Physics students and faculty are well-represented in the College of Science 2020 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Awards. These awards provide 11-week employment in the summer for students, though this year, because of closures during the covid-19 pandemic, the research may have to be stretched out over the academic year.

This year’s physics student awardees are:
Hunter Nelson advised by Tuan Pham (Mathematics)
Rohal Kakepoto advised by Janet Tate
Alan Schultz advised by Hoe Woon Kim (Mathematics)
Alexander van Balderen advised by Liz Gire
Jessica Waymire advised by Matt Graham
Ryan Wong advised by Bo Sun

Students from other departments working with Physics faculty are:
Emily Gemmill, (Biochemistry & Biophysics), advised by Weihong Qiu
Ruben Lopez (BioHealth Sciences) advised by Bo Sun

Congratulations all!

Physics professor Weihong Qiu with Haelyn Epp, a BioHealth Sciences SURE awardee in 2019, in Prof Qiu’s biophysics laboratory at OSU (image from the CoS SURE website).

When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, the Physics Department, like the rest of Oregon State University, scrambled to get its course offerings ready for remote learning in a few days.  Professor David Roundy and his teaching team scrambled as hard as anyone – and incorporated some beginning epidemic modeling into the computational physics class so that the students would begin to acquire the skills that will serve them well as members of the technological community of which they are now junior members.

About the class:

PH366 – Computational Physics – is a course in which students learn how to solve mathematical equations in real-world, complex situations where analytical, “pencil-and-paper” solutions are far too difficult.  For example, it’s easy for a student in Introductory Physics to solve a simple differential equation to find a solution in the form of an equation that describes how a ball falls towards the earth under the influence of gravity, a constant force near the earth’s surface.  But add extra forces that describe real conditions like air resistance, wind and the earth’s rotation, and a simple equation to describe position as a function of time is impossible.  The computer solves the problem numerically, chopping it up into very small time slices and finding a position and velocity for each of the times based on what is was at the previous time. In the PH36x Computational Physics series, students learn techniques to find numerical solutions to many differential equations and they can explore very complex, real-world situations. Roundy has chosen the Python programming language for this class, but the lessons are applicable to any language. In real physics research, few problems are already worked out in a textbook and numerical methods to solve them improve all the time, so the best information is often distributed all over the internet. Physics students must learn to navigate the body of existing literature and identify what information they need to solve a problem.

Another view of the solution shows the difference between displaying results on a linear plot and a logarithmic plot. The logarithmic plot (below) highlights the infection and recovery numbers, which are a small fraction of the overall population and we’d be tempted to ignore the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of sick people if we saw only the linear plot (above).

An example that David Roundy chose for the Spring 2020 Computational Physics course was about the spread of an epidemic, like covid-19.  It was all everyone was talking about, and he wanted the students to learn how their new computational skills are at the heart of epidemiological modeling that gives us the information to understand and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.  This isn’t an accurate model, Roundy stresses, but it has valuable elements – start with a simple model, probably unrealistic, test it, make sure it works as expected.  Add some complexity, test that, and then proceed. In his easy-to-read description at the PH366 course website, Roundy shows students how to model exponential growth – the increase in number of covid-19 cases is proportional to the number of cases: dI/dt = RI. Then you have to add in the real-world fact that the population is finite (with a doubling time of 1 day, the world human population would be infected in a little over a month). Some people recover and have immunity (we hope), so that must be factored into a more realistic model.  More complexity comes in when you consider how long infected people are contagious, and whether there is a period of immunity following recovery.

Actually, the problem is not too hard to set up – it’s the solution that becomes tedious.  That’s the beauty of computers is that they don’t care about tedium.  They swiftly toil through tedious calculations without becoming bored or tired and their error rate is effectively zero!  The humans have to set up the problem correctly, though, otherwise the results are meaningless.  And this is the skill that Roundy teaches his students. The screenshots below show an example of the students’ work in PH366, with the by-now-familiar plot of an exponential rise in infections at the start, with a peak and fall.  We see the basic recovery and death trends, too.

Screenshot of a student’s model of infections, recoveries and deaths due to an infectious disease

Another view of the solution shows the difference between displaying results on a linear plot and a logarithmic plot. The logarithmic plot (below) highlights the infection and recovery numbers, which are a small fraction of the overall population and we’d be tempted to ignore the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of sick people if we saw only the linear plot (above).

Linear and log plots emphasize different details

Julian Wulf, one of the Physics majors currently in PH 366 commented, “My favorite part of the class is how it allowed me to model physical situations that were too complex to picture, or model by hand. I have found it quite rewarding to finish coding something and have it modeled in front of me, a model that is often easy to adjust to new circumstances.” It’s easy to see how Julian would relish the challenge of modeling a much more complicated solution that factored in even more complexity such as social contact and real transmission rates. 

