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USF Physics Students Attend Nobel Laureate Meeting in Germany

For more than 60 years, scientific Nobel Prize winners, researchers and students have gathered in Germany for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting—an annual series of lectures and discussions. Until this past summer, the University of South Florida has never sent a representative.

But that’s changed because of Evan Lafalce, Aaron Landerville and Joseph Fogarty—three USF physics graduate students who were among the almost 600 young researchers from around the world selected to attend the meetings. That compares with such institutions as MIT and CalTech, which sent two researchers each.

Lafalce, who is studying solar cells, called the experience "the greatest academic honor he’s ever received," as well as dubbing it "Woodstock for Physicists."

"I've never been to Woodstock," said the 27-year-old Lafalce, "but I just think of it as this place where you had all the best of music at the time were playing at this one spot, and this is the same--you had all the Nobel Laureates of physics, so kind of the greatest physicists of our time around presenting and a lot of the people there just to share in the experience."

But for Lafalce, it wasn’t just about hearing presentations from the almost 30 Nobel Laureates present.

“The talks were definitely stimulating, but I think it was the discussion that made it—whether that was between myself and a Nobel Laureate or a lot of the other students that were there. It was just a lot of good exchange going on between us.”

The students also had the chance to sit down individually with Laureates. That gave Lafalce the chance to hear the human side of a man he looks up to—2005 Nobel winner John Hall.

“He discussed a lot of things about life kind of choices and things that you have to make alongside of being a physicist. There wasn’t a lot of talk there about physics itself, but just about what it means to be a researcher and the kind of things that I might want to look for as I go on in my career.”  

The USF Department of Physics chair, Pritish Mukherjee, says this kind of personal interaction is probably the greatest opportunity provided by the meetings.

“It’s one thing to read a paper and to be dazzled by the science. It’s quite another to see the human element behind it, to sit one-on-one across the table with the Nobel Laureates and to talk to them and to find out what the inspiration was, what the process was in terms of the creative thinking that led to the major breakthrough.”

Having three students chosen for this honor is just the latest advancement for the Physics Department and its graduate program, which in a little over a decade of existence, has grown from 5 students to almost 90.

And what makes Mukherjee the proudest about these three students is that they also received their undergraduate degrees from USF.

“It says that we made some decisions at the turn of the century, in 2000, that we put some thought into the program that we are designing and we are attracting the right kind of faculty members and the right kinds of students, and it portends very well for us going forward.”

Next year's Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting will focus on chemistry.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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