Sunday, February 26, 2017

Demystifying the Expert: Starting 2017 With a Laugh


In order to introduce the public to science in a combination of comedy and education, Dr. Anca Constantin and Dr. Klebert Feitosa host the event Demystifying the Expert. The program brings together a guest speaker, who is an expert in their field of science, and comedians from JMU’s New & Improv’d, who attempt to “demystify the expert.” Questions, games, trivia and improvised skits all contribute to the fun as the audience learns about the expert’s work. Examples of previous Demystifying the Expert events can be found here, here, here, here, and here.


On February 16, the first Demystifying the Expert of the spring semester was held with comedians Noah Etka, Macy Pniewski, and Diego Salinas and professor of chemistry, Dr. Ashleigh Baber.  


The first game was “20 questions,” where the comedians asked questions about Dr. Baber’s research to which she could only give yes or no answers. Eventually, they figured out that she works with metals, which she synthesizes to mimic catalysts in reactions. She explained to the audience and comedians that she is trying to discover a way to pull Carbon Dioxide out of the air to use as energy and effectively create a Carbon Dioxide cycle, that would be using CO2 already in the air, rather than adding more of it.
After this was the game “In the News” where the comedians guessed missing words in several news headlines related to Dr. Baber’s field of research. After it was revealed that the first title was “New approach to water splitting could improve hydrogen production”, the members of New and Improv’d asked our expert how one ‘karate-chops’ water. The article title, Dr. Baber explained, was referring to the process of ‘zapping’ the water with energy to break apart the H2O and get hydrogen. The next article title was successfully completed by Noah, who guessed that the UV-light controlled adhesive could help normal people to become Spiderman. The adhesive, of course, could help a person to cling to a wall, and is made to stick or unstick using UV-light.


The jargon game had the comedians guessing what certain acronyms stood for. They attempted to guess what the letters of acronyms such as UHV, TPD, and XPS stood for. They were very close to guessing UHV and XPS which stand for ultra-high vacuum and x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy respectively. As for TPD, Diego guessed that it stood for “Tesla-Powered Dyson” which was not corrected.  Noah and Macy managed to figure out that the first two words were “Temperature Program” but, the comedians failed to guess the last word of the acronym. Dr. Baber had to tell us all that the full acronym was “Temperature Program Desorption.”


The fourth game was “Two Truths and Lie,” where the comedians were presented with three facts about Dr. Baber’s life outside of her research lab and they had to guess which fact was the lie. We found out that Dr. Baber was a double major in chemistry and theater as an undergraduate student which Macy appreciated, that she allows students from all majors to assist in her research, and Diego was particularly excited to learn her husband worked on the development of the video game Ark: Survival Evolved.


During the final game, the comedians used their knowledge from the night and their ability to think on their feet as improv comedians to come up with a skit about a day in  Dr. Baber’s lab using scientific-sounding movie quotes from movies in popular culture. In this skit, Diego and Noah played students and Macy played Dr. Baber.  They used the word “desorp” quite a lot, now knowing and amused with the existence of the word. The skit revolved mostly around the UHV in Dr. Baber’s lab, which Noah dared Diego to enter, which he eventually did but not without hesitation. It was quite a hilarious thing to watch, if not entirely scientifically accurate.  

At the end of the night, the comedian’s closing remarks were very much focused on Dr. Baber’s work towards hopefully discovering a carbon-neutral cycle, which would be a positive for the environment and a cause that the comedians found noble. Between the games and Dr. Baber sharing her research goals, the night was overall both entertaining and informative.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Meet Marcelo Dias, Our Newest Faculty Addition

Some of you may have noticed a new faculty member walking the corridors of the Department of Physics and Astronomy this year. Marcelo Dias is starting his second semester at JMU as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Though he now finds himself at JMU, Prof. Dias had an interesting journey to get here.

During my interview with him, Marcelo Dias said he "became a geek" in high school, reading popular science-fiction books, such as though written by Carl Sagan. Prof. Dias chose to do theoretical physics, and studied at the São Paulo State University in Rio Claro. He went on to earn his Master's Degree at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at São Paulo State University. Prof. Dias studied mathematical physics, focusing primarily on geometric theories. While working on his Master's, Dias went to a conference where he met a mathematician from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The mathematician invited him to UMass Amherst, and Marcelo Dias did his PhD work there as a result.

