Physics & Astronomy Special Projects

Fall term is a good time to engage in research projects, and it’s not too early to start them sophomore year. We highly recommend that you do one, as do most students who have tried them. If you take one, you will learn something about actually doing Physics and Astronomy research, which will help guide you in decisions about “life after Carleton.”

Below you can see a list of projects offered by the faculty member. The descriptions here are very brief; talk to us to us to explore more fully those projects that interest you and to be sure that we have not already promised a particular project to someone else.

Please note that these are offered only on S/Cr/NC basis, since it is very difficult to assign grades to independent and cooperative projects. Special projects are for 2 to 3 credits, and you will need to complete a special project form that will get deposited with the registrar. Independent studies can be 1 to 6 credits, and again you need to fill out a form and return it by the drop/add deadline.

Marty Baylor

My research interests lie in the area of optical signal processing, photopolymers (light sensitive plastics), and optics education. To obtain general information about my work please see my research website. I have several ongoing research projects for students interested in optics, though because of COVID and my department chair duties, the number of project offerings is reduced until COVID restrictions are lifted. Please contact me if you are interested in any of the projects below. Even if I don’t have any project openings now, it will make me aware of your interest and I can let you know about openings as they become available. No prior coursework or research experience is required, only an eagerness to learn and delve into hands-on experimental work (and occasionally theory work).

Holographic photopolymers and optofluidic devices

This project has several sub-projects occurring in parallel. Many of the current projects involve measuring and controlling the properties of my holographic photopolymer. Additional projects involve building refractometers and exploring other devices that involve optics and fluids that we might be able to miniaturize using my polymer. The possibility for short-term and long-term projects exists.

Photopolymer Lenses

This project focuses on using interfacial surface tension to fabricate photopolymer lenses. This is for students ready to commit to a long-term, student-driven project.

Cindy Blaha

I have several projects to share with students who are interested in astronomical research and observation. Please email me at or come and talk to me in Olin 223 if you are interested in working on these projects.

Evolutionary History of Galaxies

Interested in finding out how stars and gas interact to affect the life of a galaxy? Massive stars and star formation play an integral role in shaping the evolutionary history of a galaxy. These stars have a huge impact on their galactic neighborhoods and can form in a wide variety of different environments, ranging from high-density nuclear regions to isolated ionized hydrogen regions in the disks of spiral galaxies.

Recently we’ve been working on M31 and M33, spiral neighbors to our own Milky Way, and we have compiled a complete sample of ionized hydrogen or HII regions in these galaxies. Optical observations of three large fields span the entirety of M33 and 10 large fields span M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy).  Each field has a set of B, V and R (blue, green and red) broadband images as well as three images taken through narrow interference filters centered on specific emission lines of ionized hydrogen, sulfur and oxygen.

Using all these images together, we are trying to piece together the galactic “life history” of M31 and M33.  Data analysis will involve use of the Image Reduction and Analysis Facility (IRAF), Interactive Data Language (IDL) and other image processing software.

Carleton’s CCD Project

I am also involved with developing educational materials for our set of eight CCD (Charge Coupled Device) cameras as well as the new spectrometer and video cameras. This equipment is used on our 8″ and 16″ telescopes and allows us to record digital observations of astronomical objects and analyze them with a wide variety of software packages for image processing. We will continue to experiment with our CCD cameras and spectrometer to develop observational labs and independent research projects ranging from lunar imaging and compositional analysis to determining the age of stellar clusters.

Barry Costanzi

My research focuses on understanding the magnetic characteristics of mesoscale (~100s of nm) magnetic structures, with an eye toward both the fundamental physics of the systems, and toward possible applications. Currently my work is focused on looking at phase transitions between the magnetic ground state of mesoscale square magnetic dots as a function of size, and also on activated random switching of the magnetization when the pinning energies become close to room temperature.

Straightforward electrical transport measurements are used to probe magnetic properties, but I’ve not yet constructed a measurement setup at Carleton yet. Students who work with me would be tasked with helping build the experimental setup from the ground up, and then would be able to take measurements on the completed setup with samples fabricated at the Minnesota Nanocenter. Initial results would likely lead to further iterations of sample fabrication, with opportunities for student design of new sample geometries based on previous experimental results.

Only a general familiarity with E&M is required. Some LabView experience preferred, but not necessary. Please with email me at or swing by my office to chat if you’re interested!

Melissa Eblen-Zayas

My research falls into two different categories — traditional condensed matter physics (or materials science) research and educational and curriculum development research.  (See the full descriptions below.) Although I am on sabbatical this fall and winter, I’d be happy to talk with students interested in career paths in education who would like to get involved with special projects related to the educational and curriculum development research that I am doing.