Teaching in the age of coronavirus:

To deliver PH366, David Roundy goes into Weniger Hall by himself every Tuesday and Thursday and turns on some 20 computers with separate Zoom sessions running (see the panorama view below).  The 40 students and the 4 TAs (teaching assistants) log in from their remote locations. The students implement Roundy’s “pair programming” strategy where they decide how to solve the problem and code in pairs, each providing the crucial check on the other to ensure that the steps make sense.  They constantly question their results, and look up techniques to improve their code and to interpret the results. It’s a real-world programmer situation!  Roundy and the teaching assistants hop between the Zoom breakout rooms to discuss with each pair of students how to troubleshoot and debug their code.  It wasn’t easy for the instructors to change their mode of operation from in-person to remote learning. TA Elena Wennstrom comments, “At the beginning, our TA meetings were devoted to brainstorming possible class formats, testing the limits of our Zoom powers, and discussing issues and possible improvements to the class we had the day before. Now we are more able to focus on the content, and trying out the assignments ourselves (like usual). I’m really proud of the system we’ve developed. Classes go surprisingly smoothly, and the time flies.”  Wennstrom adds that she gets more and better questions from the students in the remote mode.  Roundy remarks that he will offer this new mode of teaching to students with seasonal influenza in “normal” times to help curb the spread of that particular virus.

A panoramic view of the computers in the PH366 classroom in Weniger Hall

The students’ response:

The students agree. Julian Wulf says, “I think the transition to remote learning has mostly gone smoothly. There has been a rapid increase in how well things are being communicated remotely, as well as an increasing ability of the teaching assistants and professor to respond to difficulties we encounter while programming. I find myself looking forward to the continued improvement as each class has run more smoothly than the last, with the teaching assistants and Professor Roundy being increasingly able to react to difficulties people encounter by jumping in and out of Zoom breakout rooms to help.”

As “newbie programmer”, Wulf feels that the pair programming method helped him get over an initial fear of programming, and that he has learned to appreciate how quickly he learns to solve new problems. He found the disease and epidemic modeling project interesting, intellectually stimulating and fun.

Wulf says that the coding skills he is developing will be useful in the future, and that they have already entirely changed his perspective.  He now routinely plots equations in Mathematica to visualize a physical situation, and his new skills make the task “pain-free” and fun rather than being as a dreaded chore.

Former Physics major John Waczak, now a graduate student in Physics at the University of Texas at Dallas, offers similar observations about the Computational Physics series. He says that Computational Physics is an incredibly powerful tool for building physics understanding and to tackle problems that are otherwise unsolvable. It also enables him to create detailed visualizations of just about anything, and those visualizations don’t have to be static! Computers makes it possible to manipulate 2-, 3-, and even 4-dimensional data and create animations. “I have been using this skill a lot lately to visualize results in my [graduate] classes,” he says. Waczak further appreciates that PH36x made him an autodidact. “Dr. Roundy encouraged us to become familiar with the documentation and common programming forums like Stack Exchange. Instead of giving us working code to start with, we had to learn how to diagnose bugs and navigate the wide variety of (often incorrect) answers that exist online.” This meant that he became better programmer (and physicist). “I certainly do not know all of the tools and features that exist in the python programming language. What I do understand is how to evaluate the credibility of a resource and how to extract what’s important from the large body of existing information.” 

Prof. Roundy’s PH366 covid-19 assignment is available at http://sites.science.oregonstate.edu/~roundyd/COURSES/ph366/epidemic.html
The TAs for the class are Elena Wennstron, Kira McCoy, Alex Kuepper and Steven Neiman.

David Roundy is an Associate Professor of Physics at Oregon State University, and has been teaching and researching at OSU since 2006.  His work in computational physics spans exotic superconductors, metal-organic frameworks, classical and quantum density functional theory, biological motor proteins and many other topics. He invented the Darcs version control software.  He is a member of the Paradigms in Physics team with significant funding from the National Science Foundation for education-related research focusing on thermal physics and computational physics.

With departmental funding and an SPS travel grant, undergraduate student Acacia Patterson attended PhysCon, the 2019 Physics Congress, in Providence, Rhode Island 11/14-11/16. Over 1000 people attended the conference, which is hosted by the jointly by Sigma Pi Sigma and the Society of Physics Students and has occurred every 4 years since 1928. A group of OSU students attended the last conference in San Francisco, California.

