For First Time in 20 years, Yale Holds Reunion for Former Physics Students

There were young women and elderly men, locals and those who traveled across the globe to be in attendance, researchers, business leaders, a Nobel Laureate and even a former astronaut, but they all had one thing in common: At some point in the past 60 years, they had walked the halls of Sloane Physics Laboratory as Yale physics graduate students.

On Nov. 7-9, nearly 100 former Yale physics students from as far away as the United Kingdom, Turkey and Australia revisited their old labs and classrooms for the Physics Alumni Conference, hosted by the Department of Physics and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

When approached about the idea last year, shortly after becoming chair of the physics department, Meg Urry jumped at the chance to give several generations of physics alumni the opportunity to meet one another, explore ideas about the current state of the field and share their varied life experiences since graduating any number of years ago. It was the first physics reunion Yale has hosted in nearly 20 years.

“They love it. They’re having a blast,” said Urry, during the event. “It’s a great way to reconnect. It’s also a great way for current graduate students to make connections with outside faculty and researchers, and hear about all the different things that former graduates are doing.”

The conference, which was organized by the Association of Yale Alumni, included panel discussions on topics that ranged far beyond physics research and education. Urry said it was especially interesting to hear from alumni in other fields, including business, industry and policy. “These are people from different generations, many with different ideas and different experiences.”

Urry, who gave a talk about the current directions that Yale’s physics department is taking, highlighted the cutting-edge research faculty are doing in areas such as astrophysics and cosmology, condensed matter, particle and nuclear physics and, more recently, biophysics.

“We have an incredibly active and talented junior faculty,” she said, adding, “We are an extremely interdisciplinary department.”

It was a message that echoed Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin’s speech during Friday night’s welcoming session about the future of science at Yale, titled “Yale Science! Lux et Veritas (and quantum coherence).”

At the heart of Yale’s future scientific endeavors, he said, is the concept of bridging traditionally disparate fields, including biology and the life sciences, physics, chemistry, geology, mathematics and engineering.

“Interdisciplinary is a buzz word [these days], but it really is a big part of the future of science and engineering at Yale,” Girvin said. “A lot of people who didn’t use to talk to each other are talking to each other now about different ideas.”

One major component that is expected to make cross-collaborations possible, he said, is West Campus, the 136-acre former Bayer HealthCare complex containing labs, office space and warehouse storage that Yale purchased in 2007. Other changes transforming the University’s reputation as a first-rate research university, said Girvin, include new buildings and departments, better access to state-of-the-art equipment and technology, the creation of new research institutes, and the two new residential colleges that will “bring the center of gravity of Yale College up ­Science Hill.”

For some of the alumni at the conference, even more basic changes have shaped Yale science since their graduate-student days. While the science section used to be found in the very back of the Yale undergraduate admissions viewbook, the University admits far more undergraduates in the sciences and engineering these days, with an especially sharp increase since 2005, Girvin said. And unlike the cohorts of most of those in attendance, many of today’s graduates are women, he added.

Despite the obvious differences, however, there was one thing that hadn’t changed since the alumni’s time at Yale, and that was the setting. With its straight-backed wooden seats and antique-looking equipment lining its walls, Sloane’s main lecture hall was just as the alumni remembered it.

“I think in this room, the past, the present and the future come together,” said Jon Butler, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, during the conference’s opening remarks. “I mean, just look at this room!” he added, to knowing laughter from an audience already enjoying its trip down memory lane.

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555