Physics & Astronomy Special Projects

What are special projects? 

Special projects in physics allow students (from first-years through seniors) to earn Carleton course credit for working with a physics faculty member on their research projects. 

Why might I want to do a special project? 

Participating in special projects allows you to gain skills that are useful in the workforce or in graduate school, gives you a taste of what “doing physics” entails so that you can make informed decisions about what you want to do after Carleton, and gives you the opportunity to get to know and work closely with a faculty member, who can support you as you explore your interests in physics. You don’t need to have previous research experience to participate in a special project, nor are special projects limited to students who think they want research careers.  Having research experience on your CV can be very helpful when applying for jobs or to graduate school after Carleton.

How do I fit special projects in with my schedule? 

Students can earn 2 or 3 credits for special projects. Usually students take special projects in addition to their usual course load. Special projects are only offered on a S/Cr/NC basis. The amount of time you are expected to spend on special projects depends on how many credits of special projects you are registered for. Generally, if you take 2 credits, you are expected to spend 5-6 hours/week on special projects. If you take 3 credits, you are expected to spend 8-9 hours/week. However, there is a lot of flexibility about the schedule.

I think I might be interested. What should I do next? 

The first thing you should do is read the descriptions of the special projects below. Then email the faculty member whose research interests you. Once you have been in touch with the faculty member you are interested in working with, you will need to complete the special project form that will get forwarded to the registrar, completing your registration for special projects. 

Marty Baylor

Photo of 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: For this project, we are trying to create refractive index gratings in the photopolymer to facilitate the fabrication of an integrated optofluidic spectrometer. I do not anticipate starting any new students on this project this academic year.

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. This project could eventually interface with the optofluidic devices project. There is a possibility of starting one new student in the winter term.

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. I am looking for a first-year or second year student to potentially start as early as 5th-week of Fall 2022.

Cindy Blaha

Photo of 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

Photo of Barry Costanzi

Barry is on sabbatical for the 2022-2023 academic year

Melissa Eblen-Zayas

Photo of 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

Photo of Helen Minsky

Helen is on sabbatical for the 2022-2023 academic year.

Arjendu Pattanayak

Photo of Arjendu Pattanayak

Complete information about recent presentations is on my Google Scholar page.
I am working on several projects on fundamental questions about entropy, irreversibility and its applications. Projects in quantum systems look at quantum nonlinear control and information scrambling in quantum entanglement dynamics, and students typically present results at SQuInT, a group of which we are a node. Classical projects include using ordinal entropy and other novel metrics to predict dynamical system changes including in weather systems or grid networks, or the behavior of nonlinear oscillators that act as devices ‘harvesting’ energy from ambient vibrations (aka ‘micro-energy harvesting’) as well as biological ratchets, etc.  There are also background projects on the dynamics of densities and density matrices and the emergence of thermodynamics from dynamics.
My work is both analytical and computational — coding, simulation, and analysis. Students can get started at different useful projects depending on their background (I have had 1st years through seniors start with me). I usually ask for at least two school terms of collaboration, particularly if you want to work with me over summers. My students travel to conferences and to visit collaborators to present results. We often collaborate with other groups through remote communication tools. 

Evan Rich

Photo of Evan Rich

One of the key scientific questions I am interested in is discovering the process of how planets form. By observing and measuring an ongoing planet formation process, we can help answer this question such as: what is the composition and size of the dust in planet-forming disks? How does the inner dust and accretion onto the star affect the outer planet-forming disk? How does dust shielding affect the disk temperature and, thus, ongoing chemistry in the disk? My group studies ongoing planet formation around nearby star systems using direct imaging techniques and radiative transfer modeling to answer these questions. We use new and archival observations from ground based and space based observatories.
Work on this project includes running Fortran-based modeling code, plotting observational and modeling data using python notebooks, and interpreting the results. You will learn data analysis techniques, data presentation skills, and practice critical thinking skills. Previous programming, astronomy, or physics experience is preferred but not required. If you are interested in working with me, please email me at

Jay Tasson

Photo of 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

Photo of 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 Physics/astro experience and comfort with programming desired, but not required.