A Few Days in Physics-Land

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American Physical Society March Meeting

March 18, 2013 to March 22, 2013

Baltimore, Maryland

Meeting host:

American Physical Society


Vasilii Bushunow

SPS Chapter:

SPS Reporter Vasilii Bushunow at the SPS booth. Photo courtesy of Vasilii Bushunow

The life of an undergraduate physics student certainly cannot be described as boring or dull:  there are always tests to take, homework assignments to finish, research projects to complete, and liberal arts students to persuade that physics really isn’t all that bad of a major.  But this semester, a new and exciting opportunity came up for me a physicist.  In January, I found out that my research –  Mössbauer spectroscopy of a lithium-oxide hematite solid solution – had been accepted to a poster session at the March Meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) held in Baltimore, Maryland.  Called “The biggest physics meeting in the world”, the annual APS March Meeting draws thousands of researchers, professors, and students from all over the world, and now I would be included in that number.  The excitement I felt while preparing my poster was tinged only slightly with anxiety when my research advisor told me that she was unable to attend the meeting, and I would have to go by myself.

Because of other classes, I was only able to attend the second half of the meeting and arrived after many of the SPS sessions and activities specifically designed for undergraduate students had already ended, but there were still lots of meeting activities happening over the next few days. By the time I got to Baltimore on Wednesday, most of the academic sessions were over, but the convention center was still full of people chatting or preparing their presentations for the next day.  While trying to familiarize myself with the center and find the exhibition hall, I somehow found myself in the middle of an alumni dinner for five Chinese universities.  Despite the fantastic smell, I didn’t stay for dinner, but instead went to a staged reading of the play Farm Hall.  The play - presented as part of the Forum on the History of Physics and introduced, tongue-in-cheek, as an attempt to “bring culture to the American Physical Society Meetings” - was based on events that occurred during Operation Paperclip. This was the Allied effort to extract German scientists after World War II, including Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg.   Written by Dr. David Cassidy of Hofstra University, Farm Hall discussed the political role of science, raised questions on the moral responsibility accompanying scientific discoveries, and demonstrated the effect of personality clashes and personal ambition on science.  Despite its serious theme, the play was lightened by a good dose of humor, and succeeded in giving the science we all know a human element. 

The same evening I attended the APS sing-along, a rousing event organized by Dr. Walter Smith of Haverford College.  Without a doubt, this was the social highlight of the March Meeting: hundreds of physicists singing along to songs like “Complex Z” (Beatles’ “Let it Be”) and “I Got Funding” (Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm”) to the sound of a live rock band led by Dr. Victor Yakovenko of the University of Maryland.  By the time I made it back to my hotel and up to my room I was ready for bed, but not before helping my roommate, an elderly professor from Russia, find a way to get to the airport the next day.

I headed to the convention center bright and early on Thursday, and spent the morning attending various presentations.  Even with a directory the size of a phone book it was difficult to choose from the many simultaneous sessions, so I ended up at a variety of talks.  The first talk discussed an optomechanical transducer, composed of a small oscillating plate connected to a piezoelectric chip, used to convert electrical signals into optical quanta. The next several presentations I attended were part of a special session on the physics of cancer, and included topics such as novel filtrations systems for high-throughput capture of cancer cells, models for epithelial cell movement based on fluid mechanics and granular systems, and models for cellular transmigration and metastasis rates related to cell stiffness. 

After these talks, I went to a presentation discussing the thermoelectric characteristics of various tetrahedrites (minerals with the chemical formula (Cu,Fe)12Sb4S13), and the potential to enrich naturally obtained minerals rather than synthesizing all the material in the laboratory.  This presentation was very interesting to me because it had a direct industrial application: the enrichment method significantly lowers the cost of such materials compared to de novo synthesis, and the research led to better enrichment techniques.

After the intellectual intensity of the sessions, it was a relieving change of pace to walk around the commercial exhibition booths and look at all the products advertised, including vacuum chambers, cryopumps, deposition chambers, and, of course, lots of books.  I made sure to visit the SPS booth, and then stopped by the Elsevier booth to see if one could really spot a physicist by their looks in the Einstein Look-Alike Competition.  After a quick lunch, it was time to set up and prepare for the afternoon poster session.

During the poster session, I had the opportunity to browse through other poster exhibits and talk to people about their research.  One fellow undergraduate presenter I met was Philip Dee, a senior physics major from Cleveland State University.  Mr. Dee was presenting his research on the characterization of ferric oxyhydroxide (FeOOH) nanorice particles.  By measuring the scattering of either polarized or nonpolarized incident beams, Mr. Dee’s team could determine the size and motion of the nanoparticles in solution.  From this research they were able to develop a new way to calibrate their measurement, which could potentially lead to improvements in applications such as medical imaging.  I asked about his experience at the meeting, and he remarked only that it left him “feeling very small”, a sentiment I shared completely.  When the poster session was done, I went back to the lecture halls for more sessions, this time on exotic superconductors and the physics of twisting.  By 6 PM, I was drained. I had attended over a dozen presentations, and felt like I had learned more physics that single day than in the three years of school prior.

On Friday morning I headed back to the convention center to catch a few more sessions before the end of the meeting.  One presentation was by Kamal Kadel, a fifth year PhD candidate from Florida International University (FIU), on the synthesis and properties of indium-doped lead telluride nanoparticles.  Lead tellurides are common narrow-gap semiconductors, and indium doping served to raise the material’s melting point.  The following speaker didn’t show up, so I had a chance to talk to Mr. Kadel about his research.  Originally from Nepal, he had finished his Masters at the University of Akron before joining the nanoparticle research group at FIU under Dr. Wenzhi Li.  I asked him what advice he had for undergraduate students interested in physics, to which he replied very simply: “You just have to find something you’re interested in, and be willing to work hard at it.”  Indeed, everyone at the conference was united not only by their interest in physics, but in the diligence and hard work that paid off in their research.

In addition to the extraordinary amount of research being presented, it struck me how important this meeting was as a social event.  For many, the meeting was more that just an opportunity to present their data: it was a chance to catch up with old colleagues, to network with other researchers in their field, or just to enjoy the company of many like-minded people.  Despite being a newcomer to the world of physics compared to most of the attendees, I too had a surprising number of connections at the meeting: I met a Duquesne alumnus who had worked in the same lab as I did, saw an old friend from my hometown who now does research for the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and bumped into a professor who had come to Duquesne for a guest lecture.

Because of the schedule I will have my senior year, it is unlikely that I will have another opportunity to attend such a meeting, but I would strongly encourage any student, even non-physics students, to go.  For undergraduates doing research it is a chance to exhibit their work alongside the brightest minds in the field and develop their presentation skills.   Even for those not doing original research, the breadth of material presented at the March Meeting gives an excellent idea of the many avenues explored by physicists, along with industrial, medical, and academic applications for their work.  

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A high-capacity vacuum chamber, produced by Nor-Cal products.

Phillip Dee of Cleveland State University presenting his research. Photo by Vasilii Bushunow

Vasilii with his research poster. Photo courtesy of Vasilii Bushunow

Vasilii checking to see if he is a genius.