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Jacopo Gliozzi ’19 to receive Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy

  • Jefferson Prize:
    Jefferson Prize:  Jacopo Gliozzi ’19 is a double major in math and physics. And yes, he’s doing an honors thesis project in each department. He holds a Phi Beta Kappa key, dual U.S.-Italian citizenship and the William & Mary record on pommel horse. He was named the winner of the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Sciences.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Jacopo Gliozzi is an exemplar of the term “scholar-athlete.”

Actually, “scientist-athlete” would be more accurate. Gliozzi became interested in William & Mary because of its men’s gymnastic team. He ended up mastering not only the pommel horse, but also a rigorous math-physics double major with a perfect 4.0 GPA — capped by induction into Phi Beta Kappa.

On top of all that, Gliozzi pursued a research effort that is on track to see his name on as many as three peer-reviewed publications by the time he graduates.

Gliozzi ’19 is the 2019 recipient of William & Mary’s Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. The honor is endowed by the trustees of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation to recognize excellence in the sciences and mathematics in an undergraduate student.

The Jefferson Prize also commemorates Jefferson’s relationship with Professor William Small. The namesake of the William Small Physical Laboratory, Prof. Small was Jefferson’s science and mathematics tutor at William & Mary. 

The Jefferson Prize is one of the awards traditionally bestowed in connection with Charter Day, which commemorates the founding of the institution in 1693. This year, the February Charter Day festivities will include the inauguration of university President Katherine Rowe and the re-investiture of Chancellor Robert Gates. Therefore, the Jefferson Prize, along with the Thomas Jefferson Awards and the Plumeri Awards to faculty, will be presented at public ceremony at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 31 in Miller Hall's Brinkley Commons. 

Gliozzi drew high praise from an impressive number of hard-to-impress faculty from two William & Mary departments, capped by summation letters from Junping Shi, chair of the Department of Mathematics and Christopher Carone, chair of the Department of Physics. The nomination packet was topped by a letter of endorsement from William & Mary Provost Michael Halleran.

Beyond the William & Mary contingent, Gliozzi also drew plaudits from theoretical physicists at two other major research universities where he did summer work. Gliozzi says he was interested in science from an early age.

“When I was younger, I wanted to study lemurs and live in Madagascar,” Gliozzi said. “But in middle school or high school I read a book on physics. I always liked math and I started to see how math could describe the world around us. All of this chaotic and messy world could be described and crystalized into these neat and elegant math rules. That appealed to me.”

Gliozzi was introduced to his research mentor, Associate Professor of Physics Enrico Rossi, when he took a class, Experimental Atomic Physics, as freshman. One component of the class was a series of visits to labs.

“We would have ten-minute talks by physics researchers,” Gliozzi explained. “Professor Rossi was the only one who didn’t have an experimental lab — he does theory. He was talking about how in graphene, the particles in it behave very unusually. They behave like they don’t have mass.”

After the lab visit, Gliozzi approached Rossi and asked about working with his research group, which investigates theoretical condensed matter physics. Rossi took him on as Gliozzi’s first semester as a William & Mary freshman was ending.

“Considering that Jacopo was just a freshman, I was very impressed by how quickly in the fall and winter of 2015 Jacopo was able to master the basics of condensed matter physics and the underlying concepts of quantum mechanics,” Rossi wrote in a letter supporting Gliozzi’s nomination for the Jefferson Prize. “That first semester made immediately clear that Jacopo had a talent for theoretical physics and that he had the drive required to be a successful scientist.”

Gliozzi worked with Rossi’s group through the summer after his freshman year. For the two following summers, he participated in two summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) sessions, one at UCLA and another at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. These REU experiences are sponsored by the National Science Foundation to give young scientists exposure to research activities beyond their home institutions.

“Those were good, because they showed me a different department and a different set of research practices,” he explained. “I learned things that I brought back for my honors thesis, and hopefully, for my future development in science.”

Gliozzi impressed the scientists hosting the REU programs, as well. Rossi included some of their remarks in his nomination letter.

“Jacopo not only absorbed advanced concepts very quickly but also contributed to the project with relevant theoretical insights,” reported Héctor Ochoa de Eguileor of the theoretical condensed matter physics group at UCLA, adding that he “can emphatically assert that Jacopo is the most impressive student that I have found in almost 10 years of scientific career.”

