Former Chair and Professor of Physics and Astronomy Department Retires from UK

By Madison Dyment

After many years working at an institution, many faculty members come to feel like family. Having worked at the University of Kentucky for 30 years, one such family member, Michael Cavagnero of the Physics and Astronomy Department, has retired from UK to accept a position as Dean of the Division of Science and Technology at the City University of New York's Staten Island College.

Cavagnero began studying physics at the University of Connecticut, continuing this course of study at the University of Chicago graduate school. His interest largely lies in the physics of atoms and their interactions with one another and light. This interest began his junior year of undergrad.

“I read a book called ‘Basic Physics of Atoms and Molecules’ by authors U. Fano and L. Fano that was first published in the year I was born, 1959,” Cavagnero said. “I found a copy of it lying in a study room at UConn during my junior year in 1979 and once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.”

After learning about this fascination, Cavagnero’s advisor set up a meeting with the author, Ugo Fano, leading to Cavagnero studying with Fano in graduate school. This was an instrumental opportunity for many reasons.

Among these reasons is that it eventually led Cavagnero to UK.

“While I was graduate student, Fano pointed out to me that a fellow named Keith MacAdam was doing some novel and interesting experiments at the University of Kentucky,” Cavagnero said. “He regarded the experiments as fundamental, so I kept a close eye on MacAdam’s results as they appeared in physics journals over the next several years.”

After holding research positions at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Colorado-Boulder, Cavagnero learned of an open faculty position at UK and jumped at the chance to work with MacAdam.

“UK had collected a small but impressive group of physicists working in my field of interest, including Nick Martin, an experimentalist who studied electron collisions with atoms,” Cavagnero said. “It was an opportunity to join a team of scientists working on interesting problems. Once again, I was very fortunate to be given such an opportunity.”

“I always felt fortunate to be at UK, and I was happy to work there for 30 years.”

In those 30 years, Cavagnero overcame many challenges and obtained numerous memories.

“I am not a natural teacher,” Cavagnero said. “It took a long time for me to put the focus in the classroom where it belongs, on the students. I had to work hard at it, and I eventually improved.”

On one occasion, Cavagnero used his student focus to maximize the enjoyment of his classes. He would create comical notes called “The Irreverent Mechanic” as a class accompaniment.

“Oftentimes, I stayed up late the night before class thinking of silly jokes and amusing stories to add to the notes,” Cavagnero said. “Somehow, the silliness helped to break the ice, and made me more approachable to the students. They started to come to class to have fun, and that was, for me, something of an achievement.”

One of these students was Donna Pierce, now an Associate Professor of Physics at Mississippi State University.

“Donna especially loved all the camel jokes in The Irreverent Mechanic, and still reminds me of them from time to time. It means a lot to me to know that students like Donna appreciated my teaching efforts, especially because teaching didn’t come easily to me,” Cavagnero said.

Cavagnero had many notable research projects, but they all revolved around the same focus: observable properties of atoms and molecules as described by rules of quantum mechanics. He dedicated 10 years studying MacAdams’ experiments and another 10 years during the ultracold revolution calculating quantum properties of atoms and molecules that were important to the ultracold environment.

Currently, he has taken a different focus.

“Recently, I’ve become more interested in finding a deeper understanding of the strange rules of quantum mechanics,” Cavagnero said. “Many people have tried and failed at this task over the last century, so it sometimes seems like a quixotic quest.”

Aside from teaching and research, Cavagnero served two terms as Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. During this time, the Department experienced a great deal of growth and support for faculty.

“I was very fortunate to chair the department at a time of growth and prosperity. We hired nearly one-third of the current Department faculty during that time,” Cavagnero said.

“I was also fortunate to chair the department at a time when donor support increased greatly,” Cavagnero said. “Contributions from several donors helped us advance graduate research and education, increase undergraduate scholarships, and support numerous faculty initiatives that tangibly improved the climate for research at UK.”

Further, a student and community observatory, the MacAdam Student Observatory, was erected during his time as chair, allowing thousands of UK students and Kentucky residents to glimpse the night sky through the eyepiece of a first-class telescope.

Among many other accomplishments, Cavagnero also served as the National Science Foundation’s Director of Theoretical Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics program. He was selected by the foundation after applying in 2016. Aside from leading the program, he also assisted with the Quantum Information Science program and later a new initiative known as the Quantum Leap, with the goal being to stimulate the next quantum revolution.

“This is high-risk, high-reward science. It is very exciting and yet riddled with challenges and problems that require serious thought and critical analysis. It was a privilege to participate,” Cavagnero said.

His efforts for the Quantum Leap earned him a Director’s Award.

“It was great fun and I left NSF with a heightened sense of respect for that agency and the remarkable people who run it,” Cavagnero said.

During a personal trip to Manhattan with his wife, the “Big Apple” yielded new possibilities for Cavagnero. Returning to Washington D.C. after a memorable evening seeing the sights, he spotted a search ad for a new Dean of Science and Technology at the College of Staten Island.

“[After researching] the Island, I visited the college and met the people leading it,” Cavagnero said. “While there were many factors leading to my decision, the primary factor was that people at the College really wanted me to take the job. They were convinced that I could help to move the institution forward.”

In line with moving the institution ahead, Cavagnero hopes to accomplish many goals, unsurprisingly with aiding and promoting student success at the forefront.

“Many CSI students are first generation college students, just as I was. To me, it seems a remarkable school with a very diverse population of students led by people determined to make an impact,” Cavagnero said. “If my efforts and experience in academic and scientific leadership positions can further the admirable goals and aspirations of this institution and its people, I will be doubly fortunate.”

“The real magic of a college or university happens when faculty members escort students to the frontiers of knowledge,” he said. “History shows that students can and do take it from there. Administrators can facilitate that experience, so that it happens with greater frequency. I hope to be able to help with that.”

Despite moving forward, Cavagnero will always hold Kentucky and his years spent here dear to him. He remains inspired by the students, faculty and “many, many friends” he has interacted with over the years. He’ll also miss the Wildcat sports games, too!

“I am most pleased by the contributions that our new faculty members are making to the department and to UK. I already miss working with them and talking to them. I find them inspiring,” Cavagnero said.

Ultimately, his gratitude to his colleagues and the people of Kentucky could not be overemphasized.

“I am grateful to the people of Kentucky for allowing me to teach their children for the last 30 years,” Cavagnero said. “They afforded me an opportunity for lifelong learning and their children challenged me in ways that I never expected, forcing me to grow and to learn. It has been the privilege of a lifetime.”



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