May 2013 Features

GSAS: Big Science, Small School

Neal Abraham, Ph.D. ’77, champions scientific research in liberal arts colleges.

By Maria Jacketti


Neal Abraham, Ph.D. ’77

In recent years, Bryn Mawr College has averaged nine physics majors per year, approximately 3 percent of the graduating class. This is nearly 50 times the national average for women graduating with undergraduate physics degrees in the United States. Accolades the department has received include The Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring; and recognition by the National Task Force on Undergraduate Physics as one of 21 schools that exemplify best practices in creating thriving physics departments.

A parallel success can be seen in the College’s thriving physics graduate program that for decades has been granting doctorates to alumnae/i such as Neal Abraham, Ph.D. ’77, who was the keynote speaker at last month’s Graduate Student Appreciation Week (see below). The executive director of the Five College Consortium in Massachusetts and an expert on nonlinear dynamics, chaos, and lasers, Abraham has long championed the benefits of research in liberal arts colleges. In a June 1986 Physics Today article titled “Physics in the Colleges,” Abraham and co-author Jerry Gollub, professor of physics at Haverford, wrote:

“We especially emphasize the contributions that vigorous research programs are making to the professional development of faculty and to the education of students. We realize that many physicists are skeptical about the possibility of doing successful research in the college environment. Heavy teaching loads, the absence of graduate students, and limited financial support are assumed to preclude significant research programs. We believe that view to be incorrect, and as evidence we describe the substantial research programs that are in place at many colleges.”

As both a student and professor of physics at Bryn Mawr, Abraham spent more than two decades experiencing firsthand how big science can thrive at a small school. “Bryn Mawr’s graduate physics program was small and nimble; professors tailored the program to meet my needs,” Abraham recalls of his graduate student experience. He took advantage of the opportunity to work with professors such as Steven Smith, an expert in quantum optics who taught at Bryn Mawr from 1972 to 1980, as well as the expanded course offerings that resulted from the department’s collaboration with Haverford, Swarthmore, and the University of Pennsylvania. After graduating, Abraham taught physics at Swarthmore before joining the faculty at Bryn Mawr, where he taught from 1980 to 1998.

During those years, Abraham received a prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship in 1982 and, along with Bryn Mawr colleague Al Albano, forged collaborations with Haverford faculty members, including Gollub. “We developed a Bryn Mawr/Haverford community that became a hotbed for international workshops on the study of chaos and turbulence, which included my work in nonlinear optical systems,” Abraham says. Abraham also spearheaded collaboration across the curriculum at Bryn Mawr. For three years, he directed the College’s grant under the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s New Liberal Arts program for the infusion of technology and science throughout the curriculum. He later served on the steering committee to develop new college-wide critical thinking and critical writing courses for first- and second-year students.

In 2009, Abraham was appointed to his current position at the Five College Consortium, which unites faculty members and programs in the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and two Sister colleges, Mount Holyoke and Smith. Here he continues to promote the benefits of collaboration between institutions to strengthen research and teaching, while occasionally teaching physics at Mount Holyoke.

Graduate Student Appreciation Week

This past April, the graduate schools held their second annual Graduate Student Appreciation Week. Highlights included a panel discussion moderated by Dean of Graduate Studies Mary Osirim called “Bryn Mawr Graduate Studies in the Community”; a graduate student research symposium that included the presentation of Graduate Faculty Mentor Awards and a talk by Visiting Professor Sanford Schram of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research; and a networking reception for all graduate alumnae/i and current graduate students. In his talk, “Pathways from Graduate Study at Bryn Mawr,” Neal Abraham, Ph.D. ’77, reflected on the variety of domestic and international career opportunities open to graduate students as well as on the future of higher education. Graduate Student Appreciation Week was first held in April 2012 as a way to recognize the excellence of Bryn Mawr’s graduate students and programs. Graduate education has been provided at Bryn Mawr since its inception in 1885, and the College was one of the first institutions to accept women into programs for master’s and doctoral education.