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 forwarded to the registrar. Independent studies can be 1 to 6 credits, and you will need to fill out an independent study form by the drop/add deadline.


Marty Baylor

My research interests lie in 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. 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 (and occasionally theory/computational) work. Students can start as early as their second term at Carleton.

Holographic photopolymers and optofluidic devices: I currently have two students that are trying to create refractive index gratings in the photopolymer to facilitate the fabrication of an integrated optofluidic spectrometer. There is a possibility of joining this project in Winter 2022.

Spatial Light Modulator: Carleton has acquired two spatial light modulators – a grid individually addressable liquid crystals that can change the phase of light, producing computer controllable holograms. Though these holograms are not typically used to make pretty pictures, they are useful for creating optical elements inside photopolymers or for encoding secret information. I am currently (Fall 2022) looking for 1-2 students who is interested in learning how to control optical systems with computers. Programming experience is helpful, but not required. This project could eventually interface with the optofluidic devices project.

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. There is a possibility of joining this project in Winter 2022.

Mach-Zehnder Interferometer: I have a grant to build a Mach Zehnder interferometer for an outreach project that teachers about precision optical measurements using Lego and interferometry. There is an opportunity to build optical systems (Fall 2021) and to do outreach with the system (Winter and Spring 2022).


Cindy Blaha

I have several projects to share with students who are interested in astronomical research and observation. Please email me at cblaha@carleton.edu 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 bcostanzi@carleton.edu 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 descriptions below. 

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 taking special projects students this fall for the research on CMR materials, but please contact me if you want to get involved in future terms.

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, develop new resources, and test the relevance of these resources across a variety of disciplinary contexts. Students interested in career paths in education are particularly encouraged to talk to me about getting involved.  



Helen Minsky

(Helen is not taking any new students during Fall 2021. She will potentially have opportunities for research during Winter 2022.)

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

I am working on a set of seemingly disconnected projects all connected by being about dynamics and entropy. One area is more quantum, with recent projects on fundamental aspects of quantum nonlinear control, and on information scrambling in quantum entanglement dynamics and we are a node of SQuInT.  Other projects are classical and model devices that ‘harvest’ energy from ambient vibrations (aka ‘micro-energy harvesting’) as well as ratchets. I am pushing towards more work modeling and predicting the behavior of sustainable energy energy systems such as grid networks and ecologies.
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. We often collaborate with other groups through remote communication tools. More information is on my Google Scholar page.


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

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 analysis methods 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 rterrien@carleton.edu. Physics/astro experience and comfort with programming desired, but not required.