Acacia Patterson at PhysCon 2019

The 2019 Congress began with tours at Harvard, MIT, and Brown physics departments and at Optikos Corporation, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Naval Submarine Base New London, and Rhode Island Hospital. The conference included speeches on the work of Einstein and Eddington from Dame S. Jocelyn Bell-Burnett and on the projects of GoogleX and how physics majors can prepare for a career in industry from Sandeep Giri. In addition, there were talks on the use of disruptive technology to mitigate climate change from Ellen Williams, on intellectual property rights from Jami Valentine Miller, and on the Big Bang and the future of astronomy from John Mather. Finally, Jim Gates shared a talk on how to use physics to become like Indiana Jones. A Congress workshop was held in which students brainstormed solutions to the issues that they and their organizations face.

The most important issues which the conference identified were imposter syndrome, mental health, and inclusiveness in physics. Two breakout sessions were offered with topics including science policy and communication, physics careers, physics and astronomy outreach, inclusivity, climate change, and graduate student panels. 

Acacia, who is a member of Janet Tate’s research group, was among the 150 students who presented their research during two poster and art exhibit sessions. Other activities included a lunch with scientists, a demo show at Brown and a tour at the LADD Observatory, a game night with Brown’s SPS chapter, and career and graduate school fairs. Acacia is grateful for this rewarding experience and looks forward to bringing what she learned to OSU. 

The Apollo Chronicles: Engineering America’s First Moon Missions” (Oxford University Press) is Professor Brandon R. Brown‘s second book, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the first moonwalk by the astronauts of Apollo 11 in 1969. Brown’s book chronicles the work of the engineers driving the endeavor, and his family was part of that experience – his father was an engineer at NASA working on the Apollo missions at the time.

The book made its debut June 13 and there was a launch party at Folio Books in San Francisco. The Apollo Chronicles is reviewed in the “Books and Arts” section of the July 8 edition of Nature and by American Scientist, which said, “Brown shows the engineers meeting tough deadlines and performing technical miracles, drawing schematics around the clock, making mistakes, coping with warning lights that blinked at the worst possible time, and regrouping after the tragic death of three astronauts in a fire that broke out in the capsule during a simulated countdown early in 1967.”

 Now Professor and Chair of Physics at the University of San Francisco, Brandon is a graduate of our department. He earned his Ph.D. degree in Physics from OSU in 1997, studying vortex depinning in single-crystal YBaCuO in Janet Tate’s group. He subsequently spent a year studying science writing at the University of Santa Cruz, earning a post-doctoral certificate in Science Communication. After joining USF as an Assistant Professor of Physics, he pursued research in biosensing, and published several well-received articles on how sharks perceive temperature changes using a sensitive gel present in their noses. He has taught many, many different courses and is a gifted teacher. He has done several stints as department chair and has also served as Associate Dean for Sciences.

In 2015 Brandon published his first book, Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War (Oxford University Press), a biography of Max Planck and his path through World War II. From Planck to the Apollo missions – where will he go next?!

[Images from Professor Brown’s web page and Oxford University Press.]

Addendum, July 15.
Prof. Brown has recently published two short columns discussing aspects of his book.
Scientific American 7/12/19: Celebrating the Engineers behind the First Moon Landing
Smithsonian Guest Blog 7/12/19: Apollo Engineers Discuss What It Took to Land on the Moon

In January 2019, undergraduate students McKenzie Meyer, Austin Mullins, Acacia Patterson, Elena Wennstrom and Kasey Yoke, accompanied by graduate students Mackenzie Lenz and Nicole Quist, participated in the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) at the University of Washington. The conference is a venue for students to share their research, to hear from successful women in physics, to learn about graduate school and employment, and to meet other physicists. The participants heard from keynote speaker Dr. Fabiola Gianotti of CERN, and others who discussed their careers and addressed the barriers to the success of women and minorities in STEM. The group also toured condensed matter labs in UW’s physics department and labs at the Center for Experimental Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics, which are interested in dark matter, accelerator physics, nuclear physics, and gravity. During the “Physics Slam,” faculty members competed to deliver the most entertaining presentation of their research, and one of the many attendees to present posters was OSU’s Kasey Yoke who authored “Validation of Anti-Neutrino Data from the MINERvA Experiment at Fermilab” co-authored by physics department head Dr. Heidi Schellman. The group also heard from a career panel highlighting the diverse employment opportunities for physicists, and they had the opportunity to meet with representatives of employers in small groups. The participants attended sessions including those on impostor syndrome, applying and succeeding in graduate school, participating in undergraduate research, applying to jobs in the industry, and writing in science. This annual conference is open to all undergraduate physics majors and proved to be an invaluable experience for the attendees. There are several venues around the country where the CUWiP conferences are held simultaneously. OSU hosted the Pacific Northwest CUWiP conference in 2016 and in 2020, the Pacific Northwest CUWiP will be at Washington State University.

