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In the News: 'Augie Grad Joins Physics Elite'

Bethany Jochim, class of 2011, has been named a recipient of the prestigious Leroy Apker Award, the top undergraduate honor awarded by the American Physical Society (APS).

The following story on Jochim's accomplishments appeared in the Monday, Nov. 7, issue of the Argus Leader:

Augie Grad Joins Physics Elite
Pierre native and recent student one of two nationally to attain prestigious recognition

By Steve Young

A young woman with a passion for the piano and for ancient languages is making a name for South Dakota in the research world of physics.

Bethany Jochim of Pierre, who graduated this past May from Augustana College, learned this week that she has been awarded the prestigious Leroy Apker Award by the American Physical Society.

The honor recognizes outstanding achievement in physics by undergraduates. Two prizes are awarded — to a student from a doctorate-granting institution, and one from a nondoctorate-granting school. Djordje Radicevic of Princeton is the other honoree.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Eric Wells, associate professor of physics at Augustana. “Augustana has never had the winner before.”

Jochim’s selection comes in part for her research work with extremely short laser pulses and how they interact with and control individual molecules.

That work, funded by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, could one day lead to new ways of controlling chemical reactions and creating new materials. In her four years at Augustana, she also had five research articles published in mainstream, peer-reviewed scientific journals. She has presented the results of her projects at physics meetings in Atlanta and Belfast, Northern Ireland

“I’d put her undergraduate record up against anyone I’ve ever seen as an undergraduate,” Wells said.

Jochim, 22, was a student at Riggs High School in Pierre when she was first introduced to physics and discovered the lure of problem solving. Her teacher had talked one day about the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle,” a key early discovery in quantum theory, and the seed was planted.

“I think I’ve always been more inclined toward science,” Jochim said by phone from her apartment at Kansas State University, where she is now pursuing a doctoral degree in physics. “A lot of my pastimes when I was younger involved doing experiments that kids do. So when I was introduced to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it wasn’t a detailed introduction, but enough to tell me that I wanted more.”

Wells said when Jochim was first considering Augustana, he asked — as he did all students — what she wanted to be when she grew up. The typical answers tended to be long-winded and veered in many different directions. Jochim said, simply, “I want to be a scientist.”

After a few moments of silence, when nothing more was forthcoming, Wells said, “OK, good, we can help you with that.”

Her freshmen physics textbook was 1,000 pages and included 1,200 problems combined in the back of all the chapters. Wells requires students to answer 300 of them. Jochim did them all.

She also spent summers at Kansas State doing research as part of a collaborative effort between that university and Augustana. That experience created in her a desire to teach at the university level some day and to continue research as well after she finishes the five to six years it will take to get her doctorate degree.

"I’ve thought it would be neat to end up at a place like Augustana,” she said. “I’d put a lot of effort into teaching, but also involve students in research the way my instructors involved me.”

When she isn’t doing research with lasers, Jochim plays the piano for the relief it brings from daily stress. She also has a fascination with ancient languages such as Greek and Latin. She believes they will improve her proficiency in English and lead to her becoming a better writer when she is putting together future articles.

It should be a bright future, Wells said.

“She has the ability,” he said. “With research, if you know beforehand how to make a big breakthrough, it’s probably not a big breakthrough. Some of it is serendipitous. Bethany certainly has a lot of talent and a lot of drive. She has as good a chance to succeed as anyone.”

The American Physical Society, which bestowed the Apker award on her, apparently sees that talent, too.

“I was shocked but really honored, too” she said. “It will mean a lot to me for the rest of my life.”