Gliozzi made a similar impression at his REU experience at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, home to what Rossi described as “arguably the best condensed matter group in the U.S.”

“Jacopo is the strongest undergraduate REU student with which I have ever worked over the last seven years,” UIUC physicist Taylor Hughes wrote. “He was able to carry out theoretical condensed matter research at a graduate student level.”

Gliozzi’s nomination packet for the Jefferson Prize contains a wide variety of encomiums from William & Mary physicists and mathematicians. Professor of Mathematics Nahum Zobin commented on Gliozzi’s math-physics double major.

“The combination of serious mathematical knowledge and a deep understanding of physics which is behind many of the most advanced mathematics of today is very important in modern science and is in high demand at the best graduate schools where I believe Jacopo is going to go next,” Zobin wrote

Chi-Kwong Li, Ferguson Professor of Mathematics, recalled in his letter his reluctance to allow Gliozzi to enroll in his Advanced Abstract Algebra class without credits in a prerequisite course. He ended up granting the request.

“It turned out that my worry was unnecessary. Jacopo easily mastered the material, and earned an ‘A’ for the course,” Li wrote. “More importantly, it was clear to me that Jacopo would be able to connect and apply the knowledge acquired in the course to future study."

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Pierre Clare writes that he got his first glimpse of Gliozzi’s talent in his homework for Clare’s Complex Analysis course: “He would invariably reformulate problems with such conceptual insight that the difficulties would spontaneously disappear and let the results emerge naturally.”

Gliozzi is taking on two honors theses. One, in physics, focuses on phosphorene, a single layer of phosphorus crystal lattice.

“It has some unusual properties that are similar to graphene, which is its more famous cousin made out of carbon,” he said. “Graphene is a single layer of carbon crystal. Electrons moving through graphene act as if they’re massless. Phosphorene is like graphene in one direction, but in another direction, electrons act slightly different.”

Clare writes that he began meeting with Gliozzi regularly to discuss his math honors thesis, part of a larger international collaboration on Lie theory problems. The weekly discussions allowed Clare to get to know his student on a more personal level.

“I have to say that meeting with him is the highlight of my week,” Clare wrote. “Beside the scientific exchanges, this is also due to Jacopo’s wonderful personality. He is cultured, attentive to others (I know he has been successfully tutoring fellow students) and entirely devoid of the kind of arrogance and competitiveness that sometimes come to the most brilliant students.”

And in physics, Assistant Professor Jozef Dudek recalled Gliozzi asking him for permission to take a class on quantum field theory, a required course for second-year Ph.D. students in physics.

“This class is often looked upon by graduate students with some trepidation,” Dudek wrote. “It is the class in which students are finally ready to combine special relativity, quantum mechanics and electromagnetism — topics they have spent their undergraduate and first-year graduate careers mastering — into one single theory. Jacopo took this class when he was an undergraduate junior!”

It gets better. Dudek continues: “What is more his was, by some margin, the strongest performance in the class, and his homework solutions were a thing of beauty — not only correct, but presented with such clarity, complete with supporting explanatory text, that they surpassed the quality of the solutions I prepared for the students.”

Several of the nomination letters mention Gliozzi’s athletic accomplishments, which could make a lengthy article by themselves. He was named a 2018 Google Cloud CoSIDA Academic All-America At-Large First Team, and was named to the Second Team in 2017.

He says his favorite event is pommel horse. He holds the William & Mary school record and 2017 NCAA All-America honors on pommel horse in 2017. He is a two-time USA Gymnastics Collegiate All-American on pommel horse and has claimed the Eastern College Athletic Conference title in the event for two seasons.

He intends to enter a Ph.D. program to continue his study of condensed-matter physics and he has applied to several programs. But, he pointed out that 2020 is an Olympic year and, as he has dual Italian-U.S. citizenship, he might decide to take a year and train with Italian team.

Gliozzi said he found a number of parallels between his experiences in research and his mastery of gymnastics.

“Gymnastics is a very technical sport. To learn a new skill or a new routine, you have to break it down and look at it, piece by piece. You do this, not just by yourself, but with input from teammates and coaches,” he explained. “That mirrors the process of research, because research is very collaborative. You bring in different viewpoints and synthesize them together to attack a certain problem. ”