Unlocking the Logic of Physics
Associate Professor of Physics Allena Opper
is an expert in nuclear physics. She
divides her time between teaching students
the importance of this fundamental science
and conducting research at prominent
In her first academic year at GW, Associate Professor
of Physics Allena Opper has proven a valuable
member of the faculty in many ways. As a dedicated
instructor, she encourages her students to
explore the practical as well as academic applications
of the discipline. She also is a prominent
researcher working in the Center for Nuclear
Studies at GW’s Virginia Campus and the
Thomas Jefferson Laboratory in Newport News,
“Her research achievements are notable,” says
William Parke, professor of physics and former
chair of the physics department. “Moreover,
we see her as a model for inspiration and clarity
in the classroom.”
The competition for accomplished female instructors
is “extremely high,” Parke says,
and the University is making a concentrated effort
to bring more women into the physics department.
GW attracted Opper, who previously spent 10 years
as a professor at Ohio University, through the
strength of its nuclear physics program and support
by the Frances E. Walker Fund.
While Opper spends the majority of her time in
the classroom during the fall and spring semesters,
80 percent of her workload during breaks and
the summer are devoted to her research on the
Standard Model Theory, specifically on an experiment
“The Standard Model describes three of
the four forces of nature in an elegant manner,” Opper
says, namely the electromagnetic interaction,
the weak interaction, and the strong interaction.
Understanding how these forces interact is part
of her research. She conducts the Qweak experiment
at the Thomas Jefferson Laboratory.
Opper chose physics for a variety of reasons. “Physics
has always fascinated me,” she says. “The
other sciences are based on physics principles,
so that’s what also attracted me.”
“When you do physics, you start with a
set of basic concepts and you use those concepts
to understand observations—you don’t
have to memorize a huge pile of information.
Instead you memorize the basics and the rest
follows. A lot of it is similar to doing logic
problems,” she says.
Hence, the study of physics helps students develop
problem-solving skills that will help them in
many areas of study, she adds.
Opper says she also likes the excitement of understanding
something new. “That’s probably true
for most scientists,” she says.
Opper was drawn to the classroom out of a desire
to help others understand the world around them.
She notes that the physics major has many practical
applications in the working world. “With
a degree in physics, you can go into almost any
field—scientific research, computer programming,
accounting, banking, or management. Many of my
former students have gone on to do data analysis
for insurance companies, write computer programs,
work in private labs; one is now an art museum
When asked what fields are most attractive
to recent graduates entering the workforce, Opper
turns from physics to philosophy: “Beauty
is in the eye of the beholder.”