Career Q&A with Recent Physics Alum Jason Barbier

Can you tell us about your career before coming to the University of Maryland in 2020?

I began my career in 2014 on active duty in the United States Air Force as a full-time radio communications technician at the Royal Air Force Croughton in the United Kingdom. I coordinated communications to the battlefield by maintaining a fixed satellite communication relay station. This involved building a range of skills in electronics repair, network testing and operations management. In 2019, I chose to cross-train to a reserve aircraft maintenance position at the 459th Air Refueling Wing in Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. I inspected, serviced, fueled and launched our fleet of KC-135 refueler aircraft to support long-range missions. 

Serving gave me the opportunity to grow as a professional in several exciting fields. I am immensely thankful for my many family members, mentors, and fellow servicemen and women who encouraged me to pursue my bachelor’s full-time at UMD starting in fall 2020.Barbier in front of 459 ARW Andrews

Why did you decide to study physics at UMD and what do you hope to do with your degree?

Since I was a kid playing with circuit kits and disassembling items around the house, I’ve been drawn to technical fields. When I was working in the military, I found myself pondering deep questions about the nature of reality. As a technician, I spent my time learning how to use the equipment; I wanted to know how and why everything worked. I was curious about everything from quantum particles to the behavior of black holes.

In my travels as a service member, I experienced the world in ways I’d only heard or read about. I saw issues like resource scarcity and environmental degradation everywhere I traveled and decided that I wanted to be part of the solution.

This led me to build an interest in the potential of nuclear fusion power (for energy and space travel). I decided to go into research to move this field forward while learning the intricacies of particles and the current state of reactors. My ultimate goal is to solve energy and environmental challenges with sustainable power sources.

How have you taken advantage of opportunities on campus to pursue your career goals?

First off, from the Terp Vets community, I have found support from other ambitious Terps who transitioned from the military to higher education.

Then in the University Career Center, I made use of essential guidance and career prep resources. After some searching into research projects to join, I found a promising one at the intersection of both CMNS and the Clark School of Engineering. I joined a research team in beam physics at the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. Here, I developed my ability to use tools for constructing and testing elements of an electron accelerator. Across the board, I have had so much support from UMD interested in seeing me succeed.

What kind of career guidance and one-on-one feedback did you receive from the University Career Center @ CMNS?

At the Career Center, I spoke with [University Career Center @ CMNS Program Director] Becca Ryan who helped me understand my goals and prepare for internships. In our first meeting, Becca informed me that physics is a degree with many marketable skills, like analysis and research, that can match well to a range of internships and job postings. 

Barbier with PSC in backgroundAfter attending the university’s spring career fair and interviewing with a company of interest, UCC counselors encouraged me by suggesting the skills I would need to succeed and coaching me through the unfamiliar parts of the process such as negotiation. 

As I interviewed, there were questions specific to the industry that I was unsure how to answer. Becca recommended studying material beforehand and asking staff members about the company’s priorities. She also helped me decide what to do with the job offer I received and determine how the job aligned with my goals and career path. Once I made my decision to decline the job offer and pursue graduate studies instead, Becca helped me vocalize it clearly and effectively.

What do you think your next stop after graduation will be (or what do you hope it will be)?

Now that I have graduated with my B.S. in physics, I hope to build upon my physics background and connect to engineering and business to solve needs in the world through products or a startup. I am currently enrolled in the accelerated business master’s program (here at UMD!) to combine my scientific and engineering skills with industry and leadership. It’s a one-year program that will give me the business, financial and communication skills so I can develop technologies that can reach the marketplace.

Next summer, I’ll be looking to gain internship experience this summer and apply for jobs before graduating with my master’s.Barbier with dog

What advice do you have for fellow Science Terps who are looking for internships and jobs?

I am honored by the opportunity to be a Terp and study in such an encouraging and idea-abundant environment! I encourage other Science Terps to speak with the UCC and meet with employers and labs. You never know what skills of yours are in demand until you get yourself out there.

