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 find obtain general information about my projects 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. No prior coursework or research experience is required, only an eagerness to learn and delve into hands-on experimental work (and occasionally theory work). I will potentially have research opportunities starting in the winter term.

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 project.

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 Old Music 102 if you are interested in working on these projects.

  1. 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.
  2. 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

I have two different types of special projects — one falls into the category of traditional condensed matter physics (or materials science) research and the other is more appropriate for those who are interested in exploring opportunities in education and outreach. Anyone, including first-year students, is welcome to talk with me about getting involved. No previous experience is needed; the only pre-requisites are curiosity and enthusiasm. 

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. This project will involve lots of hands-on work in the laboratory.

Teaching quantitative topics across the curriculum: I currently have a grant from the National Science Foundation to explore approaches for incorporating online resources into face-to-face courses, particularly with regards to teaching quantitative skills across a variety of different disciplines. 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. 

Helen Minsky

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. I’m currently looking for students to work on the following projects.

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

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

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 rterrien@carleton.edu. 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 phenomenological models and simulations, and then test them. 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.

Dwarf Galaxy Evolution

The chemical evolution of dwarf galaxies is different than spirals for a number of reasons. I would like to be able to investigate these differences using a model that describes the average chemical history of a galaxy by tuning astrophysical theory to available chemical data. I have the framework of this model for our own Galaxy, which permits the adaption to dwarf galaxies once sufficient data is mined. This project would proceed by gathering the needed data from the community, and then inputting the data into the model to tune the free parameters.

Preferred requisite knowledge: computer programming, data analysis, galactic astronomy

Time investment: 1-3 quarters

Core Carbon Content of Massive Stars

After massive stars finish burning helium in their cores, they have a core rich in carbon which is the available fuel for subsequent burning phases. The amount of this carbon impacts the subsequent evolution of the star and the remnant left behind after the star dies. 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 to predict the carbon abundance as a function of the stellar mass and reaction rates. This project would entail finding this function, and testing how well it works.

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

Time investment: 1 quarter

Translation of An Iterative Statistical Model into Python

This project is for the CS student or computational astrophysics student who wishes to participate in a real-world coding task for the benefit of the astrophysical community. I have a code written in IDL (Interactive Data Language) that finds free-parameter values for the isotopic history of the Galaxy. This code should be updated into the Python language for future sustainability and use. The interested student would translate this code and test it against known results for accuracy. There is opportunity here for algorithm improvements and automation.

Preferred requisite knowledge: Python, IDL, statistics

Time investment: 1 quarter

Machine Learning Applications

This project would suit the ambitious student who wishes to tackle an open-ended complex problem. It involves the optimization of a 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 quarter