Blast to the Past

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Faculty and students in the physics department’s Center for Integrated Plasma Studies have provided instruments for six sounding rockets launched into the polar ionosphere over the last decade.

These instruments measure the concentration of charged aerosol particles, which may be either icy cloud particles or meteoritic dust. The aerosol particles are of interest because they absorb the electrons and ions that make up the ionosphere and because chemical reactions can take place on the particle surfaces.

"The data returned by the rockets show that there is a layer of tiny ice particles—nanometers in size—in the polar summer ionosphere between 80 and 90 kilometers," says Professor Scott Robertson, adding that because there are more positively charged cloud particles than expected, the particles may actually grow from positive ions.

Undergraduate Nicole Duncan developed some low-noise electronic circuits that were incorporated into versions of the rocket instruments flown in 2009. She adapted the circuits to detect charged dust particles on the Moon that are set into motion by the photoelectric effect and by robotic or human activity.

"As NASA prepares for a possible return to the Moon, there is concern about how instruments and personnel will be affected by the dust that is set into motion by robots or people moving around on the surface," Robertson says. 

Why study at CU-Boulder?

The physics department at CU-Boulder offers award-winning programs, well-established and knowledgeable faculty, and an unmatched educational experience. The department is ranked among the Top 10 physics departments at public universities and among the top 20 universities overall for graduate-level physics programs by the National Research Council. 

The department also took top honors for its atomic/molecular/optical physics program, which tied with MIT’s in the 2012 edition of Best Graduate Schools published by U.S. News & World Report. Three CU-Boulder professors have won the Nobel Prize for Physics, including Carl Wieman and Eric Cornell in 2001 for the world’s first Bose-Einstein condensate, and John Hall in 2005 for his contributions to the development of laser-based precision spectroscopy.

Engineering physics undergraduates take a variety of core and elective laboratory courses that emphasize student-developed and -designed independent projects. Students are encouraged to form research collaborations with faculty as they pursue senior thesis projects, and many additional research, internship and industry co-op experiences are available. Students also can gain professional exposure through the student chapter of the Society of Physics Students on campus.

Research Opportunities

Research is a fundamental part of our graduate curriculum, and it provides an excellent opportunity for undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience in the field. Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), and the summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program on the CU-Boulder campus, physics students enjoy ample opportunity to participate in the fascinating, cutting-edge research that the department and its various research partners conduct.

The search for the Higgs boson is being tackled in earnest at the CERN supercollider, in a collaboration involving our high energy physics faculty.  Nobel-prize caliber research is carried out in studies of quantum gases and quantum optics.  Condensed-matter theorists and experimentalists unravel the mysteries of many-body systems, including liquid crystals and the quantum mechanical nature of the electrical and magnetic behavior of materials. 

Other areas of interest include the physics of nuclei, both low- and high-energy plasmas, and an exciting thrust into the behavior of ultrafast laser pulses and the response of atoms, molecules, and solids to such novel light sources.  Novel studies of physico-chemical reactivity are also under way at temperatures a mere whisper above absolute zero.  The burgeoning subjects of biophysics and nanoscience continue to thrive and grow here, along with energy science, geophysics, physics education research, and other interdisciplinary fields.

Among the department’s key partners are these federal laboratories, located both on and off campus: JILA Center for Atomic Molecular and Optical Physics, the National Institute for Standards and Technology, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Where do CU graduates work?

Engineering physics graduates are employed at Ascent Solar Technologies, AP Engineering and Construction Services, Boulder Environmental Sciences and Technologies, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and the CU Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, among other organizations.

Many also go onto graduate school. About 20 percent of CU-Boulder engineering bachelor’s graduates (college-wide) continue onto graduate school, gaining admittance to top schools such as MIT, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford, University of California Berkeley, and the University of Texas at Austin.

Job Outlook

Job prospects are favorable for physicists in applied research, development, and related technical fields.

Starting Salary

Students who graduate with a bachelor's degree in engineering physics and pursue employment in the engineering or information technology sectors can expect to earn an average salary between $40,000 and $62,000, according to the American Institute of Physics.

Important Announcements

CUEngineering:  A publication for alumni and friends. Read the 2016 edition of CUEngineering magazine here.

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