The nation's leading organization of physicists has named a University of Rochester student as the best undergraduate researcher from a Ph.D.-granting university. Govind Krishnaswami is one of two recipients of the Leroy Apker Award, the American Physical Society's highest award for undergraduate research. The $5,000 award ranks Krishnaswami, 22, among the brightest young scientists in the nation. The University's Department of Physics and Astronomy also will receive $5,000 in support of undergraduate research.
The award recognizes two young physicists who show extraordinary potential. Krishnaswami, who graduated in May, was one of seven finalists who squared off last month in Washington, presenting their research to a panel of the nation's top scientists. Also winning besides Krishnaswami was Brian Gerke of Williams College, whose research was named best by a student from an institution that does not award doctorates.
Krishnaswami is the first student from the University to win the Apker Award, which coincidentally is named for a 1941 alumnus of the University; a previous nominee from Rochester had been named a finalist in 1983. The University's Department of Physics and Astronomy nominated Krishnaswami based on the research he conducted with Professor Sarada Rajeev, which explored the structure of the proton, the subatomic particle found in the nuclei of all elements.
In his research Krishnaswami studied the distribution of quarks, the particles that make up the proton, and the speed of their movement. This information enabled him to predict how many quarks would be moving at various rates inside the proton. Knowing the distribution of quarks in a proton is important to scientists' understanding of the strong interaction, which is the force that governs the proton and how smaller particles known as quarks and gluons hold it together. It's also fundamental to a theory known as quantum chromodynamics, which physicists now turn to in explaining how gluons hold quarks together.
"It's a new ballgame to study this theory, and so it is very exciting. We are seeing something very new. It's so complex and fundamental that we will not completely understand this for the next 100 years, I'm sure," says Krishnaswami.
Krishnaswami presented to the APS panel a paper he wrote with his mentor about the distribution and interactions of quarks; the paper has been published in the journal Physics Letters B. Prior to that, he had given the paper at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, where he presented two additional research papers.
Now a first-year graduate student in physics at Rochester, Krishnaswami continues to explore the structure of the proton with Rajeev. One of the next steps in his research will be to understand how gluons are distributed inside the proton.
A passion for physics shows in the enthusiasm and creativity he brings to his research. "One always tries to simplify. You want to get rid of all the unnecessary things and study the real core of the problem," he says.
Krishnaswami came to the University four years ago from Madras, India, knowing something about the University: 30 years prior, his uncle had earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics from the same department and is now a professor in India. Other scientists Krishnaswami looks to for inspiration include Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman and his own adviser, Rajeev.
"I like the way Professor Rajeev does physics, the way he thinks," says Krishnaswami. "He's able to see through a problem by picturing it in his mind, and he can think about the problem from several different angles. This is really important in theoretical physics. He's really shown me what it is to do science and physics. That is one of the reasons I decided to continue working with him."
Rajeev is equally impressed by his talented student. "He's the best undergraduate student that I've ever seen anywhere," Rajeev says. "He's really extraordinary. His undergraduate thesis was good enough to be a master's. Somebody like Govind can do an amazing thesis, so I want to push him to his limit."
The work of a theoretical physicist relies heavily on mathematics, and Krishnaswami graduated last spring with a double degree in physics and mathematics. "It's really a single major, as far as I am concerned. Physics and math are inseparable," he says. "I've always been interested in nature and describing how it works in mathematical terms.
"If you ask the right question, then often the answer is easy to find. But to ask the right question is not easy at all. Sometimes you wind up asking too hard a question for you to answer. Or a question that is 200 years ahead of your time. It's characteristic of research that you're almost always lost. And then after a period of time, everything suddenly falls into place, and you see how it all was," says Krishnaswami.