What I Do for a Living

I’m in the process of putting together my tenure documents (I know I’ve been saying this for weeks. It’s a long process, OK?). Most of these are really not appropriate for reproduction here, but I’ll post a few of the things I’m writing, when it’s reasonable to do so.

A major part of the tenure process is finding external reviewers for the research material. As most institutions don’t really have enough people in a given sub-field to assess research in-house (especially at a small college), and as trusting such an assessment would be a little dodgy, the research review is traditionally conducted by people from other colleges and universities. The candidate’s publications and other materials are sent out to three external reviewers, who write a report judging the quality of the work, and that report is a key part of the tenure determination.

I don’t know how it’s done elsewhere, but the procedure here is to send a description of the candidate’s research out to various experts– typically journal editors, from what I’m told– and ask them to recommend people to serve as reviewers. Which means that somebody has to produce a short description of the research, and since nobody else local usually understands it, that task falls on the candidate.

So, below the fold you’ll find my one-paragraph description of my research specialty:

Dr. Orzel’s research is in experimental atomic, molecular, and
optical (AMO) physics, focussing on the study of cold and
ultra-cold samples of atoms prepared by laser cooling. He has
performed extensive studies of ionizing collisions between
rare-gas atoms in metastable states (including optical control of
collisions, time-resolved collisions, collisions in optical
lattices, and collisions in spin-polarized samples), and has
studied the manipulation of atom number statistics in a
Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) placed in a periodic optical
potential. At Union College, he has built a laboratory for the
laser cooling and trapping of metastable krypton and argon (either
can be cooled with the same optical system, as the laser cooling
wavelengths for these two elements are separated by less than
1 nm), and plans two main research projects for the apparatus.
One project, developed in collaboration with Daniel McKinsey at
Yale University and funded by the National Science Foundation, is
to apply the technique of Atom Trap Trace Analysis (ATTA)
(developed by Z.-T. Lu and colleagues at Argonne National
Laboratory) to measure extremely low levels of krypton
contamination in other rare gases by trapping and detecting single
krypton atoms. The ATTA technique can measure the krypton
concentration at the Kr/Rg ~ 10-14 level in only a few
hours, a significant improvement in both sensitivity and speed.
Measuring krypton contamination at these very low levels is
extremely important for current efforts to build astrophysical
particle detectors using liquid rare gases as a scintillation
medium, such as the proposed CLEAN neutrino detector and the XENON
dark matter detector. The second project, funded by a grant from
the Research Corporation, is to extend earlier studies of cold
collisions in metastable xenon into argon and krypton, in
particular looking at the previously unmeasured collision rates in
spin-polarized samples. Spin-polarization strongly suppresses the
collision rate in metastable helium, but has essentially no effect
in xenon. Theory predicts a significant suppression of the
collision rate in spin-polarized argon and krypton, but this
effect has not yet been measured. Measuring these rates will help
test these theoretical predictions, and also provide important
information about the interatomic interaction potentials for these

(OK, that may be straining the definition of “paragraph” a bit– were it part of a student lab report, I’d demand some paragraph breaks in there, but there’s no way to both be complete and perfectly grammatically correct…)

Some people have claimed that this is the single most important piece of writing for the tenure case, as it will ultimately determine the composition of the external review committee. I’m not sure how true that really is– while I wouldn’t want string theorists judging my work, I don’t think the reviewers need to be in exactly the same sub-field I am– but at any rate, it’s done.

3 thoughts on “What I Do for a Living

  1. “Some people have claimed that this is the single most important piece of writing for the tenure case, as it will ultimately determine the composition of the external review committee.”

    – perhaps, but in most universities, the most important contributions listed will be: 1) the list of peer-reviewed articles in decent journals, and 2) list of external funds received. Nothing else will matter much.

  2. It looks good. Quite clear, I have absolutely no expertise within physics and even I can kind of grasp what it is that you do. Also you’ve managed to sneak in that you’re able to attract external funding, that you’ve worked on collaborative projects, and that your project will have outside relevance. Now, I know nothing about how the tenure process goes at your institution but I’d imagine that they would be positively swayed by all the above.

  3. at my place and most others, tenure is decided by the “Gestapo border question” — “SHOW ME YOUR PAPERS….”

    Service means not pissing anyone off, teahing needs to be good, but is more of a threshold. Its not like being a really really good teacher makes up for a lack of “product” aka “scholarly activity”

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