Recently in Research is Cool

Grad School

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Well, my senior year is winding down and I graduate in about three weeks.  Unfortunately, that means that within the next three weeks I have a whole series of exams and presentations and projects to get done.  That means this is probably going to be my last entry in this blog.  Hopefully someone has found it useful.  So without further delay, here's my last topic:

This isn't exactly about research, but it's probably of central importance to many undergrads who are doing research.  I'm talking about graduate school.  Specifically how you go about choosing a graduate school.  There are plenty of resources out there about actually applying to grad school and how to do well on GRE's and that sort of thing, but I've found very little on how to choose where to apply and ultimately where to go.  So having just finished going through all that, I thought I'd talk a little about what I learned in the process.

When I began looking at grad schools, I had no idea where to start.  So I talked to my research adviser and asked him where there was interesting research going on.  Try to find someone knowledgeable about the kind of research you want to pursue and ask them where it's being done.  You can't just apply based on how "big name" a school is, because that doesn't necessarily mean they have any faculty who are doing the kind of work you want to do.

Once you have a good starting point, go on the department's websites and open up the research page and see who's doing what.  Most professors will have a page where they talk about their research interests.  They'll often list some of their recent publications, so maybe try to skim over at least the abstracts on some of those.  Once you've found a bunch of places where you think there's research you like, go ahead and apply.

Then after you hear back you get to make the decision.  Most schools it seems will invite you on a trip to visit them if you accept them.  On those trips, you'll get to meet the grad students and faculty in the department, and probably get shown around the area a bit.  These trips are important, because you're going to spend the next several years of your life in this department.  Exactly what you make your decision based on is up to you, but remember that the most important thing is to find a place where you'll have an adviser doing research that you like.  I personally tried to pick the place where there were the most options for advisers doing interesting research so I have back up plans in case my first choices don't have room for new members or something like that.  But whatever you choose, I hope you enjoy graduate school and have a great experience for the next several years.


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Every semester over the last four years I met with my academic adviser to work out what classes I would register for in the upcoming semester.  And every time he looked at my planned schedule he'd see Music 081 (Marching Blue Band) on my schedule and ask "are you sure you want to do that again?" A ten to twenty hour a week course on top of a full courseload is a lot, especially when you add research on top of it.  I thought I'd give some advice to the prospective undergraduate researcher on how best to handle issues of time management.  Again, I'm pretty much just explaining what I did since that seems like its worked pretty well, but it should provide a good baseline for you to work from.

Research takes up a lot of time, and time is something college students usually don't have a whole lot of.  Sure, you may not have Blue Band, but odds are you have some club or team or something that takes up a fair bit of your life.  One of the big things you have to take care of before you start research is making sure you have enough time to put into it.  When I first met my current research adviser, he said that you pretty much need to commit at least ten hours a week to really get into a project.  Ideally, you'd want more than that, but ten hours seems to be a good rule of thumb.

So you need to plan ahead before you commit to a research project.  Maybe try to build some gaps between classes when planning your schedule, then use those gaps as a time to go to your lab and work on research.  Space out your more time consuming classes if you can so you're not totally overworked one semester (Hint: at least for physicists, lab courses take up a lot of time.  Don't take more than one at a time if you don't have to).  Even if you don't have specific hours that you're required to work, it's a good idea to try to get on some sort of schedule where you have a certain amount of time set aside every day for research.  This helps you get into the habit of spending time on research.

But inevitably there will come a point where you just don't have time for everything.  When you've got a big project due or something, and you just can't afford to spend as much time on research as you should.  In that situation, feel free to warn your adviser that you might not get as much done that week as you usually would.  As long as you don't do this every week, they should be understanding.  Though research is important to anyone pursuing an academic career, getting the work done to pass all of your classes is more important.  If things get really bad, maybe you have to drop one of those extracurricular activities.  That's not a fun decision to make, but you have to do it sometimes.  Or you could just try not sleeping.  That's not really a long term solution though.

Finding time to do research as a undergrad is not an easy task, but it's definitely worthwhile.  Hopefully this helps make it a little easier.

Getting Started

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Sorry this entry is a few days late.  Thesis draft deadline was yesterday, so I was a little bit busy over the weekend.

When the College of Science people asked me to do this blog, they said that one of their goals was to help get more undergrads into research.  With that in mind, I thought I'd do a post about how to get started doing research.  Or at least how I did it.  I can't promise everyone else will have the same experience, but this should at least be a good jumping off point.

So I'm sure you've already been told to death that it's a good idea to join a research group as soon as possible.  But how do you actually do that?  Its simpler than you might think:  Just talk to a professor and ask if you can join their group.  I know when you're a freshman or sophomore talking to a professor can seem very intimidating, but trust me, they're nicer than they seem.  Send them an email.  Be polite, tell them you're interested in their research, and ask them if they have a project you could work on for them.  Attach a CV if you have one (Make a CV if you don't have one, then attach it).  The worst that'll happen is they'll say no, and then you just talk to someone else. 

