Chorus of Black Holes Radiates X-Rays

Supermassive black holes do not give off any of their own light, hence the word "black" in their name. However, many black holes pull in, or accrete, surrounding material, and emit powerful bursts of X-rays. Collectively, these active black holes throughout the sky can be thought of a cosmic choir, singing in the language of X-rays. Their "song" is what astronomers call the cosmic X-ray background.

To date, NASA's Chandra mission has managed to pinpoint many of the individual black holes contributing to the X-ray background, but the ones that let out high-energy X-rays—those with the highest-pitched "voices"—have remained elusive.

New data from NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has, for the first time, begun to pinpoint large numbers of the black holes sending out the high-energy X-rays. More technically, NuSTAR has made significant progress in resolving the high-energy X-ray background.

"We've gone from resolving just 2 percent of the high-energy X-ray background to 35 percent," says Fiona Harrison, Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Caltech, the principal investigator of NuSTAR, and lead author of a new study describing the findings in an upcoming issue of The Astrophysical Journal. "We can see the most obscured black holes, hidden in thick gas and dust."

The results will ultimately help astronomers understand how the growth patterns of supermassive black holes change over time—a key factor in the development of black holes and the galaxies that host them. For instance, the supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is dormant now, but at some point in the past, it would have siphoned gas and bulked up in size.

As black holes grow, their intense gravity pulls matter toward them. The matter heats up to extremely high temperatures and particles get boosted to close to the speed of light. Together, these processes make the black hole surroundings glow with X-rays. A supermassive black hole with an ample supply of fuel, or gas, will give off more high-energy X-rays.

NuSTAR is the first telescope capable of focusing these high-energy X-rays into sharp pictures.

"Before NuSTAR, the X-ray background in high-energies was just one blur with no resolved sources," says Harrison. "To untangle what's going on, you have to pinpoint and count up the individual sources of the X-rays."

"We knew this cosmic choir had a strong high-pitched component, but we still don't know if it comes from a lot of smaller, quiet singers, or a few with loud voices," says coauthor Daniel Stern, the project scientist for NuSTAR at JPL. "Now, thanks to NuSTAR, we're gaining a better understanding of the black holes and starting to address these questions."

High-energy X-rays can reveal what lies around the most obscured supermassive black holes, which are otherwise hard to see. In the same way that medical X-rays can travel through your skin to reveal pictures of bones, NuSTAR can see through the gas and dust around black holes, to get a deeper view of what is going on inside.

With NuSTAR's more complete picture of supermassive black hole populations, astronomers can begin to puzzle together how these objects evolve and change over time. When did they start and stop growing? What is the distribution of the gas and dust that both feed and hide the black holes?

The team expects that over time, NuSTAR will be able to resolve more of the high-energy X-ray background—and better decipher the X-ray song of the universe's black holes.

The Astrophysical Journal study, titled "The NuSTAR Extragalactic Surveys: The Number Counts of Active Galactic Nuclei and the Resolved Fraction of the Cosmic X-Ray Background," is funded by NASA. Other Caltech authors include: Mislov Balokovic, Murray Brightman, Karl Forster, Brian Grefenstette, Kristin Madsen, Peter Mao, Hiromasa Miyasaka, and Vikram Rana.

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Charles W. Peck Passes Away

1934–2016

Charles W. Peck (PhD '64)—an eminent physicist, dedicated educator, and former chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy (PMA) at Caltech—passed away on Thursday, July 21, 2016. He was 81 years old.

Peck was born November 29, 1934 in Freer, Texas, and earned his bachelor of science degree from New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts in 1956. He went to Caltech for his graduate studies, receiving a PhD in 1964. Peck spent his entire professional career at Caltech, first as a research fellow (1964–65) and then as assistant professor (1965–69), associate professor (1969–77), and professor of physics. He retired in 2004. From 1983 to 1986, Peck served as executive officer for physics; he was PMA chair from 1993 to 1998.

