How to get involved with research? Just ask any faculty member!
The value of undergraduate research experience cannot be overstated. It really helps you better understand your physics classes to see those abstract concepts applied in a lab. It gives you an idea of what research is like, and therefore whether or not you’d like to pursue it further by going to grad school. It gives you practical knowledge and skills that look great on any future job or graduate school application. Here are some examples of undergraduate research projects in our department and what the students who worked on them had to say about their experience:
Academic Year 2013-2014
“It’s incredible to think how much I learned in the last year.” (Krishna Soni)
Krishna Soni worked with Charles Stark Draper Laboratory during the 2013-2014 academic year, experience which segued into a senior year thesis project with Professor Oliver: This past year I worked at Charles Stark Draper Laboratory as an Undergraduate Engineer in their Electro-Optics group, in which I helped test one of their new prototype accelerometers, the Zero-Force Accelerometer. My research, which I developed into a senior thesis project under the direction of Professor William Oliver and Tim McCarthy (a Senior Staff Member at Draper), primarily focused on the optimization of an in-situ calibration algorithm that allows for accurate measurements in dynamic environments. Over the summer, I found that the scheme in which the calibration factor is calculated was highly sensitive to changes in acceleration which is not ideal: for any given measurement in acceleration, there would be a different calibration factor resulting in highly inaccurate measurements. Using control system analysis, I helped develop a technique which eliminated this sensitivity. I, along with the Draper staff were able to successfully implement this new algorithm, and produced results that corroborated this new technique. It’s incredible to think how much I learned in the last year. While Draper is a professional research laboratory, the environment there was highly academic and one from which I was able to improve my technical skills. I had an opportunity to learn and develop skills in programming, control system analysis, differential equations, optics, and integrated circuit design that I otherwise would not have had the opportunity to explore in a regular university curriculum. The experience I gained has proven to be invaluable to me, both professionally and as an aspiring physicist.
“The undergraduate research experience has allowed me to apply interests in physics, computer science, and mathematics to new multidisciplinary problems.” (Matthew Wiens)
Matthew Wiens worked with Professor Cristian Staii during the summer of 2013 and 2013-2014 academic year: During the past year, I worked in Professor Staii’s lab as a Summer Scholar and continued with a Senior Honors Thesis [completed Spring 2014] where I modeled neuronal growth with stochastic processes. Neurons search for and form synapses with other neurons, and thus we would like to better understand underlying growth mechanisms. From time-lapse videos I traced the paths of the neurons over the frames, and from this data created a quantitative description of the paths of neuronal growth via an effective potential that includes the effect of chemical, electrical and mechanical guidance cues. Using the Fokker-Planck equation, a partial differential equation, I found time dependent probability distributions that describe neuron growth. The Fokker-Planck formalism can be extended to directional surfaces which introduce preferred directions to neuronal growth. During the past year I have improved my coding skills and extended my knowledge in statistics, analysis, partial differential equations, and statistical mechanics. The undergraduate research experience has allowed me to apply interests in physics, computer science, and mathematics to new multidisciplinary problems.
“It was a wonderful experience for me in many ways… The skills I acquired will be an important asset to have in the future.” (Daniel Norman)
Daniel Norman worked with Professor Anna Sajina during the summer of 2013: Over the summer I worked within the astophysics group under the guidance of Professor Sajina. I was tasked with analyzing data collected from the Spitzer Space Telescope. I spent a large part of the project teaching myself how to code in python. I wrote a python script to analyze the astronomical data. The Spitzer image identified almost one million galaxies in an area of the night sky known as the Lockman Hole. Through python codes I wrote, I identified approximately five hundred galaxies that were of interest. These were the reddest galaxies out of the larger group. Towards the end of my project I realized that my script might be useful to others doing similar data analysis. I added a simple text based user interface to my program which allows it to be used without any knowledge of the underlying code. I also calculated the redshifts for this smaller group of selected galaxies using an existing spectral energy distribution fitting code. I generated graphs of the galaxies which compared such factors as redshift, color, and flux. It was a wonderful experience for me in many ways. I have always been interested in astophysics and now have an understanding of how research is conducted within this field. The skills I acquired relating to coding and computer science will also be an important asset to have in the future.
“As a Computer Engineer, this research has allowed me to expand my education well beyond normal classwork.” (Ross Beighley)
Ross Beighley worked with Prof. Cristian Staii in the summer of 2012: During the Summer, I participated in an experiment involving directed surfaces that manipulated neural outgrowth. By working with Prof. Staii to develop a method for image analysis, we were able to characterize the influence of such surfaces on growth direction. The project, a joint effort between our lab and another at Penn State, broadened my knowledge while providing a chance to work with other researchers across the country. Other projects include studies of nerve cell growth rates performed with fluorescent imaging, Atomic Force Microscopy, and Scanning Kelvin Probe Microscopy. As a Computer Engineer, this research has allowed me to expand my education well beyond normal classwork.