But how do you pick who to talk to?  Well, to be honest, if you're just starting out as a freshman and you have no experience and very few classes, you want to have lots of options.  Since I live near Baltimore, I wanted to do some research at Johns Hopkins University the summer after my freshman year.  I contacted basically everyone at the university who I would be remotely interested in working for.  Dr. Cammarata emailed me back, and even though materials science isn't really my main interest, I ended up spending two summers working for him.

If you have a bit of experience under your belt, then you can start looking for something a little more long term.  You probably want to try to find something you're more interested in at this point.  Most departments have a page like this:


where you can go to find which professors are doing work that interests you.  You might also try asking your academic adviser for suggestions.  (Hint for Penn State physicists: Dr. Robinett is really good at this sort of thing).  Career Services is another good option.  Once you've found an interesting group, do the same thing as before.  Send the professor an email etc. etc.

Usually (at least the two times I've done it), if a professor thinks they have a project for you, they'll set up a meeting with you.  This can be pretty scary, but try not to let it freak you out too much.  Just go and be honest.  If you don't know something, don't feel bad.  You're an undergrad, you're not expected to be knowledgeable from the start.  It is important to be eager to learn.  If that goes well, you'll probably be handed a stack of paperwork and you'll get to start working.

Hope this helps a bit.  Go out and start sending some emails.


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The summer after my freshman year I was looking for a job.  I'd spent the previous summer working on a local farm, and I had no desire to be stuck picking squash for another three months.  I live near Baltimore, and I wanted to get involved in research, so I contacted a bunch of professors at Johns Hopkins University asking to work with them.  Dr. Cammarata in the materials science department emailed me back and I ended up working in his lab for two summers.

The work I did at Hopkins centered around making little metal disks less than a millimeter thick called thin films.  We made these films using a process called electrodeposition.  This involved taking a gold electrode and dunking it in a bath of metal solution, then running a current through it.  The current grabbed metal atoms out of the solution and stuck them to the electrode, eventually building up the thin film.  After a few hours, we took the electrode out of the solution and peeled the film off.

But little bits of nickel or copper aren't interesting on their own.  You can find them in the ground.  The cool stuff happened when we added ceramic nanoparticles to the solution.  Nanoparticles are exactly what they sound like, little tiny grains only a few nanometers across.  When you add them to the mix, they get dragged along by the metal atoms and end up trapped in the film.  The result is a film of pure metal with nanoparticles scattered throughout.

Here's a picture of the setup we used:

The blue stuff in the odd shaped jar is copper sulfate solution with nanoparticles floating in it, and the electrode is attached to the big blue thing sticking out the top.  You can see that a layer of nanoparticles has settled to the bottom.  The particles will sink if left alone, so the solution must be stirred continuously to keep that from happening.  We actually did this by spinning the electrode itself at a few thousand rpm.  That big blue thing is the motor that spins the electrode.

The metal-particle composite is a very strong but very brittle material, i.e. it takes a lot to break it, but if you do break it it breaks completely.  The pure metal on the other hand tends to give when a force is applied rather than cracking.  We wanted to have our cake and eat it too, so we worked out a way to get both of these properties in one film.  The fact that the particles sink when the stirring is turned off gave us a way to stop getting particles in our films just by turning off the motor.  By turning the motor on and off while depositing we could get alternating layers of composite and pure metal. 

We started out trying this with copper, but that didn't really work well.  However, the way in which it didn't work looks really cool so I'm adding a picture of it anyway.
copper spiral.jpg

That's supposed to just be smooth, uniform copper.  The grad student I worked with was fond of saying that electrodeposition is kind of a "black magic", so occasionally things like this weird spiral pattern would appear for some unknown reason.  We switched to nickel, which worked better.  Here's an electron microscope image of one of the successful layered nickel composites:

You can clearly see the difference between the regions where there are lots of particles and where there are none.  This kind of material has all kinds of possible applications.  Since it's simply plated onto an existing surface, it could be used as a coating to strengthen various objects.  For example, jet engines require strong parts that often need to retain their magnetic properties.  Something like this could be used, since it is considerably stronger than pure nickel, and it could conceivably be deposited in a thin layer onto existing engine components.

So now I've done a summary of the two research experiences I've had.  Hopefully you've enjoyed all the cool science.  Next time I'll start talking about some general observations I've had about what it's like to do undergraduate research.

On Gravity Waves

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This week I'm going to talk a bit about the research I've been doing here at Penn State for the last couple of years. I figure I'll spend this entry and the next one talking about the actual sciency stuff, then move on after that to give some general observations about what it's like to do research. Also, I figure this should be a pretty easy entry to write, as I was up until some depressing hour of the morning writing about this stuff in my thesis. Anyway, on to the science.

General Relativity says a lot of weird stuff about the way gravity works. It replaces Newton's good old force equation with the idea that space and time are curved. You may have heard it explained using the "rubber sheet" analogy, which says that massive objects distort space like a bowling ball dropped onto a rubber sheet, which causes smaller objects to roll down towards it. 

