Undergraduate degrees: B.A. or B.S.
Make a Quantum Leap in Learning
If Stephen Hawking is your hero, if the movements of quarks and planets cause movements in your heart, if you consider mathematical equations a challenge and never a chore—this is the major for you. Study the universe at a university that has award-winning professors who encourage undergraduates to stake out a place in the lab and make discoveries alongside them.
Thinkers, tinkerers, and theoretical mathematicians gravitate to physics to explore the laws of nature and the relationship between energy and matter. A degree in physics from the University of Oregon will give you a solid foundation to continue graduate studies in astrophysics, engineering, teaching, astronomy, medicine, and a host of other disciplines. The habits of mind acquired by a rigorous course of study in physics equip a graduate to think logically and methodically, and to stand a problem on its head. These skills are essential once you reach the job market.
One piece of advice Raymond Frey, the head of the department, shares is to bring your curiosity, because undergraduate research is what the study of physics at the UO is all about. The physics building, Willamette Hall, contains 136,000 square feet of laboratory, office, and classroom space in which students can bring that curiosity to life. Study sonoluminescence or chaos in a double pendulum, or create and carry out your own research projects in a classroom setting. Study under professors who are involved with the accelerator project at CERN or view the stars and planets from the UO’s Pine Mountain Observatory in Eastern Oregon. There’s so much going on, your choices will seem infinite.
Points of Interest
- The Department of Physics has made undergraduate research a priority, with more than 60 percent of physics juniors and seniors gaining research experience.
- Physics classes typically have 15 to 25 students, an optimal size to guarantee individual attention.
- Learn from more than 35 faculty members, whose areas of expertise range from astrophysics to materials science.
- The faculty is awarded approximately $6 million in external research grants each year, and they bring those research interests to the classroom.
- The department operates Pine Mountain Observatory, which is located 26 miles from Bend, Oregon, at an elevation of 6,500 feet and is open to the public, to conduct astronomical research and education.
- Introduction to Quantum Mechanics is an introductory course in the field with an applied focus. Topics include square well potential, Bragg reflection, and de Broglie waves.
- Electromagnetism involves the study of electromagnetic waves. Topics include Maxwell’s equations, wave equations, plane waves, guided waves, antennas, and other related phenomena.
- Modern Optics examines special topics in modern applied optics, such as Fourier optics, coherence theory, resonators and lasers, holography, and image processing.
- Modern Science and Culture examines 19th-century and early 20th-century science in a cultural context.
- Physics Projects offer students the opportunity to do capstone projects in a variety of different research areas, including building a mode-locked fiber laser, a sonoluminescence apparatus, and several others. These projects are designed to help students transition from a teaching laboratory to a research laboratory.
- Learn more about the courses offered by the Department of Physics.
As a physics major you’ll help set up the many demonstrations that accompany lectures. You’ll also be able to help in tutorials and laboratories, giving you the chance to strengthen your foundation in physics, hone your communication skills, and even make a little money. Join the Society of Physics Students chapter on campus. The national society sponsors student internships and other opportunities for undergraduates. Graduate with honors by maintaining a high upper-division physics GPA and writing and defending a thesis or a research project.
The UO and the National Science Foundation sponsor a 10-week summer undergraduate research program for physics and chemistry majors to participate in a wide variety of exciting research projects. In the physics department, you'll be exposed to diverse philosophies and fields. If you are also interested in chemistry or math, become a double major. The university encourages cross-discipline partnership through organizations such as the Materials Science Institute, the Institute of Molecular Biology, and the Institute of Neuroscience. The Institute of Molecular Biology, for example, brings together young scientists from the departments of biology, chemistry, and physics.
The Student Experience
Physics and Math double major Matt Reyer knew he was going to study physics from the first time he took a physics class in high school. “It was immediately interesting to me,” he says. “And the professors here at the UO only reinforced my interest.” While here, Reyer worked on lipid membrane biophysics in Raghu Parthasarathy’s biophysics lab and studied abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. After graduation, Reyer plans to become a Mythbuster or go to graduate school. His advice for potential physics majors? Take as many math classes as you can. “Having more tools at hand will only make your physics life easier,” he says.
When Hilary Ross graduated from high school, she spent a year globetrotting. While lying on a bunk in a hostel in Kampala, Ross decided that a university close to home would be nice. She wanted to major in some sort of science, but she couldn’t decide on a specific field. Then she realized physics would let her explore many of her interests. “Biophysics, astrophysics, geophysics, neurophysics, medical physics,” she says. “I'm interested in many, many things, and physics is such a widespread and applicable science that you can go practically anywhere with it.” While she hasn’t decided where she will go, becoming a particle physicist, neurologist or neurosurgeon, a medical physicist, or a writer of bad romance novels are all possibilities.
Astronomy Lecturer and Outreach Coordinator Scott Fisher studies and teaches about the night sky. “Fortunately, I get to teach some of the best stuff ever,” he says. His classes include The Solar System, Galaxies of the Universe, and the Life and Death of Stars. His enthusiasm for astronomy is contagious. He offered his students five extra credit points to show up between 10:30 P.M. and midnight to view a lunar eclipse. He offered them ten points to bring someone who was not in the class—240 students showed up with blankets and telescopes. Fisher credits the UO’s Science Literacy Program for inspiring UO students to be passionate about science.
Assistant Professor Ben McMorran says not to worry, the Physics department may have a few quirky personalities, but there aren’t any Sheldons—just people who love science. One of his favorite classes to teach is Introduction to Calculus-Based Physics. The best thing about the course? Hanging out with students who enjoy the same things he does. “Physics is almost a philosophy, an applied philosophy,” he says. “Another view of what reality is. There’s the usual world, we sit on chairs and go to the store, but viewing it from physics enables you to see a different side of things and have an understanding of how it could all be put together. I find that quite beautiful.”
Assistant Professor Raghuveer Parthasarathy specializes in soft condensed matter and biophysics. He runs the Parthasarathy Lab, which conducts experiments that explore the physical properties of cellular membranes, such as the mechanical stiffness and fluidity that is important for cellular function. Using microscopic physical approaches like the use of light beams to apply forces to cell membranes, Parthasarathy and his students discover how proteins respond to environmental conditions.
Professor David Strom is an experimental particle physicist whose research interests include z-pair production in electron-positron collisions, precision electroweak measurements, and the detection of gravity waves associated with gamma ray bursts. Strom was elected by the ATLAS Collaboration Board to serve as “Trigger Coordinator” for the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. During his yearlong service at CERN, Strom will be in charge of deciding which 400 collisions (out of 400 million that occur each second) warrant further analysis.
There is a wealth of opportunities for those with an undergraduate physics major. You can do cutting-edge research in computer science and electronics, or you can pass on your knowledge to students by becoming a teacher. Physics and mathematics are also key components of engineering. Physics students learn how to think like scientists. They learn practical things, such as computer programming, electronics, and optics, but the most important skill is basic problem solving. “What students learn here can be leveraged into solving any kind of problem, says Department Head Raymond Frey. “Finance, business, medicine, law, anything.” In physics, the universe is your laboratory.
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Photo credit: Dean Walton