Prof. Dias explained that, at this time, he began trying to apply geometric concepts to real life problems. He did his PhD on soft-condensed matter, and afterword went to work in the School of Engineering at Brown University. Dias wanted to experience a new country, though, so he moved to Finland and worked as a Research Fellow at Aalto Science Institute, Aalto University.

 Although he enjoyed the cold weather of Finland, Marcelo Dias wanted to work as a teacher as well as a researcher, having experience as a TA while working on his PhD and teaching a course as a post-doc while at Brown University. So in late 2015, he decided to apply to JMU in order to do research and teach. Prof. Dias was interviewed in early 2016, and joined the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the fall of 2016. He is trying to balance teaching with research, and joked that having lab space is also new to him as a theoretical physicist.

As for his research, Prof. Dias has been working on how geometry and the mechanics of structures affect the technological application of materials, such as how NASA developed a foldable sunshield for their John Webb Telescope. Another example of the technological applications include making materials more aerodynamic; Dias displayed a tube of foil which compressed to make a regular pattern that would lower air resistance (and an origami tube with a pattern with the same effect).

Prof. Dias explained that he researches, "new mechanical properties that an elastic body can acquire from careful design of its internal geometry in addition to its actual components". He used origami as an example; depending on how the paper is folded, its mechanical properties change. This is clearly visible by folding paper in a sandwich structure makes it strong enough to support the weight of a car.

From here.


Prof. Marcelo Dias wants to understand how these property changes scale. He works with tabletop models, and tries to predict universal behavior. Prof. Dias notes that there are many applications to this research. An example he gave was a heart stent, which could be deployed to expand at a specific place in a person's artery to help keep it open.

When asked about his recent interests, though, Prof. Dias added bio-mechanics to the mix. He has developed an interest in why certain parts of the human body have the shape they do, in how these parts evolved. Dias said he is interested in the evolution paradigm: "What sets humanity apart? Why are we so advanced?" While many people thought our big brains set us apart, Dias explained, our brain size evolved AFTER our current body structure had evolved. Prof. Dias said that the modern structures in the body allowed for the brain size jump. He is especially interested in the structure of the human foot; the arched structure provides a lot of functionality, and is good for long-distance running. Dias mentioned that the design works like a spring, provides stability on uneven terrain, and saves energy, and he is very curious how the geometry and mechanics of the foot has evolved to provide the locomotive functionality for humans we have today.

Although Prof. Dias has not been here long, he has made himself at home at JMU. He likes the atmosphere, and the close relationships between the faculty and staff of our department. Prof. Dias even has students interested in helping with his research already! Hopefully, Marcello Dias's time with the JMU Department of Physics and Astronomy will be a long, enjoyable chapter in his journey as a physicist.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The 2017 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics

The 2017 Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) was held at several locations from January 13-16.   The locations included: Montana State University, University of Wisconsin–Madison, University of California–Los Angeles, University of Colorado–Boulder, Wayne State University, McMaster University, Princeton University, Harvard University, Virginia Tech, and Rice University.  Four students from JMU – Maria Gordon, Tara Jobin, Yvonne Kinsella, and Catherine Witherspoon –  attended the Conference held at Virginia Tech.

The weekend started out with dinner on Friday night, where Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt, an astrophysicist working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and as adjunct faculty at UVA, talked about her career and her journey to becoming a physicist.  Her talk also presented the science of NRAO, with emphasis on how it was being built and its importance to the radio astronomy community.

Saturday brought four more physicists talking about their work, including Dr. Kate Scholberg of Duke University,  Connie Li from the Naval Research Labs, Dr. Laurie McNeil of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and Dr. Laura Greene of Florida State University and Chief Scientist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Also on Saturday, Yvonne Kinsella and Catherine Witherspoon presented their research posters. 