CMNS students have access to career advisors and programs that are personalized to their unique career interests in STEM fields. In this Q&A series, we are spotlighting how Science Terps are capitalizing on the resources, support and guidance that the University Career Center @ CMNS provides. 

Make an appointment with Becca or another member of the University Career Center team by visiting or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with any career-related questions!

‘Not Alone’: Mental Health Task Force Analyzes Well-Being of UMD Physics Graduate Students 

Grad school should challenge students’ minds but not their mental health, according to physics graduate students at the University of Maryland who are using scientific principles to understand their peers’ perspectives.

Formed in 2016, the Department of Physics’ Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force (MHTF) is a small, student-led group that conducts surveys to identify the unique challenges faced by physics graduate students. While all of the task force members are researchers, they are also part of the very group they are analyzing.

“When you are studying a population that you yourself are a part of, you come with your own biases, but you also come with an understanding of the group,” said physics graduate student and MHTF member Adam Ehrenberg. “And as somebody who for most of undergrad struggled with their mental health relatively openly, the MHTF seemed like a good way to think about those things in a slightly more official way.”Patrick Banner speaks with colleagues. Credit: Müge KaragözPatrick Banner speaks with colleagues. Credit: Müge Karagöz

The group works together to create surveys and get them approved by the campus Institutional Review Board—a recommended step for research involving human subjects. They then conduct statistical analyses to gather insights, which are condensed into a report and made publicly available online. Some surveys are broadly focused on students’ mental health, while others hone in on a specific issue.

The MHTF’s last report shed light on the high rate of impostor phenomenon among physics graduate students, especially among those who identify as female or nonbinary. People who experience this phenomenon often report feeling like “frauds” who have not earned their spot in a job or academic department. 

Physics graduate student and MHTF member Patrick Banner explained that impostor phenomenon can cause anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, and can even prevent people from pursuing scholarships, fellowships or career opportunities.

“One really harmful aspect of impostor phenomenon is that someone experiencing it may feel that they do not deserve the opportunities they receive and therefore don't pursue them,” Banner said.

Banner said the task force’s next report, slated to publish sometime this semester, will dive deeper into this phenomenon and the role that academic advisors can play in a student’s experience. 

“We had a specific question that we wanted to know, which is: Can the relationship between a student and their advisor affect impostor phenomenon feelings?” Banner said. “We asked not only questions about impostor phenomenon, but also about how students perceived their relationship with their advisor, and we can look at some quantitative correlations between those variables.”

While the MHTF is still analyzing data, preliminary results show that the quality of advising can affect how students view themselves and their place in the physics department. One of the group’s recommendations to advisors is to head off students’ feelings of inadequacy by helping them understand why they might be struggling with a task.

“Grad school is an inherently difficult process to go through, and there are always going to be struggles. Things are going to fail sometimes,” Banner said. “I think the best advisors are good at making that clear and reframing struggles to say, ‘No, it’s not you. This is a hard thing that you’re doing.’”

Steven Rolston, the physics department chair, said the MHTF’s methodical and compassionate approach to mental health has been “gratifying” to witness.

“They address the issue as scientists, using validated tools and raising the levels of statistical analysis as they refine their surveys,” Rolston said. “Simply addressing the topic out in the open—and showing their fellow students that they are not alone and that people do care—can make a big difference.”

The MHTF also produces and manages two resources for grad students: the UMD Physics Grad Student Guide and the Mental Health Resources page on the physics department website. To expand its scope even further, the MHTF started hosting more social events—from movie nights to coffee breaks—to help students feel more connected with their peers. 

In 2021, MHTF members participated in a mental health panel hosted by the American Physical Society and, more recently, shared preliminary results of their newest survey during a meeting of the Chesapeake Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

Chandra Turpen, a physics assistant research professor who advises the MHTF, lauded the group’s ability to not only gather data but to effectively share their results with a larger audience.

