Physical Sciences

The Physical Sciences encompasses the branches of natural science and science that study non-living systems, in contrast to the biomedical or life sciences. However, the term "physical" creates an unintended, somewhat arbitrary distinction, since many branches of physical science also study biological phenomena.  In general, most projects listed as physical sciences, will consist of projects being done in the departments of Physics, Chemistry, Astronomy and Earth & Environmental Sciences. However, projects from the department of Math and projects from the College of Engineering may also be included.

Sample Project 1: Black Holes and Neutron Stars

NASA's Swift satellite observes black holes and neutron stars in X-rays.  The goal of this project is to learn more about how matter falls onto and into these objects through observations made with Swift. Student Tasks and Responsibilities:  The student will learn about the fundamentals of X-ray astronomy, about black holes and neutron stars, and how to reduce and analyze real data.

Sample Project 2: Spin Physics Center

Project Objective:
The Center has been a world focal point for Spin Physics and especially for the below listed experiments and R&D: 

  1. Experiments on spin manipulation of stored protons and deuterons at 3 GeV COSY Cooler Syncrotron at the Forshungszentrum in Jülich Germany.
  2. SPIN@J-PARC Experiment on “Violent Collisions of Spinning Protons” at the new 50 GeV J-PARC proton accelerator in Tokai 100 km north of Tokyo using the Michigan solid Polarized Proton Target. 
  3. Developing a 50 GeV polarized proton beam at J-PARC.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities: 
The student would be involved in the design, and possibly fabrication and use of experimental equipment for various High Energy Spin Physics experiments.  This work would involve: Electronics, Computing, Vacuum Technology, Cryogenic Technology, Beam Physics, Data Collection and Data Analysis.

Sample Project 3: Search for Nearby Supernovae and Other Transients

The project involves the analysis of nightly sky images to discover supernovae in nearby galaxies. The images are obtained by a network of robotic telescopes that span the world. Real events must be extracted from a large background of false positives by visual scanning. Student Tasks and Responsibilities: Assist our research group by performing visual checks of candidate supernovae events using graphic computer tools. The student will become familiar with the standard techniques of modern optical astronomy.

Sample Project 4: Ultra Intense Laser Analysis

Project Objective:
We will trace the layout of the 'Relativistic Lambda-Cubed' laser to model its operation and possible modes of focusing light to it wavelength limit and extreme intensities. 

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:
The student will learn optical ray tracing software and generate a model of the working laser system so that the behavior of pulses in the laser system may be understood.  Attendance at weekly group meeting is required.

Sample Project 5: Study of Thin Films using Positronium Annihilation lifetime S

Project Objective:
This project will use a Positronium Annihilation Lifetime Spectroscopy (PALS) technique to study a range of polymer nanocomposite samples supplied by collaborators at Columbia University.  The PALS technique uses a small (~10-50 micro-Ci) radioactive beta+ source to implant positrons (anti-electrons) into a target sample. The goals of this project are to gain an understanding of the PALS technique and its use to study a wide variety of materials that are of interest to industry or science.  

Student Tasks and Responsibilities: 
A typical student investigation can involve varying the fractional composition of the sample and studying temperature-induced and time-dependent (relaxation) variations in the measured lifetime; all as a measure of how pore volume changes in the sample under such conditions.  Fast timing techniques in nuclear science will be used. A controlled heating stage in the existing PALS system is operated by the student to study the glass transition of the polymer.  The student will perform a study of a series of polymer films that have been systematically altered.  Data fitting routines are used to analyze the data and the student will report results to the group as a whole.

Sample Project 6: Developing a novel nanoparticle detection technology

Project Objective:
Nanotechnology has attracted exponentially increasing interest from scientists working in many different fields including biology, medicine, material science, physics and chemistry.  Using nanotechnology, scientists can fabricate materials and construct devices at nanometer scales, one billionth of a meter. New properties of nanometer materials have been discovered and many nanodevices with novel features have been invented. The primary goal of this project is to develop an optical method for sensitive detection of nanoparticles.  Computer simulation and optical experiments will be carried out to prove a novel working mechanism for selective detection of nanoparticles.

Student Tasks and Responsibilities: 
The student will develop a computer program to simulate a sensitive system to selectively detect nanoparticles mixed with other big particles.  Throughout this project, the student will have the opportunity to enhance his/her computer programming and signal processing skills and learn some basic knowledge of nanotechnology and optics.

Sample Project 7: Laboratory Astrophysics

Project Objective:
Our research group performs experiments to study, in the laboratory, physical mechanisms that matter for astrophysical phenomena including supernova explosions, supernova remnant evolution, and the collisions of shock waves with molecular clouds. We do these experiments at large laser facilities where we can create temperatures of millions of degrees and velocities of several hundred thousand miles per hour.   

Student Tasks and Responsibilities:  
The primary task at first is to learn what you need to learn for your project. Whether this involves using computers to work with data, using x-rays in vacuum for measurements, or using high-precision tools to build targets, this takes time. Most students become productive only toward the end of the first semester. As a result, we only take on full-year students. It is typically in the second term that you would use your new skills and knowledge to actively complete your project.

Sample Project 8: Controlling Reversible Carbon-Carbon Bond Formation

Project Objective:
Metathesis (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2005) is a very efficient way to form new carbon-carbon bonds, with important applications in the synthesis of fuels, raw materials, advanced materials, fine chemicals, and pharmaceuticals. Even so, metathesis reactions are limited. We are making new catalysts to overcome important limitations. The new catalysts are predisposed to react in certain ways to achieve new reactions or prevent undesirable reactions. This is achieved through the use of new “ligands”(organic compounds that can be attached to a metal center). The student will synthesize totally new ligands that make all this possible. 

Student Tasks and Responsibilities: 
Learn modern techniques for synthesis and characterization of organic compounds. Synthesize new organic compounds for use as ligands in organometallic complexes; structurally characterize them. Optional: synthesize and characterize organometallic complexes of the newly-synthesized ligands (this is more challenging, and requires that the student learn techniques for making and handling air-sensitive compounds); test them for the desired catalytic activity/new reactions.