Applied physics reflects, post-SEAS split

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Nearly three years after the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science decided to move the Applied Physics Department out of the school, professors in the discipline said the change has been one for the worse.

All three applied physics professors interviewed said the split hurt the department by limiting interaction with their collaborators in the engineering departments. Robust research collaboration continues between the applied physics and engineering departments, Applied Physics Chair Douglas Stone said, citing a roughly sixfold increase in grant expenditures in applied physics over the last decade. But applied physics is no longer part of critical administrative discussions with engineering as result of this new arrangement, he said.

For students in the Applied Physics Department, the impact of the split is less clear. Some claim the change has had little effect on classes and research opportunities, but others feel removed from valuable SEAS resources and the burgeoning engineering culture at Yale.

While science administrators maintain that the move — which occurred after applied physics faculty unanimously rejected a 2009 SEAS proposal to dissolve the department — has not disadvantaged the Applied Physics Department, faculty members in the department said the move has posed problems.

“It’s led to a very artificial situation that makes it very difficult for us in applied physics,” said professor of applied physics and physics Robert Schoelkopf. “Our traditional home and the people we should have the most synergy with are in an organization that we are not a part of.”

THE FACULTY EXPERIENCE

In many respects, however, little has changed for the faculty, said applied physics and physics professor Daniel Prober. The department — which is comprised of 13 core faculty members — still occupies many of the same offices and laboratories. Multiple research collaborations continue to involve faculty from both departments — the Center for Research on Interface Structures and Phenomena, led by applied physics professor Charles Ahn, includes more than a dozen engineering faculty, for example.

Prober added that independence from SEAS has also given the applied physics professors “the ability to determine our own fate,” citing in particular more liberty in conducting faculty hires.

But professors said the separation has stunted the department’s growth.

“On the whole, life isn’t dramatically different,” Prober said. “But new research initiatives that might bridge between applied physics and engineering departments probably won’t develop as spontaneously or as quickly as if we were seeing those folks at lots of meetings and just intersecting over more lunches and more coffee and donuts.”

Though research collaboration has continued, Stone said applied physics is no longer part of many important administrative conversations within SEAS. For instance, applied physics is not consulted on engineering facilities issues even though the department is “key” to them. Stone added that applied physics has been much more wiling to include engineering professors on its faculty search committees than SEAS has been to include applied physics professors on theirs, citing a recent applied physics search in which two of six faculty members were from SEAS.

Stone said applied physics’ current lack of involvement at the “higher level” of SEAS decision-making hurts the department, the school and Yale.

“Our future would be much more secure if we were part of engineering,” he added. “The facilities are going to be critical — they are going to have to be improved, upgraded and expanded. If we are not in the planning, it certainly seems possible that we won’t get the resources that our success seems to indicate.”

SEAS Dean T. Kyle Vanderlick was unavailable for an interview for this article.

Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin said he does not see dramatic advantages or disadvantages to the shift, as there are strong intellectual ties between applied physics and engineering regardless that he hopes will continue to grow.

“I don’t think applied physics has come out somehow strongly affected by this,” he said. “They are a stand-alone department instead of a department within a school. There was some emotional distress within the department, but I don’t think there has been any actual problems caused to the department as far as I can see.”

STUDENT PERSPECTIVE

Stone said one line of communication lost through this split affects students in both departments.

The directors of undergraduate studies in SEAS used to meet as a group to discuss teaching assignments for a range of courses — discussions that no longer include applied physics.

But applied physics major Andrew Goldstein ’13 said the move from engineering has not significantly affected him — he said he senses the classes and research opportunities provided by the department have remained largely unchanged. Stone said he also believes the shift has not negatively impacted the undergraduates in the department, citing the continued ability of senior projects to be conducted in the labs of engineering faculty.

On the other hand, applied physics major Doug Steinberg ’13 said he thinks the department should rejoin SEAS in large part because it is losing out on all of the investments SEAS has made in recent years. More students would be attracted to the major — which only has three students in its graduating class this year — if it were attached to SEAS, he said, adding that he thinks being in SEAS would help applied physics students secure both funding and spots in labs to conduct research.

“We deserve to be in engineering,” Steinberg said. “All the prerequisites are the same, and I personally took most of my electives with engineering students anyways, so I am doing the same work as engineering students, but I don’t get to consider myself part of the department, and that’s kind of unfair.”

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