Published: April 20, 2023

National Institute of Standards and Technology makes $94.5 million cooperative agreement to continue successful NIST-CU Boulder collaboration

The University of Colorado Boulder Department of Physics has received a $94.5 million award from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to continue the collaborative Professional Research Experience Program (PREP) for the next five years, the department has announced.

Started in 1994, the PREP program provides funding for undergraduate and graduate students in physics and other departments to work with researchers at NIST’s Boulder laboratories on cutting-edge projects, including new atomic clocks, precision quantum measurement, international measurement standards, new laser applications, GPS technology and more. 

PREP has more than 130 students and research scientists working at NIST-Boulder. CU Boulder has managed a PREP program for 28 years, and its Department of Physics, one of the nation’s top physics departments, has administered the PREP cooperative agreement since 2017.


At top of page: A laser-based atomic clock in Andrew Ludlow’s research laboratory at NIST-Boulder. Seven CU PREP research scientists work in Ludow’s lab on optical lattice clocks that can measure time and frequency with 18 digits of precision or more. Photo by N. Phillips/NIST. Above, left to right: Michael Ritzwoller, John Cumalat and Paul Beale.

PREP has employed more than 300 CU Boulder students and research scientists in the last five years.

NIST-Boulder is one of the top physics laboratories in the world, especially in quantum science and engineering, precision measurement, and high-speed communications. PREP recruits some of the top young scientists and engineers in the world to work closely with NIST researchers. Together, they create scientific discoveries that help maintain U.S. technological leadership. 

John Cumalat, college professor of distinction in physics, is the principal investigator of the PREP cooperative agreement, and Paul Beale, professor of physics, is co-PI. 

“PREP provides excellent opportunities for young researchers to work with the outstanding scientists and engineers at the NIST Boulder Laboratories,” they added. “Dozens of CU undergraduate and graduate students work alongside NIST scientists on their honors thesis projects and doctoral dissertations. Hundreds of PREP alumni have gone on to become leading research scientists and academic leaders. In the new award we will enhance the Outreach Program to share the research accomplishments of our PREP employees and NIST scientists.”

Michael Ritzwoller, professor of distinction and chair of physics, praised the program. “We are delighted to continue physics’ long-term relationship with NIST-Boulder. PREP research scientists and students contribute greatly to both CU and NIST.” 

Lang Farmer, divisional dean of natural sciences, concurred, saying, “It is exceptionally good news for CU that NIST PREP will continue to provide exciting research opportunities for both CU undergraduate and graduate students while working side by side with NIST scientists.”

The Department of Physics has had a close research relationship with NIST-Boulder for more than 60 years. Three of the department’s four Nobel Laureates are NIST federal scientists. David Wineland was at NIST-Boulder when he won the Nobel Prize in 2012, and dozens of PREP research students and scientists contributed to his research program.

PREP is administered in physics by Cumalat, Beale, PREP Program Coordinator Tiffany Mason, PREP Payroll Liaison Lisa Valencia, and PREP Visa and Immigration Liaison George Peterman. PREP will hire additional staff to help administer the new cooperative agreement.