“This team has consistently done top-notch work—gathering evidence, building relationships with stakeholders across these graduate programs, persuasively communicating their results and making requests to transform our graduate programs,” Turpen said. “Their work embodies many of the best practices for leading inclusive system change efforts.”

Going forward, the group hopes to recruit new students to MHTF—three of the five current members plan to graduate this year. Anyone interested in joining can email the group at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

And they hope to keep the momentum—and the conversation—going. Erin Sohr (B.S. ’10, physics and astronomy; Ph.D. ’18, physics), who co-founded the MHTF as a graduate student in 2016, said it has been meaningful to see the physics community rally around students’ mental health.

“I think the most important impact is around starting this conversation within the department, normalizing struggles and just making mental health something we notice and talk about together,” said Sohr, who is now a physics assistant research scientist at UMD.

Banner agreed, stressing the value of undertaking these surveys and having difficult conversations.

“Just having the conversation is a way of saying that mental health is a serious issue,” Banner said. “We don’t want to sweep this under the rug. We want everyone to be happy and healthy, so having these conversations is the first step to making that happen.”


Written by Emily Nunez

Solving the Mystery of the Stinky Vapor Plumes on Campus

Billowing white columns of vapor rise silently from sidewalks and manholes around the University of Maryland campus when it gets chilly. These mysterious plumes are sometimes accompanied by a strange odor or a lingering warmth. Like ghosts, the hazy wisps seem to come and go without much explanation. But what’s the cause of this foggy, strange smelling campuswide phenomenon and where is it coming from? 

“It’s definitely not intentional or desirable,” said UMD Physics Professor Daniel Lathrop. “You’re not supposed to see or smell it at all. In fact, it’s just one component of a much bigger problem. This visible vapor is a sign that our underground utilities infrastructure is aging and inadvertently helping to cause water and heat waste across our campus.”Dan Lathrop. Credit: Georgia JiangDan Lathrop. Credit: Georgia Jiang

Like a leaky pipe, this leaking vapor can cause serious problems including infrastructure damage, energy waste and pollution to the natural areas surrounding UMD. 

The university’s infrastructure—some of which dates back over 150 years—naturally deteriorated over time. That includes the decades-old tri-generation energy system that the majority of the campus runs on today.

“Our current energy generation system was installed in 1999. It heats, cools and powers over 250 campus buildings,” explained Lathrop, who also holds joint appointments in the Departments of Geology and Physics, the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, and the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. “A natural gas-fired turbine generates most of the electricity we use and the heat that this turbine produces is recaptured to produce steam, which produces additional electric power. The steam is then also used to heat and cool our buildings.” 

Gregg Garbesi, assistant director of utilities and energy management at UMD’s Facilities Management, says the visible vapor comes when liquid (like groundwater, city water leaks, stormwater leaks, etc.) physically contacts the underground steam line. He compares the campus’ visible vapor to steam caused by pouring cold water into a hot pan on a stove. He explains that the odd smells accompanying the vapor occur when organic materials come into contact with the leaked vapor, which is generated underground or in a steam manhole. 

According to Garbesi, seeing these vapor plumes signals energy loss. 

“For every pound of vapor generated, a pound of steam is condensed in the steam pipes,” he said. “All the energy that went into making that pound of steam—which could have been used to power campus—is lost, and if 100% of the condensate doesn’t return to the energy plant, that water is also lost.”

“We’re wasting about a million gallons of water a day now,” Lathrop added. “The loss in 2019 alone is estimated to be 700 million gallons, costing us an estimated $4 to $6 million a year. And that’s just the financial price tag that we know about.”

That’s why Lathrop is leading a multidepartment, cross-disciplinary Grand Challenges team that aims to map and pinpoint locations where steam is being lost and get a better look at challenges with energy consumption, water quality, methane emissions and air quality on UMD’s campus. With colleagues and students from the Departments of Geology, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geographical Sciences, and Environmental Science and Technology, Lathrop hopes to tackle these interrelated issues by pinpointing the biggest problems and providing concrete solutions.

“Methane emissions, carbon dioxide emissions and pipeline water loss from our campus play a big role in stream water and air contamination nearby,” he said. “It’s our goal to measure these impacts and figure out how we can remediate these challenges to reduce our campus’ climate footprint and improve the environment here.”

Diagnosing and treating an aging energy system

When Lathrop began this project in spring 2023, his first step was to work with Facilities Management to learn more about the campus’ utilities-related challenges, particularly the steam issues caused by underground pipelines. He soon realized that his ongoing U.S. National Science Foundation-funded research—to develop sensors capable of detecting geophysical anomalies—could play a key part in this new project. 

“My lab was originally developing geophysical sensors to look for landmines and unexploded ordnance, but we recognized that this same system could be used to find buried utilities,” Lathrop explained, referring to a project that was named a UMD Invention of the Year in May 2022

Licensed drone pilot and physics senior Meyer Taffel is test-flying a drone over campus to magnetically map UMD's underground utilities. Credit: Dan LathropLicensed drone pilot and physics senior Meyer Taffel is test-flying a drone over campus to magnetically map UMD's underground utilities. Credit: Dan LathropUsing these sensors and historic infrastructure blueprints provided by Facilities Management, Lathrop and his team sketched out an extensive map of steam-emitting sources on campus. They concluded that UMD’s energy system had at least 55 active steam vents. 

A group of undergraduate physics majors taking Lathrop’s PHYS 499X class added to those findings when they hand-built a calorimeter (an instrument that measures heat from chemical and physical reactions) in fall 2023 as a course project. 

The students used the calorimeter to identify dozens of campus hot spots and learned that some of these accidental vents lost more than 60 kilowatts of heat energy via escaped condensation. For reference, a standard incandescent light bulb uses about 60 watts of electricity on average—meaning that the steam and heat leaking from some of these vents could power approximately 1,000 of those light bulbs. 

Lathrop estimates that this loss alone could equate to approximately $50,000 per year but he believes that identifying and analyzing the factors that led to the hot spots was invaluable.

“This is a team effort and having everyone on the same page can really make a difference when it comes to fixing things on campus and allocating resources appropriately. Our work has already started to help the university identify and patch sites on campus with water leaks,” he said. “We were able to prevent local building damage and protect students, staff and faculty from potential safety hazards.”

Putting together pieces of a bigger puzzle

Other members of the Grand Challenges project team are also on the ground looking for ways to locate and address the campus’ interconnected water and air quality problems.

Geology graduate student Julia Famiglietti and Geology Chair and Professor James Farquhar tracked gas leaks on campus through the sewer system to create a methane inventory (list of methane sources and sinks). They identified a contamination source underground that they suspect is related to the aging steam system.

“We think that the contamination has something to do with steam additives accidentally coming into contact with and reacting to methane,” explained Famiglietti, who sampled the air in campus sewers at least once a month to determine the composition of gases found in emissions. “We’re focusing on understanding the chemistry behind this contamination signature and directly discussing with the steam plant management personnel how to address the problem.” 

Geology Associate Professor Karen Prestegaard and Professor Sujay Kaushal found similar results while working with student groups to monitor the water quality of streams and storm drains. They discovered that water discharging from steam vents into storm drains had noticeably higher pH values and higher salt contamination than natural rainwater—potentially encrusting pipes with buildup and impacting wildlife in the Paint Branch waterways. 

Other efforts to gather and analyze the researchers’ environmental data include Project Greenhouse, in which First-Year Innovation & Research Experience (FIRE) undergraduates are drafting a sustainable methane budget for UMD.

Lathrop hopes that this multiyear campuswide team effort will help UMD reduce water and steam waste (and the associated environmental and fiscal costs) by 30% by the end of the project in June 2026. He believes this project can serve as a model for other research efforts to analyze similar urban environmental impacts for cities or large organizations like universities. 

