Take a walk through the stately brick and limestone White Hall, home to the WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy, and you can almost feel it — the electricity of inspired minds. The faculty roster here is impressive even to a lay audience.

There’s Paul Cassak, professor and associate director of the Center for KINETIC Plasma Physics, and graduate research assistant Hasan Barbhuiya who, together, have revised the fundamental laws of thermodynamics (and if that doesn’t sound impressive enough, their research will help other scientists prepare for potentially dangerous space weather).

There’s Lian Li, the Robert L. Carroll Professor of Physics, who’s looking to speed up the process of finding and creating new quantum materials (useful in technologies of the future like superconductors).

And Sean McWilliams, an associate professor of astronomy, theoretical astrophysicist and director of the Center for Gravitational Waves and Cosmology at WVU, who contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves, confirming Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity, and inaugurating a whole new field of astronomy.

Katy Goodrich is here, too. An assistant professor of space physics, she’s been working with the NASA-funded missions Magnetospheric Multi-scale and Parker Solar Probe to examine the smallest workings of space plasma — from the Earth’s magnetosphere to the solar wind to Venus.

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And then there are the dynamic duos, married faculty couples, like Maura McLaughlin and Duncan Lorimer, internationally renowned astrophysicists who helped discover fast radio bursts and, in 2023, received the Shaw Prize, a coveted award described as the “Nobel Prize of the East.” And Gay and John Stewart, professors in physics education research who, together with Associate Chair of Undergraduate Studies and Academics Paul Miller, are defining the field of physics education for the whole country, according to Earl Scime, himself the Oleg Jefimenko Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for KINETIC Plasma Physics.

“We really are fortunate to recruit these great students from West Virginia ... that's because we hired really great faculty who work really hard and have built great programs.”

— Earl Scrime

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Before WVU, Scime conducted research at Los Alamos National Laboratory as a member of the Ulysses spacecraft plasma team, and today he is working on alternative ways of powering the thrusters that keep satellites in orbit and could one day drive deep space vessels. He has a long history here.

“When I came in the fall of ’94, we had about 14 faculty,” Scime recalled. “I was the second plasma physicist here. The rest of the department was condensed matter physics and individuals in different areas — one astronomer, one person in fluid dynamics, one person in high energy physics.”

Scime was department chair for 17 years. “During that time, we built the astronomy program, built a plasma physics program, built the Physics Education Research Program — those are all world-class top-10 or -25 programs.”

When Scime became the interim dean of the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources in 2019, they had doubled the size of the department. Today, it includes five areas of research and education: astronomy and astrophysics; condensed matter and materials physics; optical and laser physics; physics education research; and plasma and space physics.

And the faculty are thriving, becoming known for their student-centered approach as well as their research acumen. Funding has poured in from the National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Defense and Energy, among others. Over that period, the department also cultivated partnerships with national laboratories and facilities like the Green Bank Observatory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory.

As top faculty came on board, students from around the world took notice.

“When you're doing really well, it feeds on itself, and people recognize the impact that your program is having,” Scime said. “When I came in 1994, we often got grad students from regional universities, small schools — and a lot of these students were diamonds in the rough … and they've gone on to have fantastic careers. What I see now is not only do we get applicants from those schools, but we also get applicants from all over the country, all over the world, from top institutions who get their bachelor’s degree somewhere else and want to come to WVU to do graduate work.”

Graduates say their education in this tight-knit department helped launch their futures — like Benetge Perera, previously a scientist at Arecibo Observatory and now working as a researcher at the University of Central Florida.

“I was born and grew up in Sri Lanka. Throughout my childhood, I wanted to study astronomy; however, we did not have such a program at my university,” Perera said. “It was a completely new experience for me in all ways. After I moved to WVU, it took a few weeks to adjust to the new environment, and my fellow students in the batch were very friendly and helpful. The welcome and support I received from the staff and the faculty in the physics department were fabulous. That really helped me to settle my mind and then focus on classes.”

Perera said faculty like McLaughlin and Lorimer welcomed him and supported him throughout his Ph.D. in astronomy. Soon, he was working alongside them at the Green Bank Observatory.

Caitlin Ahrens, a native West Virginian, found a new home in the department, earning bachelor’s degrees in both physics/astrophysics and geology.

“WVU was fantastic in the sense that one could explore many avenues of STEM,” Ahrens said. “Studying through two different programs had some unique overlaps, including tools and experimental studies, material sciences and physics through geomorphology.”

Those experiences helped shape her career trajectory. After earning her doctorate at the University of Arkansas, she worked at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, receiving the Ten Outstanding Young Americans award in 2018, becoming a science team member of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and earning a spot as a U.S. representative of the International Astronomical Union Office of Astronomy for Education.

Other graduates have gone on to work at Tesla, to become Fellows of the American Physical Society or the American Geophysical Union, to work at the University of Cambridge in Stephen Hawking’s former department, participate in the recent first successful controlled thermonuclear fusion experiments, to become venture capitalists and to become staff scientists working at multiple National Laboratories.

Looking back, Scime sees this evolution — from a handful of devoted faculty to a department poised to write whole new chapters in our understanding of the world — as nothing more or less than the result of a truly West Virginia style of grit and determination.

“We have a huge list of fantastic students in astronomy, physics education research … for most of the time I've been here, we've been about 80-90% domestic undergraduate physics majors. So, we really are fortunate to recruit these great students from West Virginia … that's because we hired really great faculty who work really hard and have built great programs.”