for a sustainable Earth. The team is working with federal partners as well as regional and state agencies to develop systems capable of providing early warning to communities about climate-related floods, tornadoes and other weather disasters. Using satellite data, ground-based sensors and other tools, the team is also working to deliver information to Maryland farmers and agribusinesses to help shield food production from changing climate.

Williams’ research and service accomplishments have been widely recognized. She has been elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a foreign member of the Royal Society (London). She is also a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the American Vacuum Society. She has also been recognized by awards from the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society, and Distinguished Alumnus Awards from the California Institute of Technology and Michigan State University. 

Williams has also been a very generous donor to the university, creating a legacy of support for future generations of scientists. Her late husband Neil Gehrels, a College Park Professor of Astronomy and chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was named a 2017 Dan David Prize laureate a few days before he passed away. The prize included a $1 million award, and Williams donated his share to establish the Neil Gehrels Memorial Endowment in Astrophysics to support UMD students and postdocs engaged in research with astrophysicists at NASA Goddard. Five individuals have received Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellowships since 2018 and Williams continues to add to the endowment annually.

“In addition to the Gehrels Fellowship, Ellen has also generously supported diversity efforts within CMNS, undergraduate students with financial need, and the Department of Physics,” Varshney added. “She established renowned scientific and philanthropic legacies here at Maryland.”


Faculty, Staff, Student and Alumni Awards & Notes

We proudly recognize members of our community who recently garnered major honors, began new positions and more.

Department News
  • A memorial symposium commemorating the life and scientific career of Charles W. Misner was held on November 11. Videos and slides from the day can be found here.
Faculty and Staff
  • John Labbate was commended for his poster at the APS Division of Plasma Physics (APS-DPP) meeting in Denver.
  • Physics magazine Junheng Tao, Mingshu Zhao and Ian Spielman 
  • Simone Pierpaoli was mentioned in The Diamondback.
  • Isaac Sherwood was quoted in Maryland Today.