Former Israeli soldier challenged by physics

Monday, January 27, 2020

Before Lihy Buchbinder ’21 arrived at UNH, she had a cultural experience that few students have: In December 2014, having  finished high school, Buchbinder returned to her homeland to serve in the Israeli Army.  

She had moved to the U.S. when her mother, Orly Buchbinder, (now a UNH assistant professor) was a research associate at the University of Maryland. Buchbinder was 16. She calls her education in Maryland “a regular high school experience.” Her stint in the army, however, was harder than she expected. Israeli women are required to serve two years; men serve three.

“It was rougher than I thought it would be, ” Buchbinder says. “But it gave me a chance to practice my English — I was doing on-the-job training in foreign affairs. I got to learn about different cultures and to understand geopolitics. I think it made me stronger.”

"It’s great that physics helps us get the world right, that there’s evidence. It helps us understand the way things are and answer fundamental questions.”

Buchbinder is a physics major. When she first started at UNH, she thought she wanted to go into chemical engineering. She had liked chemistry in high school and thought it would be “applicable in real life.”

“Once I took a few classes, though, I started thinking that in physics you have that applicability, that it’s broader,” Buchbinder says. “It took me a whole semester to make the change because I wasn’t sure I would be as employable.” Reassurance from professors and lab instructors convinced her that she would be.

When she was a freshman, she began working in the lab of Shawna Hollen, assistant professor of physics, and really got into the challenge. That first semester she shadowed a graduate student, but the following term, she had her own project. That's when she got the chance to test what she knew and found out what she didn’t know.

“Working in Dr. Hollen’s lab, I learned a lot, and that taught me I didn’t know enough,” Buchbinder says. “I was with grad students and saw what they were doing on a daily basis. They were great mentors to me. That got me really interested in research as a career."

After struggling a little in a physics class that was conducted in what’s called a studio format, where students work together on a lab activity, Buchbinder went on to became a learning assistant in the courses, guiding students through the activities. During the summer of 2019, she had the opportunity to conduct research in material science at Ohio State University. And recently, Buchbinder presented a paper at the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, held at Yale University. Next she will present at a conference in Colorado.

“I was pretty nervous presenting my paper, but it was really cool to see so many women there from all over the country,” Buchbinder says. “One of the things I like the most about physics is that you get to figure things out on your own. It’s great that physics helps us get the world right, that there’s evidence. It helps us understand the way things are and answer fundamental questions.”

In addition to conducting and presenting research, Buchbinder, who received a Presidential Scholarship, has managed to find time to serve as a STEMbassador, one of several College of Engineering and Physical Sciences students committed to serving as role models and providing hands-on STEM activities to students in the K-12 community. The Lee, New Hampshire, resident also is involved with the Jewish community on campus. And she’s teaching herself Russian and Spanish.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. presented a few challenges, she says, mostly because, “All my knowledge of America came from television.” But adjust she has. “I think I feel more capable to tackle hard problems now," Buchbinder says. "I think I have a general willingness to give solving problems an honest try."

Jeremy Gasowski | UNH Marketing | | 603-862-4465