Congratulations to Okan Agirseven of the Tate lab! Okan received the $500 Graduate Student Travel Award from the OSU Graduate School to attend the 30th International Conference on Defects in Semiconductors.  ICDS-30 will be held in Seattle, WA, in July 2019 and is one of the premier international conferences in the field.  Okan will be giving a contributed talk at the conference about his work on amorphous titania thin films.  Okan has learned how to make specific polymorphs of crystalline TiO2 from sputtered amorphous precursor films. This project is part of a larger effort to study metastable materials in the Department-of-Energy-sponsored Energy Frontier Research Center led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).  Co-authors on the work are Janet Tate, Tate group alums David Rivella and James Haggerty (who started the project as part of his doctoral research) and current undergraduates Patrick Berry, Kelda Diffendaffer and Acacia Patterson. Collaborators are  Brian Gorman and John Mangum from Colorado School of Mines, John Perkins from NREL and Laura Schelhas from the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
Weimin C. Han

Congratulations to Weimin Han (OSU Physics, Ph.D. 1992) who has been selected as an Intel Fellow! Weimin joins a select group of people so honored by one of the world’s largest tech companies. He is currently Director of Thin Film Technology at Intel’s campus in Hillsboro, OR, and has been with Intel since 1992.

Weimin remembers his time at OSU very fondly. “I am proud of OSU Physics and had a great, fun time while I was at OSU 30 years ago!” he said in a recent email. We remember that Weimin was an excellent student and that he has been a wonderful ambassador for our program.

Weimin’s Ph.D. dissertation was on the NMR of GaAs at high temperature. His thesis advisor was Prof. John Gardner, who has since retired from OSU to start ViewPlus Technologies, an industry-leading manufacturer of high-definition tactile graphics. John says, “I am really proud of Weimin. He and I are much more than teacher/student. We are good friends.” John credits Weimin with helping him through a particularly difficulty period in his life. When John lost his sight in 1988, Weimin took him to the hospital several times and even took him on his first skiing trip as a blind person. “He is one of the nicest people on earth,” says John. One of the nicest people on earth is also one of the most technically and intellectually talented, and deserves such an honor! Well done, Weimin!

Elaine Yunker Whiteley

Elaine Yunker Whiteley passed away in Portland on January 4, 2019. Elaine and her husband Ben Whiteley were long-time supporters of OSU Physics, the College of Science and the University. Elaine was the daughter of Edwin Yunker, former chair of OSU Physics. Elaine and her brother Wayne Yunker and other family and friends of Ed Yunker established an endowment to support the Yunker Lecture series, which has brought many distinguished speakers to the Physics Department to share their passion for science. Elaine and Ben also established the Whiteley fellowship, supporting graduate students in Materials Physics and Chemistry. Elaine and Ben received the College of Science Distinguished Service Award in 2016.

Elaine was also a patron of the arts, an avid reader and she loved the outdoors. At her memorial service in Portland, Elaine was fondly remembered by her sons Stephen and Ben Jr as a kind, generous, intelligent and determined woman. That’s how we remember her, too. We will miss Elaine and Ben’s presence at the Yunker Lectures, but their gift lives on.

 

Link to the obituary of Elaine Whiteley in the Oregonian.

Oksana Ostroverkhova, Professor of Physics at Oregon State University, and a leading expert on organic electronics, is the editor of the  second edition of Elsevier Publishing Company’s “Handbook of Organic Materials for Electronic and Photonic Devices”.  This 911-page handbook provides an overview of the materials, mechanisms, characterization techniques, and structure property relationships of organic electronic and photonic materials and describes the latest advances in the field. Oksana selected the topics, solicited contributions from the authors, and edited the entire book. and the result, at least a year in the making, is a comprehensive overview of a quickly-developing field.

This is the second handbook that Oksana has edited. The first, “Handbook of Organic Materials for Optical and (Opto)Electronic Devices“, appeared in 2013 and was published by Woodhead Publishing.  Oksana also wrote an extensive review of her own on a related topic that was published in Chemical Reviews in 2016: “Organic Optoelectronic Materials: Mechanisms and Applications”
Chemical Reviews 116, 13279 – 13412 (2016). This review is already her most highly cited publication from her time at Oregon State University.

 

The PhIS group (Physicists for inclusion in Science) has been busy this year! The group fosters inclusion by providing an inclusive community, professional development opportunities, and mentorship for aspiring physicists. This year, their activities have included coffee breaks, mixers (including an amazing dinner and silent auction for the department), book clubs, and many outreach activities.  Check out all the fun at http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/phis/2018/05/07/physicists-inclusion-science-phis/ .  The 2018/19 elections have happened and the new PhIS leadership is: MacKenzie Lenz (President), Kelby Hahn (Vice President), Mike Vignal (Treasurer), Mattia Carbonara (Secretary).  They invite everyone to join!