Professor Neepa Maitra arrived at RU-N in fall 2019 after spending 15 years as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at City University of New York’s (CUNY) Hunter College and the Graduate Center. There she taught a wide array of courses, ranging from undergraduate offerings in basic physics, electromagnetic theory, atomic and nuclear physics, optics and quantum physics to graduate courses in quantum theory of solids and her main research area, density functional theory and applications.
At RU-N, she’s been teaching undergraduate- and graduate-level quantum mechanics, along with a graduate special topics course in her specialty; mentoring undergraduate and graduate students, as well as post-doctoral fellows; and running her research lab, which focuses on time-dependent density functional theory, a quantum mechanical framework that describes the dynamics of interacting electronic many-body systems formally and in a computationally efficient manner, with many applications in physics, (bio)chemistry and materials science. She’s also set to take over as Chair of the Physics Department this fall.
Over the course of her impressive career, Maitra has won grants from the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and a number of private research foundations. She has also been an indefatigable organizer of research conferences, prompting outgoing Physics Department Chair Michele Pavanello to remark, “In some sense, Neepa’s field of study exists and is thriving because of her enthusiasm and ability to bring people together. She is extremely talented and a source of inspiration for her field."
As Maitra begins her tenure as Physics Department Chair, we caught up with her to ask about her work, her deep ties to Rutgers, and her vision for the department.
You arrived at RU-N in fall 2019, but this isn’t your first turn at Rutgers, is it?
That’s right! I first came to Rutgers 20 years ago as a post-doc on the New Brunswick campus [before teaching at CUNY]. I worked with Professor Kieron Burke, from whom I learned density functional theory, which has formed a major research direction in my group since. During my post-doc there, my two children (now at college!) were born, and this while continuing my career could not have been possible without the flexibility in my working conditions that I had in that group, for which I am very grateful.
The breadth of courses you taught during your time at CUNY is pretty incredible. How did you manage this?
Fifteen years is a long time! It was normal in the department at Hunter, CUNY, to teach a range of courses, some of which form an essential background for my research, and so there is reinforcement and synergy with what I am thinking about in my research and what I am teaching. But what I find most interesting is what happens when one teaches courses that one took “long ago” as an undergraduate and perhaps did not think too deeply about the material after a long time. After having done some research, one indirectly gains new perspectives and different ways of understanding the material, and that’s really fun. Of course, it’s always interesting and inspiring to hear the thoughts and ideas of students learning the material for the first time. This is different every year, even when teaching the same course.
We have a wonderful department, with a lot of young talented faculty in both teaching as well as research, and I am really excited to be moving forward with this team.
How has your teaching been at RU-N, especially with the pandemic?
My classes here have all been very rewarding to teach, despite challenges associated with being online for the entire year last year. It was hard for the students not to be able to discuss in-person and form study groups effectively, on top of dealing with all the various anxieties and insecurities outside the actual studying. One advantage of the online teaching, however, was that now I have a good, organized set of typed lecture notes for both the undergraduate and graduate quantum courses!
Tell us about your enthusiasm for organizing research conferences in your field.
We are very lucky to be in the field of density functional theory, where there is a really supportive culture that has propagated down from the pioneers of the field like John Perdew, Mel Levy, Hardy Gross. The atmosphere at workshops tends to be very open and warm, while not compromising the high level of science. Perhaps the interdisciplinary nature of the field helps this feeling that we can learn so much from each other—often the workshops are quite evenly split between physicists and chemists. We do enjoy getting together at schools geared for students and postdocs, research workshops and the larger conferences, too.
Have you been able to keep this up during Covid?
Most recently an absolutely fantastic post-doc in my group, Lionel Lacombe, organized a Zoom Ph.D. Student Seminar Series on (TD)DFT theory development, where Ph.D. students around the world gave talks introduced by post-docs in the groups they were working in. This last year was challenging for Ph.D. students, as they had little opportunity to discuss their work with others, and meet and network with people in the field, so we wanted to have this series to connect young scientists globally who are working in this area. We were really excited to have great attendance during the summer months and will probably run this again next year, even if the pandemic subsides.
How are you feeling taking over as Chair of the Physics Department, and what are your plans in this new role?
It’s honestly a bit daunting to take over from Michele [Pavanello]. He was an amazing chair and did so much for the department, which has made my turn as chair much easier than would be otherwise. We have a wonderful department, with a lot of young talented faculty in both teaching as well as research, and I am really excited to be moving forward with this team. I hope to deepen and broaden the warm, lively and inclusive spirit in the department at all levels. I also hope to build ties with the Newark Public Schools, with activities such as a free drop-in tutoring program for their physics students with our excellent students as tutors, and perhaps something like a Saturday Morning Science Series.
RU-N and CUNY mirror each other in many ways but are also different. How has your transition been?
Yes, both RU-N and CUNY have similar missions and a similar student body. RU-N is smaller, so there are fewer Physics majors, but this can also have some advantages, in that we can get to know our students, staff and faculty well. I love the collegial feeling in this department, and the faculty are just wonderful to interact with. I am grateful for all the support from the administration, too, and the genuine and thoughtful efforts to do their best for our students to excel and to make a difference in the wider Newark community.
Thanks so much for sitting down with us.