Prestigious DoD Physics Fellowship Awarded to Graduate Alumnus Andrew Koller
September 26, 2012
The United States is continually confronted with the fact that it is lagging behind in the fields of science and engineering. In an attempt to close this gap, 200 graduate students each year are awarded the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship from the Department of Defense, with the aim of growing the number and improving the quality of highly-trained scientists and engineers in the United States. The fellowship provides funding for the graduate student to attend any U.S. institution of their choice, which allows for advanced education, and the opportunity to pursue their important and often groundbreaking research.
Andrew Koller, who received his MS in physics from UMass Boston in the spring of 2011, was one of 18 physics graduate students who were awarded the NDSEG Fellowship for 2012.
“I was very excited to receive the fellowship,” says Koller, “even a bit surprised. I am in a bit of a unique situation because I am older than the typical first year PhD student. To be successful in academia, I am going to need to do high-quality research and also move quickly. The fellowship makes this much easier.”
Koller received the fellowship for his advanced research into the nature of solitons—waves of particles that do not lose their shape or momentum with time—which he performed while studying towards his MS in physics at UMass Boston.
“Solitons are very fundamental and interesting types of waves,” says Koller. “We found that, at least for some of them, there is a corresponding, interesting phenomenon—the quantum-mechanical supersymmetry—happening at the mathematical level.”
Receiving his BS in physics from MIT, Koller’s interest in the physical sciences had early roots. “One of the great achievements in human history has been using science to understand nature at the fundamental level. I have always been in awe of the people who were able to do this, and envious of what they were able to understand and accomplish. Being able to participate in the smallest way to that same body of knowledge is what draws me to physics,” says Koller.
Upon receiving his degree, he began to teach high school physics courses, and in order to fulfill a state requirement, he also began to take science education courses at UMass Boston. This area of study failed to capture Koller, and sent him to the physics department to inquire about furthering his scientific studies. After taking a few courses, the department was impressed with Koller’s scholarship, and he enjoyed the advanced level of study that the MS program offered. Koller was accepted to the program, and began working towards his graduate degree.
While studying, Koller performed research under the guidance of Maxim Olchanyi, associate professor of physics at UMass Boston, and discovered his passion for working with atomic and subatomic particles. His research turned into a paper that he co-authored with Olchanyi, entitled “Supersymmetric Quantum Mechanics and Solitons of the sine-Gordon and Nonlinear Schrdinger Equations,” which was published in Physical Review E in 2011. Koller’s expansive understanding of physics also led to him achieving a perfect score on the GRE Subject Test in Physics—a rare and impressive accomplishment.
“Andrew, besides being extraordinarily creative, has a unique ability to really focus on a problem and postpone the questions that would eventually be asked, but in early stages of research only get in the way and hinder progress,” says Olchanyi. “He is a very rational student, and early on he developed the skill to discern between projects to pursue, and those to leave behind, which is an important ability for up-and-coming scientists. He is also very diligent in sticking to deadlines and working within timeframes.”
The fellowship is already being put to good use, as Koller has begun studying at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Koller remains interested in solitons and he continues to correspond with Olchanyi about the research they performed. But as he works towards his PhD, he has shifted his focus towards an investigation into the relationship of inter-atomic interactions and their effect on atomic clocks, with the goal of making the clocks more precise. After receiving his PhD, Koller hopes to follow his passion towards a position as a faculty member at a research university. The much deserved fellowship will ensure that Koller will continue to raise the bar for scientists and engineers alike for years to come.