Peck was a "great scientist, a kind individual, and an amazingly dedicated and successful teacher," says Fiona Harrison, the Benjamin M. Rosen Professor of Physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of PMA. He was twice (in 1988 and 2001) the recipient of an award for teaching excellence from the Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology (ASCIT) and received an award for teaching excellence from the Graduate Student Council in 1993.

Peck's research was in the area of experimental particle physics, designing and conducting experiments to study the basic constituents of matter. As a graduate student, he used the electron synchrotron at Caltech to investigate a class of exotic short-lived particles known as "strange." He participated in a wide range of accelerator-based studies aimed at probing the structure and properties of quarks—the fundamental building blocks of matter—and at clarifying the nature of the strong and weak nuclear interactions, two of the four fundamental forces of nature.

"The first I heard of the legendary Charlie Peck was when I joined [the late] Bob Walker's group in my first year in the physics program at Caltech," recalls Elliott Bloom (PhD '67) of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. "Charlie was a senior graduate student working with Bob; he had spent a large part of his graduate student career getting the electron synchrotron to work and was finally able to complete his thesis doing physics with this machine. His work on the machine enabled a long line of graduate students to much more rapidly obtain their degrees, including me. We all loved him for that alone."

When the "charm" quark, a previously unknown type of matter, was discovered in the 1970s, Peck and Bloom invented and built a totally new type of particle detector they called the "Crystal Ball." It was a hermetically sealed detector that accurately measured all photons that emerged from particle collisions, enabling important studies of the properties of charmed quarks. This device proved to be both powerful and productive, not only for understanding charm quarks, but for many follow-on experiments, including pivotal studies of the subsequently discovered "bottom" quark.

"Charlie hired me fresh out of graduate school to work on the Crystal Ball, to my considerable good fortune," recalls Professor of Physics Frank Porter (BS '72). "He loved his teaching and his research and was always cheerful when doing either. I remember Charlie best in front of an oscilloscope poking away at some subtlety of an apparatus. It was a great temptation to join him on such occasions, first because I knew it would be fun, and second because I would certainly learn something."

With his longtime friend and colleague Barry Barish, Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Physics, Emeritus, Peck was one of the leaders of a large international collaboration that performed a search for magnetic monopoles. Magnetic monopoles are the magnetic analog of single electric charges and have been sought for more than 100 years. They could provide a key confirmation of Grand Unified Theories that seek to unify three of nature's four forces—the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces—into a single force. The experiment, MACRO (Monopole, Astrophysics, and Cosmic Ray Observatory), was located 3200 feet under the Grand Sasso mountain in Italy. Although the experiment did not find magnetic monopoles, it set what are still the most stringent limits on their existence.

"My favorite image of Charlie was 6000 miles from Pasadena deep under the Gran Sasso mountain, where he was patiently sitting and explaining physics to our graduate students," Barish says.

Peck is survived by his wife, Kathleen, and by four children from a previous marriage.

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The eminent physicist, dedicated educator, and former chair of PMA died on July 21 at age 81.

High School Students Hunt for Pulsars

Hanaa is hunting for a blip in a vast set of data. Although she is only a high school student, she is searching for the signal of a pulsar—a rapidly rotating neutron star that emits a beam of electromagnetic radiation like a lighthouse. She and 19 of her fellow students at Alverno Heights Academy in Sierra Madre are participating in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory (PSC), a program that partners high school students with astronomy mentors at local universities. The mentors then train the students how to search a large data set for the signals of pulsars. The PSC, headquartered at the University of West Virginia, was established in 2007 through a grant from the National Science Foundation. As part of the grant, 300 terabytes of data collected by the West Virginia's Green Bank Telescope were set aside for high school students to use to search for pulsars.

This is the first year that the program has been expanded to campuses outside of West Virginia, including Caltech, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Georgia Tech. PSC collaborator Chiara Mingarelli, currently a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Caltech, contacted the Caltech Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO) for help in bringing the program to local Pasadena students.

"Chiara brought the program here, and we worked together to identify local teachers in the Pasadena area who might be interested in participating," says Mitch Aiken, associate director for educational outreach at the CTLO. "We reached out to a number of great teachers who participate in our Community Science Events. Monica Barsever, a science teacher at Alverno Heights Academy, offered to bring this opportunity to her students and was thrilled to have them participate in the PSC. Alverno Heights Academy is an all-girls school, and as bringing more young women into STEM fields is always a goal, this was a great collaboration."

Twenty of Barsever's students attended online workshops, led by West Virginia University professor Maura McLaughlin (a founding member of the PSC) and National Radio Astronomy Observatory educator Sue Ann Heatherly, about the science of pulsars and to learn how to search for them. Working closely with Danny Cushey, a Caltech third-year undergraduate in astrophysics and a PSC mentor, the students received data from the Green Bank Telescope and each individual was randomly assigned a portion to study. "Caltech is a critical hub for the PSC," says McLaughlin. "Through this partnership we can reach a diverse population of students in Southern California and make use of the incredible expertise in both astrophysics research and outreach at the university."

Barsever's students are no strangers to research at Caltech. Through her Independent Research in Science course, students have conducted chemistry and synthetic biology studies with Caltech researchers. The PSC offered many students their first experience to do research in astronomy and astrophysics.

As of yet, Alverno students have not discovered any pulsars, but the work will continue throughout the summer and during the next school year. In mid-July, they will travel to West Virginia to spend a week working with astronomers at the Green Bank Telescope, looking at more data.

While the experience of analyzing data is valuable for students, the results are equally important to scientists. Discovering more pulsars is particularly important to researchers like Mingarelli who study and search for gravitational waves. "My colleagues and I at NANOGrav—the North American Nanohertz Observatory of Gravitational Waves—are always looking to add more pulsars to our pulsar timing array," Mingarelli says. "We monitor a large set of pulsars, with precise arrival times at Arecibo and the Green Bank Telescope. Low-frequency gravitational waves, likely originating from supermassive black hole binaries, pass through our galaxy and stretch and squash the fabric of spacetime. The result is that the pulses from the pulsars we time arrive at the Earth early or late in a distinctive way, which can only be caused by gravitational waves."

"What these students are doing is real scientific research," she says. "With a grant from the National Science Foundation, this data has been set aside specifically for them."

On Friday, June 17, the Alverno students visited Caltech and JPL to attend a presentation by Mingarelli and meet scientists in other fields. "Going to Caltech and JPL was wonderful and a valuable experience for the girls," Barsever says. "They really got to picture themselves in this environment doing science."

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Caltech's partnership in the Pulsar Search Collaboratory offers local high school students the opportunity to conduct astronomy research.

Physics and Mathematics Professors Named Simons Investigators

Anton Kapustin (PhD '97), the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, and Vladimir Markovic, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Mathematics, have been named Simons Investigators. These appointments are given annually to "support outstanding scientists in their most productive years, when they are establishing creative new research directions," according to the Simons Foundation, which grants the awards. Investigators receive $100,000 annually for five years.

Kapustin studies mathematical physics, particularly dualities—relations between two superficially very different models of quantum fields, which help scientists study the behavior of strongly interacting elementary particles.

"Recently, my research has focused on the classification of exotic states of quantum matter," Kapustin says. "Such states have been proposed to be useful for building a quantum computer. Surprisingly, it turns out that the classification problem can be attacked using methods of topology, a branch of geometry which studies properties of geometric shapes which are not affected by continuous deformations."

Markovic focuses on various aspects of low-dimensional geometry, which is the study of shapes and forms that certain topological spaces can take.

"The main themes of my research are manifolds—a particular kind of topological space—and more generally groups, and their geometric, topological and dynamical properties," says Markovic. "Beside this, I have been very interested in certain partial differential equations and geometric flows including harmonic mappings and heat flows."

"I am excited to be named Simons Investigator," he adds. "This award will enable me to have more time to focus on my research, learn new fields, and test and develop my mathematical ideas."

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Anton Kapustin and Vladimir Markovic will each be awarded $100,000 annually for five years as part of the fellowship.

Caltech Scientists Discuss Jupiter's Mysteries

After nearly five years and 1.8 billion miles of space travel, NASA's Juno mission will arrive at Jupiter on July 4, 2016. Managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the spacecraft will orbit Jupiter for 20 months, completing 37 orbits, and will then spiral down into the planet at the end of its mission in 2018. Three Caltech professors—Andrew Ingersoll, professor of planetary science; Dave Stevenson, Marvin L. Goldberger Professor of Planetary Science; and Ed Stone, David Morrisroe Professor of Physics and vice provost for special projects—are on the mission team. None are strangers to the giant planets—collectively, they have more than 100 years of experience studying the outer solar system. We spoke with them about Jupiter, the Juno mission, and the future of solar system exploration.

What is your specific role on the Juno mission?

Dave Stevenson: I lead the interiors working group, which has responsibility for interpreting the Juno data that tell us what is going on inside Jupiter: Does it have a core? What does the structure of Jupiter tell us about how it formed? Where is the magnetic field produced? How far down do the strong winds extend? The relevant measurements Juno makes are the gravity field, magnetic field, and water content.

Andrew Ingersoll: I am the head of the atmospheres working group and a member of two instrument teams—for the microwave radiometer (MWR) and the camera (JunoCam).

Ed Stone: I am a senior advisor for science and management.

What is special about Jupiter? What scientific questions are you hoping to answer with Juno?

DS: Jupiter makes up most of the planetary mass in our solar system. It probably formed before the other planets and controlled the architecture of our planetary system through its gravity. The way in which it formed will help us understand how planets in general form. And last but not least, it may even have controlled the delivery of water to Earth and thus affected the environment of our home planet.

AI: Jupiter is the largest planet and it comes closest to having the same proportion of chemical elements (hydrogen, helium, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, etcetera) as the sun. Also, it is like a fluid dynamics laboratory where storms last for decades and the planet's rotation steers the winds into multiple jet streams.

With Juno, we would like to determine the average water abundance of the deep atmosphere. This question bears on the oxygen-to-hydrogen ratio on Jupiter compared to the ratio on the sun. The ratio is fundamental to how the elements were distributed through the early solar system and how Earth got its oceans. Additionally, we are trying to map how water and ammonia vary with latitude. This question bears on the weather below the visible clouds—a region we know little about. Jupiter has a very photogenic atmosphere, so we know a lot about the weather at the tops of the clouds. The unique phenomena there may derive their properties from the weather at deeper levels.

ES: Jupiter's magnetosphere—the region occupied by Jupiter's magnetic field—is the largest object in the solar system. Its radius is larger than the sun! The magnetic field is responsible for Jupiter's aurorae—glowing regions in the north and south polar regions caused by ions and electrons spiraling down along the magnetic field lines. Juno's orbit will be north-to-south, taking it over the poles and through the aurorae. We are interested in details about the aurorae—what kinds of particles are spiraling down into the atmosphere? What is the up-close structure of this huge magnetic field?

What other missions have you worked on? How do they compare?

DS: I'm also involved in Cassini, which has been spectacularly successful, especially for the satellites of Saturn, less so for Saturn itself. But in the coming year or so, Cassini will do some of the same things for Saturn that Juno will do for Jupiter by orbiting inside the rings and obtaining very precise gravity and magnetic-field data.

ES: I am the project scientist for Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, both of which conducted a flyby of Jupiter. They made videos of the winds, flew near the largest moons, determined the large-scale structure of the magnetosphere, and observed the aurorae from a distance. Juno is in a distinctly different orbit, and its electronics are protected from radiation so it can get closer to the planet. The Galileo mission was able to closely study the moons, but it was in an equatorial orbit. Juno is probing the inner frontier of the Jovian system and we expect many discoveries.

AI: I have worked on every mission to the giant planets—the Pioneers, Voyagers, Galileo, Cassini, and now Juno. I am amazed at the richness of the outer solar system. It seems that every time we go there with new instruments or visit a new part of it, we discover things that surprise us—things that our Earth-centric science couldn't predict.

What is the future of giant planet exploration?

DS: Even though Cassini may be a success for Saturn, it will not answer one of the key questions that Juno should answer for Jupiter: How much water is there? For Saturn, that will probably require a probe—like the Galileo probe but going deeper into the atmosphere. A mission to an ice giant (Uranus or Neptune) is perhaps even more important and is high on the priority list for NASA. These kinds of planets are now known to be common in the universe and we know remarkably little about what goes on inside them.

AI: The immediate focus is on Jupiter and its moon Europa. The European Space Agency has the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE) and NASA has the Europa Orbiter. After that, Enceladus and Titan—two of Saturn's moons—will be ripe for intensive exploration. The common theme is liquid water beneath the icy crusts of these outer planet satellites. With organic compounds and chemical energy sources, the icy moons extend the range of habitability outward from Earth orbit. That doesn't mean they are inhabited, but means that many of the necessary conditions for life are present.

ES: The next major NASA mission will be to Jupiter and its moon Europa. We know from Galileo that there is a liquid water ocean beneath its icy crust. We know that on Earth, wherever there's liquid water, there's microbial life. Europa is certainly a place we want to explore.

 

JPL manages the Juno mission for the principal investigator, Scott Bolton, of Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. Juno is part of NASA's New Frontiers Program, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built the spacecraft. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

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In anticipation of Juno's arrival at Jupiter on July 4, three Caltech faculty share thoughts on the planet, the mission, and the solar system.

Caltech Trustee and Alumnus Simon "Si" Ramo Passes Away

Alumnus and life member of the Board of Trustees Simon "Si" Ramo (PhD '36), a founding giant of the aerospace industry and chief architect of the nation's intercontinental ballistic missile system, passed away on June 27, 2016. He was 103.

First appointed to the Caltech Board of Trustees in 1964, Ramo was elected a Life Member of the board on May 7, 1985, in which capacity he served Caltech until the time of his death. During his active service on the board, Ramo served as vice chair and chair of the Nominating Committee, and as a member of the Investment Committee and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Committee. 

"Si lived the Caltech dream. He was a scientist, entrepreneur, educator, advisor, trustee, benefactor, and friend," says David L. Lee (PhD '74), chair of the Caltech Board of Trustees. "His life was dedicated to an unflinching search for solutions to a wide array of challenges. He will be missed by us all."

"Si Ramo was not only a great leader, but also an important mentor to many. Among thousands of others, he had an important influence on my life," says Thomas Everhart, president emeritus and professor of electrical engineering and applied physics, emeritus, at Caltech. "The nation, Caltech, and the many other organizations that Dr. Ramo provided insight, leadership, and personal support to, have lost a great friend. We are all richer for having known him."

Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on May 7, 1913, Ramo earned a bachelor of science in electrical engineering from the University of Utah 1933. In 1936, at age 23, Ramo was awarded a PhD, magna cum laude, from Caltech with dual degrees in physics and electrical engineering.

Ramo joined the General Electric Research Laboratories in Schenectady, New York, in 1936 and accumulated 25 patents before turning 30. He was a pioneer in microwave transmission and detection equipment and was the first researcher in the U.S. to produce microwave pulses at the kilowatt level. He developed GE's electron microscope, published the first book on microwave electricity, and authored a book on electromagnetic fields and waves that for 50 years was a leading text in universities worldwide.

In 1946, Ramo joined Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City, California, where, as vice president for operations, he developed radar, navigation, computer, and other electronics systems for aircraft. He also led the development of their Falcon air-to-air guided missiles, used in the Korean War.

Along with engineer Dean Wooldridge, Ramo left Hughes in 1953 to found the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. The company was responsible for developing Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—with Ramo serving as the chief scientist from 1954–58 of the U.S. ICBM program—and produced other defense and research missiles, including those that carried exploratory probes into space in the late 1950s and 1960s. Ramo-Wooldridge merged with Thompson Products in 1958 to become Thompson Ramo-Wooldridge, Inc. (later shortened to TRW).

At TRW, Ramo served vice chairman of the board of directors and chairman of the board's executive committee before retiring. He created TRW's Space Technology Laboratories, which won NASA's first spacecraft contract and built the Pioneer 1 probe, which, on October 11, 1958, became the first spacecraft launched by NASA. Under Ramo's guidance, TRW was a pioneering developer of missile systems and spacecraft, including the Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 probes to Jupiter and the outer solar system; instruments for the Viking 1 and Viking 2 martian landers; and NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory, among other projects.

Ramo also cofounded the Bunker-Ramo Corporation, which produced the first version of the National Association of Securities Dealers' Automated Quotations (NASDAQ) system.

He served on numerous corporate and university boards and in government advisory roles that included positions on the National Science Board, the White House Council on Energy R&D, the Advisory Council to the Secretary of Commerce, and the Advisory Council to the Secretary of State for Science and Foreign Affairs. Ramo was chairman of Gerald Ford's President's Advisory Committee on Science and Technology and was Science Adviser to the President of the Republic of China under Ronald Reagan.

The recipient of numerous honors and honorary degrees, Ramo was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983, the National Medal of Science in 1979, and the Founders Medal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1980. He was named a Distinguished Alumnus of Caltech in 2012.

He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and a founding member of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The namesake of the NAE's Simon Ramo Founders Award—established in 1965 and renamed in Ramo's honor in 2013 on the occasion of his 100th birthday—he was also the first recipient of the Academy's Arthur M. Bueche Award for statesmanship in national science and technology policy.  

In December 2013, Ramo was awarded patent 8,606,170 for a computer-based learning invention, making him, at 100 years old, the oldest person to ever receive a U.S. patent. He was also the author of many books, on topics ranging from microwaves and communication electronics, to management, to tennis.

Virginia Ramo, his wife of seven decades, preceded him in death in 2009. He is survived by sons James and Alan. 

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Alumnus and life member of the Board of Trustees Simon "Si" Ramo (PhD '36), a founding giant of the aerospace industry, passed away on June 27, 2016.
Wednesday, August 24, 2016
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

CTLO's Summer Short Course for Faculty: (Re)Designing Your Class

2016 Distinguished Alumnus: Neil Gehrels (PhD '82, Physics)

The 2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards were presented on Saturday, May 21, during the 79th annual Seminar Day. Each week, the Caltech Alumni Association will share a story about a recipient.

Every day or so, unseen by your eyes, a bright burst of light explodes in the sky. These bursts shine in gamma rays, the most energetic kind of light that's way beyond the visible part of the spectrum. Among the most explosive and violent events in the universe, these gamma-ray bursts produce as much energy in a few seconds as the sun will during its entire 10-billion-year life.  

And for decades, Neil Gehrels has been a pioneer in understanding these bursts and in exploring the gamma-ray universe. He's helped lead teams of researchers on multiple projects and missions, including as the principal investigator of NASA's Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, which has solved long-standing mysteries about the powerful blasts. 

Read the full story on the Caltech Alumni Association website

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For decades, Gehrels has been a pioneer in understanding and exploring the gamma-ray universe.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

SAVE THE DATE - 4th Annual Caltech Teaching Conference -- Details Coming Soon!

Wednesday, July 13, 2016
Noyes 147 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

Teaching Statement Workshop

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