Summer 2011 Internship Program for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students:
“…I have applied concepts that I’ve learned from classes across the sciences, whether it be physics, chemistry or biology...” (Daniel Rizzo)
Daniel Rizzo worked with Prof. Cristian Staii in the summer and fall of 2011: I have been working with Professor Cristian Staii since last spring in order to build a system for studying the energetics of protein conformational changes. To do this, a combination of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM) and Fluorescent Resonance Energy Transfer (FRET) is employed to monitor with high resolution conformational changes in proteins subject to precisely defined applied forces. In so doing, a free energy surface may be determined, revealing stable and meta-stable conformations for a given protein. While establishing the requirements of this system, I have applied concepts that I’ve learned from classes across the sciences, whether it be physics, chemistry or biology. It has also forced be to expand my understanding of these concepts to their real-world application in the lab. For example, one of my tasks was to define a reproducible procedure for fluorescent tagging of alkanethiols, which we will eventually use to establish a method for performing FRET measurements on fluorescently tagged proteins. Concurrent to this, I have been learning how image and perform force measurements with the AFM on samples in fluid, simulating the conditions in which these techniques will be used on protein samples.
“My research experiences have been considerably rewarding, thus confirming my desire to pursue a career in applied physics.” (Christopher Kehayias)
Christopher Kehayias worked with Professor Cristian Staii in the summer of 2011: I conducted research as a Tufts Summer Scholar during the summer of 2011 in Professor Cristian Staii’s research group. My research involved an in-depth study of the sensing properties of chemically reduced graphene oxide (rGO) based devices. Graphene oxide is a material that can be chemically tuned from an insulator to a semiconductor material. Due to its chemical structure and large surface to volume ratio, rGO sensors can detect gas adsorption at very low concentrations. Using scanning microscopy techniques such as Scanning Kelvin Probe Microscopy and Electrostatic Force Microscopy, I studied the charge distributions and potential mappings across rGO sites deposited between lithographically constructed gold nanocircuits, through which a constant electrical current was applied. These measurements were performed while the rGO nanosensors were exposed to various kinds of organic vapors, including methanol, ethanol, and acetone. My research experiences have been considerably rewarding, thus confirming my desire to pursue a career in applied physics.
“…Undergraduate research at Tufts is the underrated gem of our institution, and the opportunities this school gives to its undergrads makes me happy to study at and represent Tufts in the academic world.” (Noah Kurinsky)
Noah Kurinsky worked with Professor Anna Sajina in the summer of 2011: I was involved as a research assistant in data reduction and analysis for projects related to the Planck space telescope, a third generation microwave anistropy probe designed to study sources in the VHF and UHF bands of the radio spectrum never before studied by a space telescope. I also helped revitalize a radio telescope on the roof of the Sci-Tech [Science and Technology] building, helping to create a lab tool for future astronomy classes at Tufts. My experience was invaluable as it allowed me to hone my programming skills as well as learn more about the structure of the universe, its evolution, and the way it is studied. I learned the difference between thermal and non-thermal radiators, how to distinguish between galactic and extragalactic features, and a bit about galactic evolution and the nature of radio astronomy as an academic field. I learned, during the course of the research, how to write in python, IDL language, and how to compile a LaTeX document, all of which are skills I know I will need in the future for thesis work and hopefully graduate school. Undergraduate research at Tufts is the underrated gem of our institution, and the opportunities this school gives to its undergrads makes me happy to study at and represent Tufts in the academic world.
“…its been a pleasure to simply be at the forefront of research in the exciting field of astronomy…” (Rajarshi Chatterji)
Rajarshi Chatterji worked with Professor Anna Sajina in the summer of 2011 on trying to measure the degree of alignment between the jets of radio galaxies and surrounding actively star-forming infrared galaxies. Such study can show whether or not radio jets routinely trigger or inhibit star-formation in nearby galaxies: While it’s been a pleasure to simply be at the forefront of research in the exciting field of astronomy, the skills developed in the process cannot be overstated. I walk away from this experience having learnt and written elaborate computer programs in a language that I would never have had the chance to learn otherwise – IDL. Through the freedom provided by Professor Sajina in my work, I also learnt to shape a modern research paper on my own and conduct relevant research in support of it. I am sure that this experience will be an enormous help for me in my future endeavors.
“Working on this project has given me a totally new skill set, which I plan to use after graduation…” (Natalie Perry)
Natalie Perry worked with Prof. Danilo Marchesini in the summer of 2011: I have been working with Professor Danilo Marchesini for the past two summers studying the properties of active galactic nuclei (AGN) at redshifts out to z=4. These are X-ray selected galaxies, which host a supermassive black hole (SMBH) that is actively accreting gas and dust. Using near-infrared to optical wavelength data, I construct spectral energy distributions (SEDs) for these objects and then study how their SEDs evolve with redshift and X-ray luminosity in order to better understand how SMBHs and their host galaxies evolve together, and to constrain the properties of AGN. Working on this project has given me a totally new skill set, which I plan to use after graduation either in graduate studies in Astronomy or working at an observatory or planetarium.