Exploring colossal magnetoresistive (CMR) materials

Correlated electron materials, where strong electron interactions give rise to unusual behavior, include high temperature superconductors and CMR materials. We are interested in the latter, which exhibit a huge resistance change in response to applied magnetic fields. The material we study (doped europium oxide) is not naturally occurring, so we fabricate samples in the ultra-high vacuum chamber in our lab. We are interested in exploring the relationship between how we fabricate the materials and the nature of the CMR response.  I am not currently taking special projects students for the research on CMR materials, but please contact me if you want to get involved in the future.

Teaching quantitative topics across the curriculum

I am leading an NSF-funded project across 10 institutions to explore approaches for developing and incorporating online resources into face-to-face or hybrid courses, with a focus on reviewing the relevance of quantitative skills across a variety of different disciplines. (This project was developed long before the pandemic made online teaching and learning so ubiquitous!) Students who work with me on this project will have the opportunity to evaluate existing online resources, help develop new resources, and test the relevance of these resources across a variety of disciplinary contexts. I have special project work for one or two students this fall or winter, and the work will be entirely online. Anyone, including first-year students, can email me to learn about getting involved; the only prerequisites are curiosity and enthusiasm.

Valerie Fox

I study clay minerals on Mars and Earth to better understand the history of water throughout the Solar System. Clay minerals are created when water and rock interact, and understanding their properties allows us to trace the chemical and physical conditions of the environments in which they form. I use a combination of remote sensing techniques to identify and map clay minerals on Mars, including satellite-based Near-Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy and in-situ measurements of the surface composition and geologic environment from the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, in order to better understand what sorts of aqueous environments were present on Mars in its ancient history. I also seek to better characterize different species of clay minerals using Earth-lab based measurements to understand their crystal structure, chemical composition, and optical properties, so that we can more accurately identify and interpret their presence in remote data sets.  

If you are interested in spectroscopy, planetary geology or remote sensing methods and might be interested in working with me in the Winter and/or Spring term, feel free to contact me at or x4023. 

Helen Minsky

(Helen is not taking any new students during Fall 2020. She will potentially have opportunities for research during Winter 2021.)

My research focuses on studying the interfaces of soft materials. It spans disciplines including fracture mechanics, material science, engineering, and adhesion. No prior coursework or research experience is required, only excitement about experimental work. An interest in designing, building, and coding lab equipment is also a plus.

Flaw Tolerance: Perfect materials are easy to understand but are difficult to find. Therefore, it is important to know how defects effect the properties of a material. This project focuses on understanding how the geometry, size, and position of a defect, as well as the elastic properties of a material, produce strong (or weak) adhesion.

Tunable Adhesives: There are a number of situations when having a switchable adhesive can be useful. If you want to pick up an object and then place it in a new location, you will need high adhesion for the pick-up phase and low adhesion for the placement phase. This project aims to use kirigami (cutting patterns), metamaterial inspired geometries, and auxetic materials to tune the adhesive properties of soft (and possibly composite) materials.

Arjendu Pattanayak

(Arjendu is on sabbatical during the 2020-2021 academic year)

My group is part of collaborative international teams on several projects. Formal ‘theoretical physics’ work on quantum nonlinear dynamics considers fundamental aspects as well as their control and engineering. For example, one project has demonstrated how to use the impact of quantum measurement to change how energy flows through a quantum electro-mechanical oscillator in dramatic and powerful ways. We also have a very mathematical project exploring Out-of-Time-Order-Correlators (OTOCs) and information scrambling in quantum entanglement dynamics. We are a node of SQuInT. 

More pragmatic projects model the control of devices that ‘harvest’ energy from ambient vibrations (aka ‘micro-energy harvesting’) in collaboration with experimentalists in Perugia, as well as the behavior of classical ratchets. Recent work on modeling energy system dynamics, ecological dynamics, and macroeconomic dynamics as generalized thermo-dynamical systems is entering a 2-5 year phase developing projects on data analytics and simulation of such systems, most likely in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

The work is both analytical and computational — coding, simulation, and analysis. Students can get started at different useful projects depending on their background. I ask for a long-term commitment (at least two school terms) particularly if planning to work over summers, etc. My students travel to conferences and to visit collaborators to present results. Most of collaboration is through remote communication tools, which is one of the pleasures of doing theoretical work. More information is on my Google Scholar page and I am happy to talk to you about this anytime.