Left to Right:  Yvonne Kinsella, Maria Gordon, Tara Jobin, Catherine Witherspoon

The day ended with an informative panel on Professional Skills led by Dr. Laura Greene, Dr. Kate Scholberg, Dr. Jeri Brunson (Naval Research Labs), and Miranda Bard (staff at American Physical Society).  The plenary sessions of the next day were on Diversity and Inclusion by Dr. Menah Pratt-Clarke, vice provost for diversity and inclusion at Virginia Tech, and a panel hosted by Dr. Pratt-Clarke, Dr. Laura Greene, Dr. Kate Scholberg, and Dr. Leo Piilonen (Virginia Tech).

Throughout the last morning of CUWiP 2017, we had the opportunity to chose sessions of talks with topics that ranged from professional life after undergraduate school to presentations of the variety of fields of study  that physics offer as potential career choices. 
The program for the Conference's Sunday Sessions



The effort of the  organizers of CUWiP 2017 at Virginia Tech resulted in a weekend full of valuable advice from professional role models, and offered great resources for those contemplating their futures after they finish undergraduate schooling.   We certainly appreciated the opportunity to attend.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Yet another case of JMUAstro students totally rocking at the AAS229


As the title says, our department's astronomy face was once again showing awesome data and results, along with grins and smiles at the most prestigious national conference in astronomy.

During the first week of January, three of our undergraduates, Catherine Witherspoon, Jason Ferguson, and Kenny Gordon, presented their works at the 229th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), in Grapevine, Texas.

For Kenny it was the first AAS meeting, while Catherine and Jason were now basically veterans (their first AAS participation was last year, at the 227th AAS meeting, presented to you here).

When you work hard on interesting projects and have nice results, you have to let the world know about them.  And they rocked:

Catherine unfolded new understanding of how colors of quasars are measured, based on the work she pursued during her Summer 2016 REU at the University of Wyoming:  New Quasar Surveys with WIRO: Colors of ~1000 Quasars at 0 < z < 3.  

Jason enchanted the audience with brand-new and sophisticated data of interacting galaxies from the Large Binocular Telescope, with his poster: Near-Infrared Spectroscopic Analysis of Galaxy Mergers: Revealing Obscured Accretion.   This project was possible thanks to funds from the 4-VA initiative at JMU, for collaboration between JMU and GMU astronomy faculty. 

Kenny presented: Image Analysis of OSIRIS-REx Touch-And-Go Camera System (TAGCAMS) Thermal Vacuum Test Images, which is work that he developed during past summer as an intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  


Catherine, Jason and Kenny are all seniors, and are quite engrossed into graduate school applications right now, so wish them best of luck with these tedious, yet, still creative endeavors (as part of their applications, they need to write about the research projects they envision for their future graduate thesis).  

We will keep you posted with their successes, just stay tuned.




Friday, December 09, 2016

JMU Physics Shines at SESAPS




The 83rd annual meeting of the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society (SESAPS) was held in Charlottesville, Virginia, hosted by UVA’s Department of Physics at the Omni Hotel on November 10-12, 2016. The meeting consisted of many contributed talks and posters, including presentations from a few JMU Physics students.

Two students from the Niculescu’s lab and two students from Dr. Hughes’ lab attended this year’s SESAPS. They were: Will Kemmerer and Eric Moeller, and Nick Sipes and Yvonne Kinsella.

Eric Moeller, a JMU Physics senior working with the Niculescu’s, gave his talk titled “Lab Automation and Afterpulsing in Photomultiplier Tubes.”  His talk consisted of an explanation of how the lab is automated, and of how this automation helps him to test the tubes.  By programming machines to “talk to each other automatically,” the amount of time that it takes to run a test has gone from three hours to about forty-five minutes.  “Afterpulsing” is an event that happens during a test run where an extra signal is sent out by the photomultiplier tube that can disrupt data collection.

Will Kemmerer, a JMU Physics junior also working with the Niculescu’s, gave a talk on his research which involves calculating detected quantum efficiency, and the gain multiple for photomultiplier tubes (PMTs). In his talk, he discussed how the overarching goal is to group PMTs by the probability they have to detect a photon, and the output at high voltages which will be used in an accelerator at Jefferson Lab. He also discussed that, since afterpulsing of PMTs does not significantly change as PMTs are heated, they don’t have to worry about the gain multiple changing if the cooling system shuts down while a PMT is in the detector.

