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From an early age growing up in Chengdu, China, Dr. Linghong (Lily) Li was drawn to the field of physics. She took her first physics class in middle school, excelled in high school, and graduated a year early to attend college.

At just 17, she moved to Beijing to pursue a bachelor’s degree with highest honors in Physics at Beijing Normal University and then stayed on for three more years to get her Master of Education in physics. Li spent the next 10 years teaching physics at the high school level in Beijing before turning her sights on higher education in the U.S.

She applied to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth for a second master’s degree in Physics. “They gave me a scholarship, which was necessary for me. Nowadays a lot of students from China just pay their own way. But in my time, we had to apply for scholarships—basically be a research assistant, work in the lab and work as a teaching assistant to get financial support,” Li said.

Li went on to get a Ph.D. in Material Science at the University of Rhode Island. With extensive teaching and research experience under her belt, she landed her first job in the U.S. as a lecturer at the University of Dayton, Ohio. She then took a job at the University of Tennessee, before making her way to SUNY Potsdam in 2013.

“Once I got to Potsdam, I found that the students here are amazing! I get along with them and they love my teaching—especially my physics majors.” -Lily Li

Now in her sixth year of teaching at SUNY Potsdam, Li is leading an initiative to create a new Nanoscience major and minor program at SUNY Potsdam. Li has collaborated with Dr. Maria Hepel, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, on many nanoscience projects over the past few years. The two professors have given joint physics/chemistry seminars on nanoscience and technology research and now they are developing the core nanoscience courses for the proposed program. If approved, the new nanoscience major and minor will be offered through the Interdisciplinary Studies Department, of which Li is a founding member. Li hopes to improve enrollment and draw more international students to SUNY Potsdam with the new program—which will be the first of its kind in the North Country.

Last semester Li taught 3D Printing and Modeling, a class that she developed and started teaching in the fall of 2017. After learning how to use a 3D printer and the Autodesk Fusion 360 software, students are tasked with conceptualizing, researching and designing a project. “It’s not a technical school, just teaching them the skills. The students will know why, so they can be on a higher level later,” Li said. “My goal is not to just train the worker, I’m training a leader.”

This semester students in both her physics research and physics seminar classes have been building drones with 3D printers and coordinating research projects with the WISER Center Coordinator Ray Bowdish. “The students in her class visited the WISER Center in early February to find a range of possible projects that would benefit our operations in the greenhouse. One of the possible outcomes is to create small drones that could fly in the greenhouse and help us find pest and disease issues in the Tower Gardens and other tall plants,” Bowdish said.

Most of the students in the physics program are part of the 3-2 program—a unique collaboration between SUNY Potsdam and Clarkson University. Students spend three years at SUNY Potsdam studying physics and two years at Clarkson studying engineering—graduating with both a B.A. in Physics from SUNY Potsdam and a B.S. in Engineering from Clarkson University. If Li’s efforts to launch the Nanoscience program come to fruition, SUNY Potsdam will offer another dynamic program to recruit the young minds of tomorrow.

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Article and photos by Jason Hunter