Jay Tasson

A diverse set of opportunities exist for students to work with me on projects related to relativity testing (testing Lorentz symmetry). The big-picture goal of this line of research is to try to gain some information that would guide the merge of General Relativity and quantum mechanics into a single consistent theory, but most of the work involved is much more down-to-Earth.  The opportunities could involve a variety of activities ranging from data analysis to paper and pencil theory and span a variety of areas of physics (gravitational waves, relativistic quantum mechanics, laboratory-gravity tests, …).  Often, we work out how particular relativity violations would manifest in on-going experiments.

I am also a member of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which is continuing to detect and do various kinds of science with gravitational waves (roughly gravity’s version of light, electromagnetic waves).  Within the collaboration, I pursue theory and data analysis using gravitational waves as a system in which to test relativity.  I also collaborate with Nelson Christensen (emeritus faculty member at Carleton) on studies of LIGO data quality.

As one example of an ongoing project that happens to straddle the areas above, we recently compared the speed of light and the speed of gravitational waves, and found that they may differ by no more than about 0.00000000000001%.  In the near future we expect to repeat this test to improve and generalize the results, as well as interpret them in new ways as tests of relativity.

There are projects suited to a variety of backgrounds and skill levels. Even if you’ve just taken introductory physics, you may be qualified. For more information, see my web page and links therein, or talk to me!

Ryan Terrien

(Ryan is on sabbatical for the 2020-2021 academic year)

Broadly, my group works on finding nearby exoplanetary systems and characterizing potential exoplanet host stars. We are working on multiple parallel projects, including: 1) The analysis of stellar spectra and instrument stability performance from the Habitable Zone Planet Finder and NEID spectrographs to better dig out the tiny exoplanetary signals in the presence of significant noise, 2) The analysis of a large compilation of data on low-mass “red dwarf” stars to better understand the fundamental properties of these stars (masses, radii, compositions) in the context of their planetary companions, and 3) the development of laboratory techniques for ultra-high-resolution spectroscopy using optical heterodyning.

These projects are carried out in collaboration with a wide network of researchers and with a variety of astronomical tools (telescopes/instruments). If you are interested in any of these projects feel free to get in touch with me at Physics/astro experience and comfort with programming desired, but not required.

Chris West

My research focuses on the role isotopic production plays in stellar and galactic evolution. This involves using physical theories and observational data to build models and simulations. I have several possible projects available across the fields of physics, computer science, and machine learning. The preferred requisite knowledge for each project is provided, but the interested student may contact me regardless of them. For Fall 2020, I have room for one additional student in one of the projects below marked with “available.”

Dwarf Galaxy Evolution

The chemical evolution of dwarf galaxies is different than spirals for a number of reasons. We are currently investigating these differences using a model that describes the average chemical history of a galaxy by tuning astrophysical theory to available chemical data. The framework for this model is based on the chemical history of our own Galaxy parsed across the various astrophysical processes responsible for isotopic production.

The Weak s-Process in Massive Stars

The weak s-process is a neutron capture process that occurs in massive stars and is responsible for isotopic production beyond the iron-peak, up to mass numbers of about 100. We are computing the weak-s contributions to the solar abundances using observations and numerical modeling.

Core Carbon Content of Massive Stars (available)

After massive stars finish burning helium in their cores, they have a carbon-rich core which fuels subsequent burning phases. The amount of this carbon impacts the subsequent evolution and nucleosynthesis of the star. I have completed a grid of 2112 stellar models across a range of initial stellar masses and reaction rates. This has produced, in part, a large data set of the core carbon abundances after helium burning for each model. It should be possible use this data to predict the carbon abundance as a function of the stellar mass and reaction rates. This project would entail finding that function, and testing how well it works.

Preferred requisite knowledge: computer programming and/or curve-fitting techniques, stellar physics

Time investment: 1 quarter

Machine Learning Applications (available)

This project would suit the ambitious student who wishes to tackle an open-ended complex problem. It involves the optimization of a coupled 7-parameter model constrained to astrophysical data. The idea is to devise a neural network or other machine learning technique to find an improved method for simultaneously best-fitting each of these parameters. The inclusion of additional parameters is possible if the method shows promise.           

Preferred requisite knowledge: computer programming, statistics, machine learning

Time investment: 2-3 quarters

The r-Process (available)

The r-process is a neutron capture process responsible for significant isotopic production beyond the iron-peak. It is not known, however, where this process occurs and which environments dominate. Moreover, there is some evidence that the dominant production mechanism is galaxy-specific and not generalizable. This project would be to collect various progenitor models for r-process nucleosynthesis and evaluate which sources contribute to the Milky Way.

Preferred requisite knowledge: computer programming, stellar physics, statistics, machine learning

Time investment: 3+ quarters