“Our campus is a microcosm of urban and suburban environmental impacts, so evaluating UMD’s impact on the environment leads to a better understanding of how humans impact climate on a local, national and global level,” Lathrop said. “We’re all doing our part to protect our campus and the people living and working here.” 

Written by Georgia Jiang

 Other UMD faculty members involved in the Remediation of Methane, Water, and Heat Waste Grand Challenges project include Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Professor Russell Dickerson, Environmental Science and Technology Associate Professor Stephanie Yarwood, FIRE Assistant Clinical Professor Danielle Niu, Geographical Sciences Assistant Professor Yiqun Xie, and Geology Professors Michael Evans and Vedran Lekic. 

Aaron Sternbach Combines Light and Matter to Push Experimental Boundaries

Aaron Sternbach, a new assistant professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Maryland, is an expert in combining light and material properties to produce unique results. His experiments have allowed him to spy on elusive quantum interactions that play out on extremely small and fast scales.

“I study quantum materials with light,” Sternbach said. “When I encounter something I can’t see with light because of common ‘limits,’ I study the physics behind these limits and try to push them further. That is a really fun part of the job. In some cases, that approach can lead to new opportunities.” 

Since he was a kid, Sternbach enjoyed math and physics. But even as he enrolled to study physics as an undergraduate at Boston University, he wasn’t certain that he wanted to pursue a career in physics. During his freshman and sophomore years, he worked in an astrophysics lab where he spent most of his time helping design measurement devices. But after almost two years of work, his efforts hadn’t produced a physical device. The project wasn’t progressing at a pace he found satisfying, so he considered switching majors to study medicine in his junior year. Aaron SternbachAaron Sternbach

That changed after he spent his summer working in physicist Richard Averitt’s lab. He assisted with an experiment that used light to manipulate the electrical properties of a quantum material. In the project, light drove the material from being a poorly conducting insulator to an electrical conductor. Achieving the transition required focusing the light into a smaller spot than is possible using lenses or other common techniques. Instead, it required taking advantage of the material’s structure. 

A material’s response to light is dictated by its internal structure, and the project was looking at just one of the countless possible materials that scientists can find in nature or deliberately engineer. Sternbach became hooked on physics when he started to explore simulations of materials as part of the project, and he never looked back.

"I found it fascinating that engineering light could totally change the properties of a quantum material," Sternbach said. "I started playing with all sorts of simulations to try to understand how far this approach could go."

He started to wish he could watch the transitions between insulator and conductor in experiments as they played out in real space and real time. In 2013, that desire led him to graduate school at UC San Diego, where he joined the lab of Dimitri Basov. Basov had recently been investigating new techniques that used material properties to focus light into unusually small spots. His early results showed that the approach could be useful for observing and learning about quantum materials. In the middle of his graduate studies, Sternbach moved to Columbia University when Basov relocated his lab there.

Working with Basov, Sternbach helped develop a new observation technique that can observe very quick changes while also getting around a rule in physics called the diffraction limit. The diffraction limit is the inevitable result of the way that waves, including light, spread—diffract—when they pass the edge of an object and then keep spreading as they travel. For devices that use lenses and apertures to manipulate light, the diffraction limit imposes strict constraints both on the smallest spot a beam of light can be focused into and on the smallest features that the device can be used to clearly distinguish. However, by using the structure of a material to continually influence light, researchers can circumvent the diffraction limit and build new tools for manipulating and observing the microscopic world. 

The observation technique that Sternbach helped develop simultaneously uses the material’s structure to herd light along paths that beat the diffraction limit and uses very short flashes of light to accurately capture quickly unfolding events as they play out over time. To get clear snapshots of rapidly changing experiments, the team used extremely short flashes of light, providing a clear view of brief periods instead of capturing a blurry image like an overexposed photograph. 

