Williams Physics Professor Named a 2020 Cottrell Scholar

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Catherine Kealhofer, assistant professor of physics at Williams College, has been selected by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement as one of 25 new Cottrell Scholars for 2020.

This three-year, $100,000 award will enable Kealhofer to further her lab's research on phonon dynamics in two-dimensional materials and to integrate primary literature into the first-year physics curriculum.

The Research Corporation for Science Advancement is America's first foundation dedicated wholly to science. Cottrell Scholar Award recipients are early-career scholars in chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Chosen through a rigorous peer-review process, the diverse group of awardees are identified as leaders in integrating science teaching and research at a top U.S. research university, a degree-granting research institute, or a primarily undergraduate institution.

Kealhofer's research project will use ultrafast electron diffuse scattering to explore how electrons and phonons (quantized vibrations of the crystal lattice) interact. In her work with Williams students, she is building an apparatus for generating ultrafast electron pulses and recording their scattering from thin crystals, enabling the measurement of non-equilibrium phonon dynamics in two-dimensional materials such as graphene. These measurements could be used to help understand and validate the performance of theoretical models for phonon-phonon interactions, which could enable rational design of metamaterials for applications like high-performance thermoelectrics.

Kealhofer's project also seeks to restructure one of the introductory modern physics courses, Physics 151, at Williams around reading a series of papers from primary research literature.

"Being able to read the research literature is a core skill for working scientists and also a stepping stone toward writing your own papers. The aim of the project is to invite first-year students to engage directly with this literature," she said.

The proposed restructured course will enable a diverse group of students to thrive in multiple ways — besides the literature component, the course will include a weekly small-group problem-solving session designed to build students’ quantitative skills and healthy beliefs about learning.

"I anticipate that we will find new and exciting research directions after completion of the project," said Kealhofer, who notes that direct measurements of electron-phonon and phonon-phonon interactions could advance our understanding of strongly correlated materials, including the emergence of high-temperature superconductivity. "I hope to be able to guide our first-year students in developing their problem-solving ability and creativity early on, thus building skills and confidence, which are key to success in future classes and beyond."

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