Rosalyn Fey, OSU Astronomy Club Secretary

On May 17, 2021, the Astronomy Club hosted a virtual star party featuring Tom Carrico, local amateur astrophotographer and instructor of astrophotography at OSU. Tom used his telescope in Dark Sky, New Mexico to remotely image the night sky and give everyone a chance to make astronomical observations from the comfort and safety of their homes.

The party started with a presentation from Elaine Swanson, a post-baccalaureate student and founder of OSU’s Astrobotany Research Group, and continued with 2 hours of real-time astrophotography image capture and processing. Tom imaged some classic astronomical objects, such as the Sombrero Galaxy (M104), and also took requests from participants. Favorite objects included the Pinwheel Galaxy (M101), the Owl Nebula (M97), the Ring Nebula (M57), and the Great Globular Cluster (M13). Other objects of astronomical interest included M87, the galaxy which hosts the supermassive black hole first imaged in 2019 by an international collaboration using the network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope.

Participants learned about each imaged object, and about the equipment, software and procedures used for remote astrophotography. Tom covers many of these topics in PH299: Astrophotography and Astronomy, currently offered in spring term.

The Astronomy Club plans to continue hosting virtual star parties with Tom in the future to increase accessibility of night observations, and engage more people in this exciting experience! Please join us at our next virtual star party! For information about our club and events, visit our website at https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/astronomyclub/.

Messier 51, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. It is the sum of 7 each 1-minute exposures imaged with a 4″ telescope and an SBIG STT 8300 8.4 Mpixel CCD camera. (Image acquired by Tom Carrico and displayed with his permission.)

Messier 101, sometimes referred to as the Pinwheel Galaxy. It is the sum of 7 each 1-minute exposures imaged with a 4″ telescope and an SBIG STT 8300 8.3 Mpixel CCD camera. (Image acquired by Tom Carrico and displayed with his permission.)

Congratulations to Isabel Rodriguez, M.S. for being the 2021 recipient of the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award! This award celebrates a member of the OSU community who works as an agent of change in service of racial justice and gender equity. This ” Breaking Barriers” award  is sponsored by the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCOSW), the Office of Institutional Diversity (OID), the Office of the Provost and OSU Athletics.
https://leadership.oregonstate.edu/pcosw/events/breakingbarriers 

Isabel is a brilliant example of a scientist who works tirelessly and effectively for change in service of racial justice and gender equality. The STEM culture at Oregon State University is changing profoundly because of her influence. As a Black woman in astrophysics, she has expertly navigated the terrain in this white-male-dominated field to emerge as a powerful example to other marginalized people of how to be successful on their own terms and teaching her mentors to change the ways they interact with their students.

Isabel has been a powerful agent of change in our Department and College. She has challenged her research group, her peers, her mentors and the administration to look at our workplace differently and through the eyes of those marginalized. As an elected member of the graduate student committee, she helped lead discussions among the faculty and students in a series of Town Hall meetings that ultimately resulted in significant changes to the physics graduate program to make it more fair, flexible, and inclusive. She has also been an important member of the departmental DICE committee and a founding member of CoSMAC, the College of Science Multidisciplinary Antiracism Coalition, which advocates for the adoption of antiracist policies, practices, and actions in the College. She was also Vice President of the Black Graduate Student Association, where she organized regular on-campus events to foster a sense of community and belonging for Black undergraduate and graduate students. For her positive, measured and always relentless advice and guidance, Isabel is a worthy member of a spectacular group of leaders that have been recognized with the Harriet “Hattie” Redmond Award.

Thank you for your service Isabel, and for raising our collective consciousness.

Briony Horgan (B.S. OSU Physics, 2005), Associate Professor of Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, is a member of the science team that will launch the NASA Mars rover Perseverance in the next few weeks. The rover will travel to Jezero Crater, which preserves evidence of a time when rivers flowed on Mars. Prof. Horgan led a study of the mineralogy of the site, which produced one of the major results that contributed to its selection. She was also on the team that designed the camera that will be the scientific eyes for Perseverance. Well done Briony – and best of luck with the mission!
For the full story and image credit, see this link.

horgan-portrait

The Physics Department at Oregon State University stands with the Black community. The continued murders of Black people by police are a consequence of long-standing, unacceptable social and economic systems that dehumanize people, particularly the Black community.

We recognize that the academy, and our department by extension, is complicit in these structures of racism. The conspicuous dearth of Black department members points to the racism and structural inequities that exist within our hiring and recruitment processes, our teaching and mentoring, and our broader social culture. Removing these structures is long overdue. We will strive to promote equity across all areas, including but not limited to: race, gender, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disability, veteran status, and economic status. We are committed to making our workplace and classroom environments supportive of all community members by: (i) creating policies and a culture that work against historical oppressions, and (ii) seeking a diversity in the recruitment, selection, promotion, and celebration of students, staff, faculty, and other scientists, that is representative of the global community.

One of the most recent steps the department has taken is forming the Diversity Inclusion Climate and Equity (DICE) Committee. This committee is composed of members representing all subsets of the physics community – from undergraduates to faculty and staff – and is charged with recommending policies and resources that will help foster a more welcoming and inclusive physics environment. The DICE Committee is seeking new members this academic year.

