Ruth Kastner ’82, M.S. ’92, Ph.D. ’99
By Allison Eatough ’97
Some days, diving into a quantum mechanics theory is like traversing a dark cave with only one flashlight, says Ruth Kastner.
But some days, you find extra flashlights and discover something extraordinary.
“When I’m able to get enough light on it, it always surprises me,” said Kastner, a philosopher, educator and physics expert. “It always comes up with a new way of approaching something that seemed like a paradox or problem, and then it isn’t really. It’s like exploring for me, and it’s fun.”
Kastner, a winner of this year’s Research Award, is a pioneer in the world of quantum mechanics — the branch of physics that deals with behavior of matter and light on the atomic and subatomic (think really small) scales.
As a child, Kastner was drawn to science. Her father was a solar physicist and her mother was a math educator. But she also loved music and playing the violin. So when it came time for college, she enrolled in the music education program at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.
“When I was at Peabody, I started being more interested in the sciences,” she said. “I’m not exactly sure what prompted it, but I was reading about the puzzles of modern physics and quantum theory. I found it really intriguing in a conceptual way.”
After graduating from Peabody, Kastner embraced her scientific interests and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics at UMD. Still, her next step was unclear.
“During my master’s program, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough with the concepts and those original puzzles that intrigued me,” she said.
That’s when Kastner learned about UMD’s Committee for Philosophy and the Sciences. The Ph.D. program was designed for students interested in pursuing philosophically informed foundational research in an area of science – it was just what Kastner was looking for.
Since finishing her doctorate in history and philosophy of science, she’s published groundbreaking research in quantum mechanics, including “The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: The Reality of Possibility.” The book’s second edition is due out in 2021.
“Quantum mechanics is the place where physics meets philosophy,” said Steve Rolston, UMD professor and chair of the Department of Physics. “Ruth is a leader of one of the schools of thought interpreting the counterintuitive outcomes of quantum mechanics, asking and answering questions about the nature of reality itself.”
Kastner is also a research associate at UMD and has taught math, science and philosophy classes to college students across the United States. 
“The best classes are those with students who really get invested in the challenges or the ideas,” she said. “I learn a lot from my students. What I really like is when a student is honest and says, ‘This theory, I just don’t get it. I’m really frustrated.’ It forces me to understand it better.”
Her latest project is The Quantum Institute, a New York-based nonprofit research institute to further study the transactional interpretation and its implications for the structure of spacetime. 
“There are some scholars in the Manchester area of the (United Kingdom) doing interesting work,” Kastner said. “We see a way that our ideas might merge fruitfully. That kind of collaborative effort and applying for grants is a lot easier when you have an organizational structure to support you.”

University of Maryland graduates are among the best and brightest in their fields. From scholars and innovators to entrepreneurs, teachers and researchers, our alumni are leaving their mark in our state, nation and the world. The Alumni Excellence Awards provide an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of select Terps, and honor these recipients with distinction. Careful consideration was made in selecting our 2021 recipients across four categories: Rising Terp Award, Research Award, EnTERPrenuer Award and Legacy Award.

The Research Award honors an alumnus/a whose research has made a significant impact on the university, the state and/or the nation. Up to three Research Awards will be granted annually, celebrating a Terp/s whose research is transformational.