Physics & Astronomy

Department history

Dr. Barbara A. Williams

First Black woman to earn a PhD in Astronomy in the United States, received her bachelor's degree in physics at UNCG.

Astronomers of the African Diaspora

The Sky is Not The Limit

UNCG undergraduate researchers shine in Physics & Astronomy

On the value of interdisciplinary options (¿por qué no los dos?)

I find the thought of a Physics and Russian program at a University being discontinued distasteful. Physics is a core STEM science, and I find it hard to believe that a university would find it ineffectual. Physics is the foundation for studying the universe around us, and it teaches students so much more than solving equations. I have learned so much from not only my classes but my professors throughout the four years I have attended UNCG, and it is extremely disheartening to me to think my professors that have got me to where I am at will no longer be here or the courses that shaped who I am will no longer exist. You can't simply replace these professors, they're like no other. I was so excited to come to UNCG and find out that I could take Russian for my foreign language credits. I only ever thought I would have the chance to learn Spanish or French, but the opportunity to study a language that would help my future in astrophysics was inviting and so exciting, that I couldn't turn it away. I don't have a single bad thing to say about any of the instructors I had when I was taking my Russian courses, they were all wonderful in their own ways. The way they dedicated their lives to learning the language and becoming immersed in not only the language but the culture that Russia has to offer. I found it inspiring, and I hope to this day that I go back to my studies in Russian, and I use what I was taught and go forward in being fluent like I wanted to begin with. There is no doubt in my mind that I could not have gotten this far in my degree without all of these incredible instructors that have truly built me to the person I am today. These classes made me who I am. They were more than just classes I took to earn credit towards my degree. I don't know what this college will look like with these programs gone. It won't be the university I believed it was, and looking back on it will mean something much different. I would not be who I am today without these classes and without the instructors who taught me, and I am disappointed in the thought that other students will not be given the same opportunity I was given four years ago.

-Madison Gullett, UNCG class of 2024

Photos of recent graduates and events in the department

Letters and comments of support

A letter of support from the leadership of the American Astronomical Society:

The importance of UNCG Physics Astronomy .pdf

A letter of support from Prof. Keivan Stassun, founder of the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program, noting that we have missed opportunities to invest and better help our students become physicists and astronomers:


🔥NEW!🔥 STG was able to obtain a copy of Dr. Aarnio's powerful remarks from the faculty senate meeting on January 31st, a must-read!

"We know ours is a small department. I think the moment my worries spiked was when sort ascending/descending arrows were added to the second APR rubric release spreadsheet. And sure- our major alone, stripped of the context of our service classes and how we compare to peer physics departments- sure, we look too small to be worth supporting, especially compared to departments that are at least twice our size and resource level.


But compared to physics and astronomy departments at peer institutions, we’re doing amazing work. We alone will likely move the needle nationally on the numbers of underrepresented folks earning Physics PhDs. I’m grateful to have a moment today to tell you about just a few of our amazing students, and I’ll try not to break down that I might be unable to add names to this list.


My first research advisee, Lindsay House, is currently an astrophysics PhD candidate at UT Austin. For non-astronomers, they’re one of the best astronomy departments in the country.


Aidan Lytle, a USMC veteran, started in physics but ultimately majored in math, returning to work on his master’s degree with Thomas Weighill and I, using topological methods to detect and classify sunspots for space weather prediction.


Kamara Culbreath will be earning his Master’s in Physics this semester, and then beginning work on his astrophysics PhD at Vanderbilt University this Fall.


My colleague Professor Belmont is not speaking today, but his former research group member, Quentin Merritt, is currently a Physics PhD student and NSF GRFP fellow at Ohio State University.


In 2019, 8 Black men earned PhDs in Physics. 8. Nationwide. That same year, ONE Black woman did. When Quentin and Kamara earn their PhDs, they will increase the number of Black men Physics PhDs by 20-25% that year.


Our small department did that. An historical note: our department also awarded a BS in physics to the first Black woman astronomy PhD, Dr. Barbara Williams, who is among about 20 Black women astronomy PhDs in the country. She earned that PhD in 1981. There are fewer than 100 Black women physics PhDs. I must stress: these numbers of PhDs are national totals, ever. There is so much work to be done to make our field inclusive.


So our little physics department that could, the department that looks terrible on a spreadsheet, is moving national numbers that UNCG should be damn proud of. Not bad for a program that only “costs” 1 faculty FTE per year. Indeed, most of what we do is service in support of other departments. Metrics have severed us from the broader context in which we operate, reducing us to sortable rows and columns of meaningless numbers that devalue our work.

If physics and astronomy is eliminated, UNCG is telling students you can find your way here, but only the ways we’ll let you find. What seems like it makes sense in the short-term will have long-term consequences of further excluding access for students, betraying one of our core values as an institution. We will ourselves be denying social mobility in areas this institution is uniquely poised to support and uplift students in.

I understand given current education trends, the administration may believe our students aren’t prepared enough to follow these paths. “Sticking to what we’re good at” read to me as culling the programs with low numbers of majors and high introductory course DFW rates. 

Yes: physics classes are hard, calculus classes are hard, but please do not underestimate our students. They deserve a chance to find this way."