Posted 3:03 p.m. Monday, Nov. 9, 2020

Shelly Lesher, associate professor of physics, will be on sabbatical for the 2019-2020 school year. Awarded the Yale Presidential Fellowship, she will be a visiting associate professor of Physics at Yale University where she will teach her unique course on the atomic bomb. Lesher has taught physics at UWL since 2009. Read more →

Unique UWL class on the atomic bomb to be taught at Yale University this fall

A unique UW-La Crosse physics class on the atomic bomb will soon be taught at one of the world’s top universities.

Shelly Lesher’s UWL class about the history of the atomic bomb and its implications on society snagged the attention of a Yale University faculty member who nominated her for a Yale Presidential Fellowship. Lesher earned the fellowship — one of about 10 awarded each year at Yale — and is teaching the class this fall at Yale during her sabbatical.

“The physics program at UW-La Crosse has several innovations that we think are important, and, in particular, Professor Lesher's course on nuclear weapons and their impact on society is timely, and I think would be of great interest to students at Yale,” says Reina Maruyama, associate professor of physics at Yale. “We are excited to start conversations with our community about the broader implications of science, including current events and human rights.”

Yale learned of Lesher’s course after she gave a public talk at Yale last year.

Lesher, a UWL associate professor of physics, developed the UWL course, Physics 142: Navigating Global Nuclear Issues, and has offered it at UWL since spring 2015. Even though Lesher is an expert in nuclear physics, her course doesn’t delve into the actual physics behind the bomb. Instead, she uses her science lens to explore the atomic bomb from a variety of vantage points including the history of its development and the decision to drop it. Her students see how the bomb impacted society globally, including the impact on the Japanese and both the U.S. and Russian perspectives during the Cold War.

“I think it is the only course like it in the country,” says Lesher.

Lesher initially became interested in nuclear physics as a sophomore at Indiana University South Bend where she was involved in a nuclear physics research lab at the nearby University of Notre Dame. Even during that early experience with nuclear physics, Lesher and other students were challenged to think about the implications of the field of nuclear physics and whether they would or would not eventually pursue a career involving the development nuclear weapons.

“You have to think about that early in your career in nuclear physics — everyone has to make that moral decision for themselves,” says Lesher.

That is one of the topics Lesher explores in her course, as well as an introduction to the many scientists — both personally and professionally — who were involved in the building of the bomb.

Lesher is making a lot of waves in the nuclear physics field beyond her Yale Fellowship. She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $396,747 to develop a detector array at the University of Notre Dame during the summer months with help from several UWL students. Lesher is also director of the Conference Experience for Undergraduate (CEU) program for the Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) where she was awarded another $29,540 NSF grant to fund student travel to a national research conference and the chair of the Committee on International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS). Both are positions in the American Physical Society (APS).

Lesher says her sabbatical at Yale will also be a learning experience as she connects with professors across campus who teach and study related topics. She plans to explore new areas of research on transfer reactions and bring all of her experiences back to share with UWL students.

UWL’s Physics Department has an ongoing history as a nationally-recognized leader in physics education and is consistently ranked among the top physics departments in the nation in terms of the highest number of graduating physics majors from a bachelor's degree-only institution. Learn more.

About the Yale Presidential Fellowship

Yale University Presidential Visiting Fellows are appointed as part of Yale’s Faculty Excellence and Diversity Initiative. These scholars and practitioners contribute to inclusive excellence and are appointed each year during the initiative.