Brian Gerke ’99 awarded the LeRoy Apker prize in physics

Brian Gerke ’99 won the LeRoy Apker Award, the American Physical Society’s highest award for undergraduates. The prize recognizes outstanding original research in physics by undergraduate students. This is the first Apker win for Williams.

Gerke will receive $5,000. In addition, the APS will provide $5,000 to the Williams physics department to support continued excellence in undergraduate research.

Gerke’s senior thesis, which qualified him for the Apker Award, investigated the effect of light on retinal, a molecule in the human eye. When retinal absorbs a photon, it undergoes photoisomerization, or a change in shape caused by light. Gerke studied similar reactions in two smaller molecules, ethylene and hexatriene. He developed a simple physical model explaining how these light-induced reactions occur so predictably and quickly, in less than a trillionth of a second. This theory may eventually help scientists design optical computer memories, sensors and other devices.

His work was supervised by his thesis advisor, Daniel Aalberts, assistant professor of Physics, who said of Gerke, “Brian’s special knack—to ask the right question and to put specific results in a broader context—injected insight into a difficult problem. In addition to a beautifully written thesis, he contributed to an article that has been submitted for publication and another in preparation.

“This award highlights one of the joys of teaching at Williams: its commitment to doing top-notch research with undergraduates.”

At Williams, Gerke majored in physics and English. He sang with the Elizabethans, an a cappella group; worked as a disc jockey for the college radio station; performed with Cap and Bells and served as president of the Society of Physics Students.

Gerke, who also received a Herschel-Smith Fellowship from Williams to fund two years of post-baccalaureate study, is studying mathematics at Emmanual College, Cambridge University.