JMU Physics Senior, Nick Sipes, at the podium for his
talk on electroless nickel plating.
Another JMU Physics senior, Nick Sipes, also gave a talk on his research done with Dr. Hughes. His talk was titled “Selective Electroless Nickel Plating on PMMA using Chloroform Pre-Treatment.”  Dr. Hughes’ research lab has found in the past that chloroform pre-treatment on a substrate (specifically PMMA) can improve adhesion of gold to it when depositing the metal using magnetron sputtering. Nick’s project looked at a new technique for metal deposition and a new metal that has not been tested by Dr. Hughes’ research lab before. Electroless plating works a lot like electro-plating, except there is no cathode in the solution and your substrate essentially acts as the cathode. Ultimately, Nick discussed that he found that electroless plating of Nickel onto PMMA is improved with the use of chloroform exposure prior to the  metal deposition.


Yvonne Kinsella presented her poster titled “Adhesion of Au Thin Films on PMMA and Other Substrates.”   The main focus of the poster was on the process used for testing how well the gold thin films adhere to a substrate. That process is to polish the Au off the substrate and to quantify it either by using a UV-Vis spectrophotometer or by scanning images of the samples and running a program written in MATLAB which converts the image into threshold and then counts the darker pixels (the idea is that the darker pixels are where the gold is on the surface and as the samples are polished that number should decrease).   Mainly, the poster discussed this process and polishing data for the case when PMMA is a substrate however, the use of glass was also discussed.  In the future, she hopes to work with different polymer substrates to see if the results are similar to what has been found for PMMA so far.


By presenting research at this year’s SESAPS, these students have represented the JMU Department of Physics & Astronomy and shown what is going on in our department to the larger scientific community.  Additionally, they have been awarded experience of presenting research in a professional environment, which will help them in their future beyond JMU.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

JMU High School Physics Teacher of the Year





            We recently had the pleasure of having Sonia Faletti, the first recipient of the James Madison University High School Physics Teacher of the Year Award, visit JMU. Here are some of the highlights from our conversation about her background, her journey to teaching high school physics, her interests, and the exciting ways in which she inspires the future generations of scientists.
            Mrs. Faletti currently works at Bishop Ireton High School, though when she was a student at Stanford she initially studied math and computer science. After switching to physics, Sonia Faletti worked as a TA in a lab and realized that she liked teaching. Mrs. Faletti started off teaching kindergarten, and enjoyed how hands-on it was. However, she decided that a classroom full of five year-old children was not where she wanted to be. Upon moving from California to Virginia, Mrs. Faletti decided she wanted to switch to high school. She got a job at Bishop Ireton High School and said it was "like coming home".
            Mrs. Faletti engages her students with different activities and demonstrations, from pulling out a tablecloth from underneath plates, etc., to playing with roller-skates in class. As she explained, "any day with a lab in it is a good day". Having her Master's in Physics Education from the University of Virginia,  she thinks that labs, simulations, peer reviews, and other activities are better for promoting learning than lecturing.
            Still, not all activities are created equal, and Mrs. Faletti has her own favorite labs. She explained that one of her favorite labs is finding the terminal velocity of coffee filters. Mrs. Faletti also likes having students do projectile motion with a tennis ball launcher, though. As far as the students go, Mrs. Falleti thinks they enjoy the trip to 6 Flags to do physics, either using analog accelerometers or an app on their phones called "graphical analysis" by Vernier. Mrs. Faletti has even used the app to graph the acceleration of the elevator in the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France!
            While talking about Bishop Ireton High School, Mrs. Faletti explained that all of the students are required to take physics classes, but she only teaches the honor classes. Some of her previous students have since majored in physics, some have gone pre-med., and some have studied engineering. Mrs. Faletti said that she actually hopes to teach an engineering class next year. Mrs. Faletti currently teaches two classes emphasizing climate change physics, which she explained is both an energy issue and a justice issue. Part of the class focuses on different ways to produce electricity, and the responsibility of first-world countries to act against climate change.
            Outside of the classroom, Mrs. Faletti is still extremely excited about different "science projects". Currently, she is building a 3D printer with her son using 3D printed parts. Mrs. Faletti is also looking forward to seeing the solar eclipse next August, and hopes it will interest more people in science.