“My research greatly builds on what I’ve learned in class, and I look forward to future classes…” (Ellen Garven)
Ellen Garven worked with Prof. Peggy Cebe in the spring of 2011: I’m working on analyzing the crystallization and the optical components, including the birefringence, of isotactic polypropylene (ipp). To do this, I’ve learned how to press a sample into a film and analyze a film that using various instruments, including a Polarizing Optical Microscope, an X-ray generator, a Differential Scanning Calorimeter, and a custom built ellipsometer. I hope to modify the ellipsometer to improve data collection and accuracy. My research greatly builds on what I’ve learned in class, and I look forward to future classes in which I know I’ll have an advantage because of what I’ve learned here, ahead of time. I like seeing the real world application of the concepts we learn in class and how those concepts contribute to the development of new products. I have so much more to learn, but this is where I want to be, and I look forward to continuing my work in this field.
“I really love that I get hands on experience working in a physics lab…” (Benji Hansen)
Samuel (Benji) Hansen worked with Prof. Peggy Cebe in the spring of 2011: I really love that I get hands on experience working in a physics lab and am fortunate enough to learn how to use many of the instruments there. It is also very satisfying to solve a problem you have been working on for a very long time. I have been learning to use the fit2d program to integrate wide angle and x-ray diffraction images into a usable 1D format. Furthermore, I also had to find out how to perform subtraction on the images in there was a background peak present, such as one due to kapton tape. In order to address this problem, I did an extensive amount of research online and familiarized myself with the fit2d program over a period of many days. In the course of my work I have also learned how to use several important instruments which include in addition to the fit2d program and the x-ray generator, the hydraulic hot-press, DSC machine, and mettler hot stage. I plan to continue in the physics field although I would also like to work in a particle physics and high energy physics lab eventually to get an idea of what concentration in physics I really enjoy.
“Its great to be surrounded by supportive people who are interested in the same aspects of science as I am…” (Amelia Downs)
Amelia Down worked with Prof. Peggy Cebe in the spring of 2011: I worked in the physics department dealing with electrospun nanofibers. My job was to determine how to measure the diameter of the fibers and the angle of alignment. The largest thing I learned is how to program with MATLAB. A user can use the GUI I created to upload images so he or she can easily measure the diameter and the angle of alignment of the fibers. The initial laboratory training expanded my knowledge from class, primarily on x-rays and polymers. However, I have never studies programming or elecrospinning before. I am interested in so many aspects of the laboratory; I have no idea which direction I will take when I return in the fall. I love the working environment. Its great to be surrounded by supportive people who are interested in the same aspects of science as I am. By working with older undergraduates, graduate students, PhD candidates, and professors, I can see the different path I can take as I continue to study physics.
“I was given an incredible opportunity to engage in hands-on learning and the responsibility to complete tasks on my own …” (Travis Lau)
Travis Lau (B.S. in Biology ’02) worked with Prof. Roger Tobin: During my research experience with Professor Tobin, I was given an incredible opportunity to engage in hands-on learning and the responsibility to complete tasks on my own … Working as a student researcher has been extremely helpful to me and was an invaluable experience. As a Biology major, working in the physics lab allowed me to have a more well-rounded understanding of science, and may have also helped with medical school applications and interviews.
“…being confident of technical skills doesn’t come from understanding theory alone. The application of physics…made equations meaningful and much more useful than just for answering question on a test.” (Daron Kurkgian)
Daron Kurkjian (B.S. in Engineering ’04) worked with Prof. Roger Tobin: The theme of my undergraduate research experience was the gaining of real experience. The experience I gained was predominantly in how to problem solve, research, collaborate, and balance work demands with other time demands…
As an engineering student, being confident of technical skills doesn’t come from understanding theory alone. The application of physics, such as torque tests on stepper motors I performed, made equations meaningful and much more useful than just for answering question on a test. The application of science and technology made a big difference in my confidence of my technical skills. Having a purpose above gaining lab experience for the sake of lab experience, such as in classroom labs, made lab work exciting because the work was on the cutting edge of science. Undergraduate research gave me a deeper appreciation for the work professors are engaged in and also was very helpful job experience for future internship and job application.
“…you will become a better experimentalist, and you will learn that experimentation is not second to theory, but rather, that it is a means to learning in and of itself.” (Krish Kotru)
Krish Kotru (B.A. 2008 summa cum laude, high thesis honors Physics worked with Roger Tobin: My experience in Prof. Tobin’s lab spanned most of my undergraduate career at Tufts. I began as a freshman by designing an alignment system using a laser. The project sounded simple enough, and I imagined I’d finish it within a few weeks — a prediction that would have been correct had everything gone exactly according to plan. Of course, plans had to be re-planned from time and time, and two months later I felt a great deal wiser, not only about physics, but also about being an experimentalist…
Rest assured that your assignment will be well thought-out and within the grasp of an undergraduate who has had some exposure to college-level physics. You will be given a fair amount of independence and will have to think creatively to find solutions to everyday experimental challenges. And yet, help is almost always around the corner – in the form of either Prof. Tobin himself or one of his students – in case you get really stuck… In Prof. Tobin’s lab you will become a better experimentalist, and you will learn that experimentation is not second to theory, but rather, that it is a means to learning in and of itself.