Physics Students Get Study Space

What was once a disorderly storage space for mechanical equipment and slabs of wood has been transformed into a haven for physics concentrators who long lacked a study space of their own.

On Monday, the Department of Physics will unveil an “undergraduate study” in the Jefferson Building that offers amenities for a specialized audience: including a stainless steel wall on which individuals can mount heavy magnetic objects and a table that provides access to pressurized air. These will come in addition to standard features like chalkboards, a projection screen, and a coffee machine.

“It’s really an open space that’s meant to conform to whatever interesting ideas the undergraduates have,” said Physics professor John Doyle, who served as chair of the design committee behind the new study area. “We didn’t have a space set aside for our majors where they could maybe make a little bit more noise.”

“I expect to hear lots of ‘eureka!’s and off-the-wall comments about angular momentum and the Schrodinger equation and such,” wrote associate head tutor David Morin in an e-mail statement. “You know, the usual things that come up when physics students get together.”

All students who normally have access to Jefferson during the day can enter the study. During night hours, the space will be open to those with card access to the Jefferson and the Lyman Building, which are generally restricted to physics students, according to Physics concentrator Anjali M. Bhatt ’11, who served as one of two undergraduate representatives on the design committee.

Doyle declined to comment on the total cost of the new space’s construction (though the figure was significantly under budget, according to Bhatt). Morin said money had been set aside for the project before the financial crisis hit. Despite the financial constraints of recent months, the committee did not want to delay the project—even if it meant keeping embellishments less than lavish, Bhatt said.

“There was a huge amount of pressure to keep expenses extremely low, so...it’s not as comfy-loungey as some may expect it to be,” said Bhatt, who added that the designers had originally intended to install hardwood floors but ultimately opted for linoleum. “That was definitely something that hung over all of the design committee’s meetings: ‘Okay, is this within our budget?’”

Though the concept of an undergraduate study space had existed for as long as seven years, serious designing and planning only began during the last academic year and construction commenced three months ago, according to Bhatt. Despite the seeming delay in propelling the project forward, Doyle said financial constraints did not hamper the project’s progress, which was “right on track.”

First-year graduate students already have a separate lounge area for themselves in Jefferson, Bhatt said. The committee is experimenting with the idea of having graduate students hold office hours in the new undergraduate study.

Bhatt said she hopes the study will encourage concentrators—who typically find themselves dislodged from the research sector of the department—to venture from their dining hall haunts and become more involved in the department.

“There is a huge disconnect between physics undergraduates taking classes and the rest of the physics community,” Bhatt said. “One of the reasons why we wanted this study built was to bring the two together—to have the undergraduates feel like they could be a part of the physics department as opposed to simply being a physics student.”

“We need undergrads to be more visible in the department,” said Carol S. Davis, undergraduate student program coordinator in the physics department, whose office sits across the hall from the study. “I’ve already promised baked goods—we need to get these students in there somehow.”

The study will be run by the Society of Physics Students, Morin, and Physics Professor Howard Georgi ’68, according to Bhatt.

—Staff writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu.