Research at Rowan paves way for Willis to pursue PhD at Yale

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Four years ago, Lucas Willis wasn't sure college was for him. This fall, he'll begin the experimental atomic physics doctoral program at Yale University through a fully paid National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship.

Four years ago, Lucas Willis wasn't sure college was for him. This fall, he'll begin the experimental atomic physics doctoral program at Yale University through a fully paid National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship.

Willis, of Bellmawr, attributes his academic success to the research opportunities and faculty mentors he's had throughout his undergraduate studies at Rowan University.

"I started in research the summer of my freshman year and I've stayed involved in it through the whole process," says Willis, who graduated from Rowan on Friday, May 16, with degrees in physics and math, a minor in French, and concentrations in Honors and international studies.

This spring, Willis became the second physics-math dual major from Rowan in as many years to receive the prestigious NDSEG fellowship. Under the fellowship, presented by the American Society for Engineering Education, Willis will pursue his doctorate at Yale through a full ride, plus a $31,000-a-year stipend for three years.

A Department of Defense fellowship, the NDSEG is given to individuals who have demonstrated ability and special aptitude for advanced training in science and engineering. The program works to support graduate students "in fields important to national defense needs," according to the NDSEG web site.

"Less than 20 of these fellowships are given to physics students each year," says Willis, still thunderstruck that he won't have to worry about his Yale tuition. "My parents worked hard to pay for my undergraduate studies. It's great to have my doctoral studies completely supported."

NSDEG fellowships can be used at any institution in the U.S. Willis, whose fellowship is supported by the Army Research Office, chose Yale over doctoral physics programs at Colorado, Maryland, Michigan, Stony Brook, and Virginia.

Andrew Robertson, who last year became the first Rowan student to win the NDSEG fellowship, is now studying at Maryland. But Willis said New Haven was the perfect fit for him, mainly because he'll be working with Yale Professor David DeMille.

DeMille asked Willis to join his research group. The two first met in March when Willis presented research he conducted with Astronomy and Physics Professor Michael Lim at the American Physical Society's (APS) meeting in New Orleans.

"Professor DeMille was impressed by our work," says Willis, who has worked with Lim since his freshman year at Rowan building an apparatus to study the coldest atomic plasmas on Earth. "In many ways, Professor Lim is the reason I got into the schools I did."

Willis has tremendous "intellectual independence," which has served him well in his Rowan studies, according to Lim.

"Right from the beginning with Lucas, it wasn't about teaching him as much as it was about pointing him in the right direction," says Lim. "Working with him was like working with a colleague. He has the same interests and motivations."

During a physics open house at Yale, Willis and DeMille commiserated about equipment problems they've each encountered in the lab, Willis says. When he returned to Rowan, he received an email from DeMille inviting him to join his research group.

"Professor DeMille is very approachable, very friendly and receptive," says Willis. "I'm happy to already be a part of a team as I start at Yale."

At Triton High School (Class of 2004), Willis was academically gifted, but, he says, more interested in extracurricular activities-music and sports-than his studies. He loves working with his hands and actually considered a career in carpentry, working with his uncle in construction, before deciding to enroll at Rowan. His older brother, Ray, earned his radio/television/film degree from the University in 2005 and, Willis says, the University seemed like a good fit for him as well.

"It was Rowan or construction," says Willis, who voraciously read French novels in high school for fun. "My parents wanted me to go to college. Rowan was the only place I applied."

From Day 1 at Rowan, Willis made a commitment to focus on his studies, he says. His early involvement in research fueled his intellectual curiosity.

"The first day of college freshman year I had a clean slate," he says. "I wasn't tethered to a building. College offered me freedom."

Willis, who carries a 3.8 GPA and plays guitar for one of Rowan's small jazz ensembles, graduated from Rowan with a curriculum vitae that's four pages long. It's brimming with professional presentations and publications from San Jose to Syracuse to Baltimore to New Orleans.

In addition to professional presentations and publications with Lim, Willis also has published two papers with math professor Tom Osler, which involved translating the work of famous 18th century mathematician Leonhard Euler from French into English.

Recipient of numerous awards and scholarships, many of which helped to fund his travel to professional conferences, Willis was president of Rowan's Physics Club and the University's Habitat for Humanity chapter. Through Rowan's Academic Success Center and the Physics Club, he tutored students in math, physics, and engineering.

Though he earned his degrees from Rowan's College of Liberal Arts on May 16, Willis will be working in the physics lab throughout the summer.

"I'm starting another theory project with Professor (Hong) Ling, who is just an amazing professor in quantum physics," says Willis. "The physics department has a great bunch of professors. I'll miss then when I leave the way I'll miss friends."

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