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2006 Graduate’s Pioneering Research Wins Him Distinguished Physics Award

May 2006 graduate Hugh Churchill, now a first-year graduate student in physics at Harvard University, became Oberlin’s first recipient of the LeRoy Apker Award this year from the American Physical Society (APS).

The award is given to a student from a four-year institution “in recognition of outstanding achievement in physics and to provide encouragement to young physicists who have demonstrated great potential for future scientific accomplishment,” says APS President John. J. Hopfield.

Nominating Churchill was his mentor at Oberlin, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Stephen FitzGerald. “Hugh’s research and thorough grasp of physics insight, mathematics, computational skills, theoretical work, experimental work, writing, and communicating definitely qualified him for the Apker.”

During Churchill’s junior and senior years, he and fellow students Phil Korngut ’05, Christie Simmons ’05, and Yorgos Strangas ’06 worked as a team to study trapped hydrogen for use in environmentally friendly hydrogen-powered vehicles. The result was the design and construction of a unique apparatus—known affectionately as “the box”—which has proven “extremely successful,” FitzGerald says.

“The main criterion in determining the Apker award was Hugh’s senior honors’ thesis, which is at the level that you would expect for a master’s or Ph.D.,” explains FitzGerald. “It incorporates the tremendous work he did on the project obtaining and analyzing low temperature spectra to explain hydrogen’s quantum behavior at temperatures close to absolute zero. No one had ever performed diffuse reflectivity measurements at such a low temperature before.”

The Apker prize includes publication of Churchill’s selection in the March 2007 issue of the APS News as well as an invitation to give a special talk on his work at the APS meeting in Denver. The award also includes the sum of $5,000 and a certificate citing the work and school of the recipient. Oberlin’s physics department was awarded a certificate and $5,000 to support undergraduate research. 

A native of Conway, Arkansas, Churchill says he learned about Oberlin while listening to a tuba recital online in the late ’90s. “When I began looking at colleges, I wanted a place that could provide first-rate musical training and a strong liberal arts education,” he recalls. “Oberlin does that better than anyone else, so that's where I went.”

He proceeded to major in physics, mathematics, and tuba performance and graduated last May with highest honors. He began working in a lab at Harvard over the summer. “The opportunities I had at Oberlin allowed me to hit the ground running in grad school,” he says. “Though the research I am doing now is quite different, my interest was sparked by the work in quantum physics I did with Stephen FitzGerald.”

The prospect of speaking at the APS event, the largest physics gathering in the world with up to 10,000 professionals attending, “is daunting,” Churchill says. “But it will be a fantastic experience to have at this stage of my career.

“And I am looking forward to showing the significant ways the physics faculty at Oberlin involves students in research.  I am very thankful for their support, so I hope the talk will reflect well on them.”

In his letter notifying Churchill of the award, Hopfield, a renowned biophysicist at Princeton University, wrote: “We congratulate you on your outstanding achievements in physics so early in your career and look forward with much anticipation to your future scientific accomplishments.

“Your selection is particularly noteworthy in view of the caliber and quality of finalists this year. The committee did not have an easy task, as all the finalists submitted excellent work and demonstrated outstanding potential.”

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