Duke faculty in physics and engineering departments are developing an applied physics institute to turn fundamental physics into viable technological prototypes.

Tentatively named Program in Future Technologies, the project is headed by Daniel Gauthier, a physics professor with a secondary appointment as a professor of electrical and computer engineering. The institute is being planned as a graduate degree-conferring program in which graduate students can conduct research in fundamental physics and use these concepts to develop new technologies. The program is a collaborative effort between the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Pratt School of Engineering, Gauthier said.

“It’s taking fundamental ideas that come out of physics and combining them with more applied ideas that come out of Pratt,” Gauthier said. “We’re trying to straddle the boundaries between engineering and physics.”

The program will also involve coursework in market analysis so that students can acquire the entrepreneurial skills to turn their innovative prototypes into successful business ventures.

Such a program will train engineers to be well-poised for either continuing academic research or transitioning into industry, said Jungsang Kim, an electrical and computer engineering professor also involved in the development of the institute.

“Having people that can make fundamentally new discoveries and take those ideas and turn them into prototypes is a very large national need that isn’t very well met.” Kim said.

Gauthier said companies tend to value people with a physics background for their broad expertise, whereas a more specialized engineering background often leaves employees vulnerable to market trends relating to the projects they are assigned to.

“Having this applied physics background where you’ve got a mix of both engineering and fundamental science will hopefully be very appealing to companies.” Gauthier said, noting that the students will have both the specific knowledge required for the projects and the adaptability to make well-rounded contributions to the table.

The program can gear physics students up for industrial jobs and show others that there is more to physics than just the academia, said Chris Flower, a sophomore physics major planning to pursue a Ph.D. in physics.

Kim said this fully integrated approach to physics from basic research to entrepreneurial assets is what will set Duke’s program apart from more established programs in applied physics.

Typical academic research professors tend to have specialized individual undertakings rather than collaborative and integrative systems-level research, Kim said. However, Duke’s physics program is in the unique position in which many of its established faculty have already accomplished major breakthroughs in applied fundamental physics.

The faculty that are involved in this new institute have already raised over 80 million dollars in research grants since 2011, Kim said.

The accomplishments made by these faculty include high-profile research in metamaterials, acoustic and visual cloaking, gigapixel camera devices and quantum computing and communications devices, Kim added.

Because Duke already has the brainpower and history of success necessary to start this program, all that remains to be completed is to amass this energy towards a tangible degree-granting program that can compete with other established institutions, Kim added.

Many other universities already have applied physics programs of their own, but Duke does not plan to follow their model, Gauthier said. Other programs tend to focus on the physics of a particular area, whereas Duke’s institute will encourage an integrative approach from the basic physics to the entire finished system.

“Many of us are thinking about how we can eventually become an institute that everyone wants to replicate—as in, how are we going to jump ahead of the curve of the current powerhouses in physics and engineering like Stanford and MIT.” Kim said. “If we want to leapfrog ahead of them, we really can’t play the same game they’re playing.... So yeah, it’s risky, but if it does arrive, then I think we’ll be in the lead.”

Because the institute is still in its planning stage, Kim and Gauthier have yet to decide how or when it will extend to include undergraduates. However, a certificate program, a five-year combined Master’s program or a major spanning both Trinity and Pratt have all been discussed.

“As far as undergrads go, I think it would also be a great way to introduce more physics to interested people,” Flower said. “The majority of undergrads who get any physics at all stop after basic mechanics and the Electricity and Magnetism course, which are important, but ideally they should have the chance to see physics in a wider range of places.”

Gauthier said that he will be working with faculty early this summer to begin the proposal process for the program, and that they may be able to officially launch the new institute in the next two years.

Many students as well as much of the central administration in Trinity and Pratt have already expressed positive responses to the effort, Kim said.

“It’s not like we’re proposing a wholly new idea, we’re already doing this kind of research extremely well,” he said. “The next step is to capture this energy and establish it into a coherent institute.”