Well, it turns out that this is kind of a lousy analogy. What exactly is pulling the bowling ball "down" onto the rubber sheet anyway? But, lousy or not, it'll have to do since explaining what's really going on requires a lot of math that I don't want to get into (and, in fact, barely understand myself). The important thing is that matter bends space, and that makes gravity happen.

It also makes some other odd things happen. It turns out that whenever a mass accelerates, it leaves behind little tiny distortions which travel away as waves. Now, whenever you have a wave you need to have something doing the waving. For sound waves, that's the air, and for light waves, that's electric and magnetic fields. For gravity waves the thing that's waving is actually length. Weird concept I know. When a gravity wave passes through something, nothing actually moves, but the distances between things get longer or shorter. Don't feel bad if that thought gives you a headache. Here's a picture of what it would look like if a gravity wave passed through a circle of objects.  The wave in this case is coming out of your computer screen:
Gravity Wave.gif

So, if these waves happen every time a mass accelerates, why doesn't the world go all loopy every time you drop something? Well, the bouncing around in that picture up there is much, much, much, much bigger than any real gravity wave could produce. Even the strongest sources, things like a pair of colliding black holes, only make distortions on the scale of the diameter of a proton. That's really small and really, really hard to see, and since scientists like to try to see really hard to see things, there's a massive project underway to try to find these little distortions

The main way people are trying to find them is with a set giant interferometers. When I say "giant", I'm not kidding.

That's a LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational wave Observatory) interferometer. Those lines stretching off into the distance are 4 km long vacuum tubes. They bounce big lasers down those tubes, which lets them measure the lengths of those arms insanely accurately. When a gravity wave passes by, the arm lengths change a tiny little bit, creating a signal which scientists can measure.

Now we (finally) get to the point where I come in. The data from LIGO have crazy amounts of noise. Any minuscule vibration anywhere near the observatory will also set it off. That makes it quite hard to get anything useful out of LIGO data. I'm one of a bunch of people working on ways to try and pull a meaningful signal out of all that noise. It's a bit like trying to find a needle in a stack of needle-shaped hay, but I've been working on some nifty statistical tricks which seem to have some potential. 

If we can find gravity waves, we can look at things like black holes and neutron stars which are almost invisible to normal electromagnetic telescopes. We could even see leftovers from when the Big Bang set the universe ringing like the biggest bell you can imagine. So gravitational wave astronomy is a field that combines lasers, distortions in the fabric of reality itself, black holes, and the formation of the universe. That's cool.

Image credits:

A bit about me

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So, last Fall I talked to some people in the Eberly College of Science about doing a project to communicate my experiences doing undergraduate research. My first thought was, "That sounds like a neat idea," but my second thought was, "I've got grad school applications and the GRE in Physics coming up, and I've got marching band! Not going to happen." But now it's a new semester and the applications are in, the GRE is taken, and basketball band takes up a whole lot less time than football band. So, I decided to do this blog. I'll post something every other week on Friday evenings about some aspect of my research experiences, my education, or some other interesting topic that pops into my head.

I figured I'd spend this first entry talking a bit about myself and what I've done for research. My name is Patrick Breysse, and I'm a senior at Penn State doing a double major in Physics and Astronomy. I'm also getting a math minor, but that's less significant since the physics major basically comes with a free math minor. Most of my time outside of class, homework, and research is spent in the athletic bands. I've spent four years playing baritone in the Penn State Blue Band, and I've really enjoyed it -- so don't be surprised if I talk about it more. I also play in the Pride of the Lions (POTL) basketball band and the concert band. As I said above, I spent most of the last semester applying to a bunch of graduate schools, so I'll be spending next year starting on a Ph.D. with the eventual goal of becoming a physics professor.

As an undergrad, I've worked with two research groups. I live just outside of Baltimore, MD, so when I was looking for a job the summer after freshman year, I emailed a whole bunch of professors at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Robert Cammarata in the Materials Science department responded offering me the chance to work in his lab. I worked with him for two summers making nanocomposite thin films.

In my sophomore year, I decided that while the materials science work was plenty interesting, I really wanted to find something more "physicsy" to do. I met with Dr. Sam Finn, who studies gravity waves at Penn State, and he let me join his group. For Dr. Finn I've been working on a project creating data-analysis methods for gravity wave detectors. These detectors are notoriously very noisy, so actually getting useful information from them is no easy task. This work is very different from the work I did at Johns Hopkins. At Johns Hopkins, I was mixing solutions, running depositions, and wearing a lab coat. When I work on my project for Dr. Finn I type things. So I've worked on two totally different projects, but they were both fun and interesting in their own way. 

So there's my academic career in a nutshell. Future entries will go into more detail about my work at Johns Hopkins and Penn State. I'll give some more detail about both the actual science (which is cool), what it's like to do research as an undergrad (which could be helpful to any aspiring science students), and how you can get started (or at least how I did). There will also probably be a liberal sprinkling of Blue Band anecdotes (because I like Blue Band, and any of those aspiring science students who happen to play an instrument should try out for it next year). I don't promise great writing, but I'll be back again every two weeks until the end of the semester. Hope you enjoy my ramblings, and maybe get something useful out of them.


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