“Learning to interact with data and gaining an intuition for what you're seeing is like learning a new language,” Sternbach said. “You learn fantastic approaches to see parts of the world that are way beyond a native human scale.”During positive refraction (green) the path of incoming light (blue) will bend, but it will never cross the dotted line perpendicular to the interface of the two materials. In rarer circumstances, called negative refraction (red), the light sharply turns and continues on the same side of the dotted line. (Credit: Bailey Bedford, UMD)During positive refraction (green) the path of incoming light (blue) will bend, but it will never cross the dotted line perpendicular to the interface of the two materials. In rarer circumstances, called negative refraction (red), the light sharply turns and continues on the same side of the dotted line. (Credit: Bailey Bedford, UMD)

As part of his graduate work, Sternbach got to apply the technique he’d developed to observe materials transforming in real space and in real time after light was used to initiate a change.

After completing his degree, he continued to work with Basov as a postdoctoral researcher. In a new project, they incorporated an additional way that light and matter can interact. They studied polaritons—particle-like combinations of light and matter with characteristics of both. Since the matter portion of a polariton contributes mass, polaritons behave more like matter than normal light: They can carry significantly more momentum than light and can be more tightly confined into a beam than freely propagating light. 

Sternbach and his colleagues wanted to observe a particular type of polariton, called a hyperbolic polariton, that travels through the bulk of a material along a specific type of constrained path. In an article published in the journal Science in 2021, the team shared how they created polaritons by hitting a layered material with a pulse of light and then used their new technique to observe polaritons and follow their journey through the material. Their measurements revealed details about quantum states that were crucial to the polaritons’ existence and that only existed in the material for trillionths of a second. 

Following that experiment, Sternbach and his colleagues studied hyperbolic polaritons that moved between two different adjacent materials. They investigated two naturally occurring materials that were known to produce polaritons and revealed that a polariton’s path would bend in an unusual way as it passed across the interface between the two materials. 

Normally when light travels between two materials, such as water and air, its path bends slightly based on the fact that it travels at different speeds in each material. This bending of light—called refraction—is why a straight straw placed in a glass of water looks like it bends at the interface. 

In an article published in the journal Science in 2023, Sternbach and his colleagues showed that when they properly oriented the two materials, the polaritons at the interface didn’t refract normally. 

Most materials produce positive refraction, where light is deflected a bit but is limited in how far it can swerve to either side. Positive refraction is similar to a simple dive into a swimming pool: The diver’s direction will change some when they move into the water, but as they continue down, they also keep moving forward. 

Sternbach and his colleagues observed their polaritons bending in a more drastic way, called negative refraction. During negative refraction, a beam almost does a U-turn. While it continues down into the new material, it also travels backwards, like a diver who instantly makes a sharp turn as they hit the water so that they end up under the diving board instead of in front of it. 

The team’s experiment revealed that producing negative refraction in the experiment depended on getting the top layer turned at just the right orientation to the bottom layer. The team went on to use negative refraction to create a tiny container for trapping light. They demonstrated that when the polaritons were reflected at the exposed surfaces of each material, the negative index of refraction allowed the polaritons to become stuck in a loop that is much smaller than the wavelength of the light outside the materials. 

Now that Sternbach has joined UMD, he plans to continue this line of research in his own lab, where he hopes to create a supportive environment for students. He is currently looking for new students to join him in exploring quantum materials and the complex interactions that can be engineered between light and matter. 

“I always felt that exploring curiosities and doing things that I really enjoyed doing was enough,” Sternbach said. “And I think that was a good rule of thumb. It's allowed me to explore this direction, which is basic research, freely and grow in whatever direction nature allows. I'm very excited to see where this goes in the future at Maryland.”

Story by Bailey Bedford


The Sternbach group is always looking for exceptional graduate and undergraduate students as well as postdoctoral researchers who wish to join the team. Those interested may reach out to him by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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