Fostering Faculty Excellence

Vijay Balasubramanian, the Cathy and Mark Lasry Professor of Physics

“Back when physics was called ‘natural philosophy,’ everything in the universe was part of the domain of a physicist,” says Vijay Balasubramanian, the Cathy and Mark Lasry Professor of Physics. “If there was a phenomenon—any phenomenon—in the natural world, physicists would try to understand it.”

Generous donors to the School of Arts and Sciences endowed 39 faculty positions during the Making History campaign, including the Lasry Professorship, to which Balasubramanian was appointed last year. He’s an example of the ideal SAS professor—an excellent teacher and groundbreaking researcher whose interests stretch across disciplines. “I have always wanted to understand nature at all scales of organization, in the style of the great founders of physics, rather than the compartmentalized mode of modern academia.”

Balasubramanian was trained as a string theorist (picking up a master’s degree in computer science along the way), and developed an interest in neuroscience toward the end of his graduate education. When he came to Penn he found himself with access to everything going on at the University’s single campus. “I was able to go to over to the neuroscience department in the medical school at lunch,” he says. “And people are very interested to collaborate here.” His research now stretches from the study of the anomalies surrounding black holes to the physics of the senses.

His enthusiasm comes through in his classroom; he’s won the Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching, the highest teaching award from SAS. “It’s very important for the students who are going to go on to a career in science, to see the results of recent research in the classroom so they can be at the cutting edge,” says Balasubramanian. “But I also think it’s important to bring the fruits of cutting edge research to students who are not going to go on to careers in that field, because it’s part of being an involved citizen in the world. Being broadly trained, in the liberal arts sense, is hugely important because you don’t know what’s going to be important to you in the long run. The world changes.”

With his graduate students, he first involves them in his own research, debating approaches and results. His ultimate goal, he says, “is that by the time the students are ready to graduate, that they should be telling me what to do. What I’m looking for is that they grow from students to colleagues.”

Lately his scope is becoming even broader, trying to determine whether there is an analogy between how our senses work—how our noses identify different odor chemicals—and the operation of our immune systems, which also have to identify and “sniff out” foreign molecules. “There’s a long history of physicists moving into new areas and bringing their skills with them and doing lots of good things,” he says. “It’s the Columbus syndrome, right? There’s an uncharted land, so you should go there.  You’ll surely find wonderful things that no one ever saw before.”

Guaranteeing Graduate Fellowships

Behind every professor is what Balasubramanian calls “a cadre of absolutely first-rate graduate students, without whom the research would collapse.” Thanks to donors of the Making History campaign, SAS has many more fellowships to award to the very best doctoral students.

Two of Balasubramanian’s cadre are following in his footsteps by finding ways to merge their chosen fields with neuroscience, and making progress on understanding how our senses work. Second-year physics student John Briguglio is part of a study to determine if the textures the human visual system is best at reacting to are the same as those seen in natural environments where humans evolved. Xuexin Wei, a third-year student in psychology, is using mathematics to examine how the brain represents space.

“I didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do,” says Briguglio of choosing a graduate school after Carnegie Mellon. “That’s part of the reason I chose Penn, because Penn is strong in a lot of different areas.” Exploring new areas is also a reason he’s grateful for his fellowship aid, which has let him travel to conferences and spend the summer in the lab. “Being able to work with Vijay over the summer was very important, to get my feet off the ground,” he says.

Psychology graduate student Xuexin Wei studied mathematics in China, but was also interested in how the brain works. While in college at Peking University he found he could combine the two, using mathematics to study brain function, but not many were doing this in China—he needed to come to the U.S. Here, along with Balasubramanian, he is working with Assistant Professor of Psychology Alan Stocker, trying to understand the computational principles underlying our visual perception. Penn is a great fit for him, but the fellowship package was the deciding factor. “You want to pursue your interests,” says Wei. “You may want to work with different people, and it gives you the freedom to do that.”

Vijay Balasubramanian characterizes both students as tremendously talented: “Xuexin has a lot of insight, a lot of new ideas; John is rigorous and analytically strong,” he says. “These are the people who are going to go off and be the leaders of tomorrow.”