If you would like to get involved, or would like access to the department’s antiracism resource list, please contact physdice@lists.oregonstate.edu.


Current DICE members

Acacia Patterson (graduating)

Isabel Rodrigues

Xavier Siemens

Evan Thatcher

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).

Three OSU Physics alums are among 2,046 graduate students nationwide to receive the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program award that pays stipend and partial tuition for 3 years. Congratulations to all three! See the Impact article from the College of Science for some more details about other College of Science GRFP recipients.

Head shot of Mirek Brandt at Oregon State
Mirek Brandt in 2017

Mirek Brandt (BS in Physics & Mathematics 2018) worked in the Graham group while at Oregon State. His thesis was on The Impact of Crystal Morphology on the Opto-Electronic Properties of Amorphous and Organic Crystalline Materials. He won a Goldwater Scholarship as an undergraduate and then moved on to the University of California at Santa Barbara where he is doing his doctorate in Astrophysics.

Katelyn Chase (BS in Physics 2018) worked in Bo Sun’s biophysics laboratory during her time at OSU and wrote her thesis on Synchronized Cellular Mechanosensing due to External Periodic Driving. She is now a Ph. D. candidate at the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University, conducting research in the Gitai bacterial biology laboratory, studying cytoskeletal proteins. She is interested in proteins involved in bacterial cell shape formation and maintenance. Her photo shows her in Iceland in January.

Patrick Flynn (BS in Physics and Mathematics, 2018) did his senior thesis project on Localized structures in a diffusive run and tumble model for M. xanthus, as part of the Complex Systems REU at the University of Minnesota with Arnd Scheel (Bo Sun was the local advisor).  Patrick also contributed to the linear solver code for the Monte-Carlo simulations performed in David Roundy’s research group in Physics.  Patrick is now a Ph. D. candidate in the Department of Applied Mathematics at Brown University. He is studying the Euler- and Vlasov-Poisson models appearing in plasma and astrophysics. His NSF GRFP proposal was about answering questions such as the existence and stability of solitary waves, or the existence of solutions containing many interacting solitary waves, for the Euler- and Vlasov-Posson equations.  Patrick says he is “very enthusiastic about being able to address questions that have been partially addressed by the physics community to discover new mathematics, and in turn inform scientific discovery. Of course, my time at Oregon State was very formative in this regard, and I still heavily rely on what I learned in the mathematics and physics programs there. After all, I first learned what a dispersion relation was from David Roundy!” The accompanying picture shows Patrick on the Brown Campus.

See the Impact article from the College of Science for some more details about College of Science GRFP recipients.

Drivers on OR34 now see Senior Instructor Randy Milstein smiling at them.

OSU Astronomer in Residence, Senior Physics Instructor and man-about-Corvallis Randall Milstein has been featured by Samaritan Hospital in an article and a huge billboard on OR34. See https://www.samhealth.org/randallm for the full article. You can meet Randy in person in Physics 104 (Descriptive Astronomy), the class he teaches to hundreds of students every term at Oregon State.

Prof. Bo Sun

In December 2019, Associate Prof. Bo Sun received the Richard T. Jones New Investigator Award from the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon for his work on the biophysics of collective behavior in cells.

For more details on the award see the MRF awards site and the longer College of Science IMPACT article about Bo’s work.

And check out his research group at https://sites.google.com/site/biophysicsbosun/ to read about the successes of the large number of graduate and undergraduate students working in his lab.

Congratulations Bo!

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.

Dear Physics community,

The Physics Beavers are studying remotely this quarter.

Oregon State Physics is still operating, although our labs are in standby mode and our teaching is now all remote.   We’re using online channels like Zoom and Slack to maintain our tradition of student interaction in courses.  Students are still working together on problems and the Society of Physics Students  is launching an online game night.  We could not have done this without herculean efforts by faculty and students to create online labs, videos, and sophisticated live classes in 3 weeks.  Grad students are writing new labs and undergraduates are serving as learning assistants in the Virtual Wormhole.  See this video on vectors produced in our Lightboard studio to see what our students see.

On campus, research is on standby. Biophysicists Weihong Qiu and Bo Sun led the Physics effort to collect personal protective equipment (PPE) that Oregon State then donated to Oregon Emergency Management agencies.  https://today.oregonstate.edu/news/oregon-state-collects-nearly-200000-pairs-gloves-other-medical-supplies-covid-19-crisis  But, you can’t grow carbon nanotubes or cancer cell lines at home so on-campus research is now on hold.  In the short run, we can work on writing things up, doing the literature searches we never have time for and analyzing data, but we’re eager to get back to our labs. 

If you are interested in helping students financially in the short term, Oregon State has set up an emergency fund for students in need.  Many students (or their parents) have lost their jobs and are struggling with basics like books, rent,  food and the now vital internet connection. Please consider donating to the Beavers Care fund which is providing emergency funding to OSU students https://app.fundmetric.com/qvRUQF9u4 (You can designate the College of Science) or to the Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) https://studentlife.oregonstate.edu/hsrc which provides food boxes, loaner computers and other emergency supplies for students.  

We’ll be providing updates as things progress. 

Heidi Schellman