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Monday, May 27, 2024

Heather Ray has a unique opportunity given to few new professors in UF's physics department.

Ray, an assistant professor in her first semester of teaching, has the chance to develop and lead a new research team at UF.

Professors are usually hired into an existing group of researchers already funded and staffed with graduate and post-graduate students, but Ray chose to start her own experimental group.

Ray has to find funding and research staffers for the experiment, which is within high-energy physics and deals with subatomic particles.

She must do all this as well as perform her regular duties as a professor.

"On the plus side, that means I can do whatever I want," Ray said. "Whatever in physics I want to do with neutrinos, I can do."

Ray's research group will be the first experimental group at UF to conduct research on neutrino oscillations.

She said she hopes to confirm an experiment in the 1990s that was said to have observed neutrinos changing types where they should not have based on the differences of their masses.

"If that experiment is right, we've completely blown apart the standard model of physics, which is an awesome idea," Ray said.

Based on the standard model of physics, which sets the rules that govern particle interactions, neutrinos are not even supposed to have mass, let alone the ability to change into another type of particle, she said.

Guenakh Mitselmakher, a professor in the physics department, said he hoped Ray would bring a new dimension to their research while enriching the department through her leadership.

Although Ray, 32, is younger than many people who receive a position as a professor, she had all the experience and maturity the department was looking for, Mitselmakher said.

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Since Mitselmakher arrived at the department in 1995, he has watched it change and improve as more young and talented professors were hired.

Mitselmakher said Ray will continue to move the department in that successful direction.

Along with her research project, Ray also helps lecture Enriched Physics 1 with Calculus, she said. This honors physics course is the first course Ray has taught.

While in graduate school, she received a fellowship that allowed her to focus solely on school and research.

Ray leads the problem-solving section of the lecture.

Ray said the toughest part of teaching is staying enthusiastic about the parts of physics taught in the class that even she is not fond of.

"You have to act like these things are the best things in the world, and nobody should be scared," she said.

To prepare for the class, she reads all the same chapters as students and works out all the homework problems to understand what may be confusing to her students, she said.

Lauren Gravois, a UF freshman, said Ray picks out good questions and gives detailed explanations.

Ray said good scientists should be dedicated and hard workers. Sleepless nights and missed dinners are common when trying to break through a problem.

"You have to be the type of person who really enjoys tackling a problem and sticking with it," she said.

Ray is also one of only a handful of women professors in the physics department, but she doesn't think being a woman either helped or harmed her in the field of physics.

She attributes success to aggressiveness, tenacity and willingness to work late.

"It didn't matter if you were male or female, as long as you exhibited this trait, then you were seen as being a good scientist, and someone who was serious about their work," she said.

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