Gwo-Ching Wang: A Decade of Physics Leadership
Reflecting on her 10 years as head of the Physics department in the School of Science, Professor Gwo-Ching Wang doesn’t spend much time thinking about her own accomplishments. Instead, she prefers to tell visitors about that period in terms of achievements of students, faculty, and staff, as well as how the department has evolved since 2000.
“Perhaps the most important thing I did while I led the department was working to gain recognition for great work by great students and faculty,” Wang said. “When I saw good work from someone, I would spend a great deal of time finding a way to nominate them for an award. In many ways, my definition of success as department head was to be generous to other people in this way.”
In addition to successfully nominating more than 25 students, faculty, and staff for external and internal awards, Wang, in her tenure as department head, secured the hiring of 12 of the 23 current tenured or tenure-track faculty in the department. Ten professors were awarded tenure during the same period. She also oversaw the hiring of five constellation professors into physics.
“One of the most challenging aspects of serving as department head was hiring,” she said. “For just the five constellation positions, we had over 15 serious candidates, many of whom made multiple visits to campus.”
“Teaching has always been exciting for me, and I especially love interacting with the freshmen
as they start their work in the studio physics class.
I also appreciate that we’re seeing more females studying physics. It’s not often I get to see students decorating their laptops in vibrant colors and patterns.” Gwo-Ching Wang
The number of undergraduate and graduate students studying physics also grew during her tenure. During her first year, less than 20 undergraduate physics majors were in the entering class. Today, more than 60 physics majors are in the entering class. Overall, there are about 190 physics majors, from the freshman to senior classes. This was not possible, Wang said, without the tireless devotion of the undergraduate recruiting committee. Graduate student numbers grew from slightly over 60 in the early part of the decade to 70 this year.
A native of Taiwan, Wang joined Rensselaer’s Physics department as an associate professor in 1984, after working for four years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, as a staff scientist in solid-state physics. Before that, she worked as a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1978, studying material physics. She is a fellow of American Physical Society, American Vacuum Society, and AAAS.
Wang says one of her accomplishments was gaining competitive National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which allowed 10 undergraduate students from Rensselaer and elsewhere to participate in hands-on research in new physics topics in the summer. During the 10 years she served as department head, Wang was successful in winning the REU funding at Rensselaer. Before 2000, she directed the summer REU program for nine years.
In the graduate arena, Wang led successful proposals for two fellowship programs: the NSF Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program (IGERT) and the U.S. Department of Education’s Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) program. The IGERT application process in 2004 was particularly challenging for Wang. A natural right hander, she broke her right arm during the proposal preparation time. In the end, 20 proposals were funded from more than 400 pre-proposals. Rensselaer’s award was $3.9 million.
“I knew we couldn’t miss the proposal submission deadline, especially when we were one of the 100 proposals selected to submit full-blown proposals for the 20 awards,” Wang said. “I took my pain killers every few hours and did my best to type with my left hand. It was painfully slow, but in the end, it was worth it.”
When she was appointed department head, Wang continued teaching and researchsomething she is looking forward to continuing full time this fall. Her current research involves studying the fundamental physical properties of nanostructures and thin films made of energy materials, which could lead to new pathways to improve solar cell efficiency and hydrogen storage.
“Teaching has always been exciting for me, and I especially love interacting with the freshmen as they start their work in the studio physics class,” she said. “I also appreciate that we’re seeing more females studying physics. It’s not often I get to see students decorating their laptops in vibrant colors and patterns.”
Professor Xi-Cheng Zhang, recently appointed acting head of the department, hopes he can provide the type of leadership Wang displayed for a decade.
“Professor Gwo-Ching Wang made enormous contributions to our department when she was the department chair. She is my role model,” he said.