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09/26/2014 16:52:50

Honored Student Scientists Return for their Senior Year

Among this year's cadre of returning Caltech students are four seniors who already have been recognized at the national level for their scholarly and research accomplishments. Last spring, the federally endowed Barry Goldwater Foundation awarded scholarships to Adam Jermyn, Ann Miao Wang, and Charles Tschirhart; Lawrence Wang was awarded honorable mention in the competition.

Goldwater Scholarships are designed to foster outstanding students and encourage them to pursue careers in the natural sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

Adam Jermyn, a physics major from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, specializes in the field of emergent phenomena. "This is a broad term referring to situations where we know all of the laws on a fundamental level, but where there are so many pieces working together that the consequences aren't known," Jermyn explains. Examples include protein aggregation, quantum information, and fluid mechanics. "I find this interesting primarily because these are problems which, in principle, we should be able to understand, but in practice the complexity is far too much to deal with straightforwardly. I find it fascinating that we have to find ways to analyze complexity."

Although he is still an undergraduate, Jermyn already has a patent pending for a method he developed while in high school to analyze atomic force microscopy data. He is also the principal investigator on a computing grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) for exploring symmetric protein folding. "The DOE grant is for work I'm doing with Milo Lin at UC Berkeley, though I started out on the project when he was here as a graduate student under Professor Ahmed Zewail [Caltech's Linus Pauling Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics]," he says.

Jermyn also works in the lab of Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science, on research that may have applications in solar cells, and he collaborates with Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics Jason Alicea on quantum information through Caltech's Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, and with Sterl Phinney, professor of theoretical astrophysics, on the impact of external deep heating on stellar atmospheres. He recently submitted papers for journal publication on his solar energy and quantum information research projects.

Currently, Jermyn is finishing up his senior thesis, a study of how pulsars alter the atmospheres of tidally locked companion stars. When it is complete (he is hoping for December), and he finishes up his graduate applications—with the eventual goal of obtaining a faculty position where he would teach and do research—he will continue work on his other projects and will begin new research in condensed matter physics, the study of solids, liquids, and a few other, more exotic phases of matter.

Charles Tschirhart of Naperville, Illinois, is a double major in applied physics and chemistry. His research focuses on nanotechnology, the design and construction of machines at the nanometer (one-billionth of a meter) scale, and on condensed matter.

"I got involved in nanotechnology because I was fascinated by the unique challenges of building machines at such small scales. I was also attracted to it because it has a wide array of useful applications in industry, and I think it's exciting to work on problems that, if solved, would have a real impact on our lives," Tschirhart explains. "I got interested in condensed matter because it represented the area of physics that felt the most tangible to me. It was fun to learn about how the properties of materials with which I'm familiar are explained by modern physics. I've always been fascinated by the idea that you can use physics to go all the way from subatomic particles and atomic physics up to bulk material properties, and that's sort of what condensed matter is all about."

This year, Tschirhart will pursue a senior thesis project in the laboratory of Sandra Troian, professor of applied physics, aeronautics, and mechanical engineering. "Our lab studies phenomena in fluid mechanics that only become important at very small scales. In classical fluid mechanics, physicists pretend that fluids are composed of infinitely divisible matter and thus don't have any 'graininess' to them," Tschirhart says, "although all fluids are, in fact, made up of tiny particles. Once you get down to small enough scales, however, even water becomes 'grainy,' and the predictions of fluid mechanics begin to fail."

Tschirhart's senior thesis project will be to investigate when and how classical fluid mechanics fails at these very small scales, with the ultimate goal of developing theories to correct for these effects. "I have spent the last year and a half building an experiment to investigate these phenomena, and I have just now begun to collect data, so it's a pretty exciting time for me, and I'm excited for my senior thesis." 

Upon graduation, Tschirhart plans to attend graduate school in experimental condensed matter physics. "I ultimately hope to become a condensed matter physicist. I plan to look for jobs in academia, but I would happily take advantage of opportunities outside of academia. Universities and technology companies offer very different work environments, but great science, at least in condensed matter, happens at both." 

Ann Miao Wang of Rochester, New York, describes herself as "especially passionate" about her area of study, experimental particle physics, "because it examines the fundamental building blocks of physics in ways that consistently push the frontier of the known universe," she says.

"The research I do at Caltech with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) group involves searching for supersymmetry at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. Supersymmetry," Wang explains, "is a mathematically compelling theory that predicts an existing superpartner particle for every Standard Model particle. It helps answer a lot of big questions in physics, including some of the mysteries of dark matter, that can't be answered by the Standard Model"—the theory that describes the basic building blocks of matter and how they interact, governed by the fundamental forces. "It's a very exciting area, especially with the upcoming runs at the LHC that will reach higher energies. The discovery of the Higgs boson gave us new insights into the Standard Model, but I'm excited by what other new physics phenomena may be out there."

Wang will conduct her senior thesis work with the CMS group on campus working with Professor of Physics Maria Spiropulu. After graduation and doing graduate work in particle physics, she hopes for a professorial career in which she can both do research and teach.

Biology major Lawrence Wang, who hails from Seattle, Washington, will spend his senior year continuing an ongoing interspecies research study under the supervision of John Doyle, the Jean-Lou Chameau Professor of Control and Dynamical Systems Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering, and in collaboration with Christopher Kempes, a visitor in computing and mathematical sciences, on the diversification of life in microorganisms. In particular, Wang has identified power law relationships between basic biological features and organism size. He and Kempes are now working on a journal article about the findings.

"The complexity behind living organisms has always intrigued me," Wang says, "and biology is the science of studying the art of life. In particular, I am currently interested in molecular biology because I want to understand life at the most fundamental level." 

After graduation, Wang plans to pursue an MD/PhD. "My career aspiration is to become a physician-scientist, because I would like to blend the rigor of scientific research with the pleasure of patient interactions." As a scientist, Wang would like to focus on molecular biology to help dissect the molecular mechanisms behind disease, and develop and improve treatments. As a physician, he hopes to specialize in pediatrics and work with children. "Their optimism and resilience—and the potential to make a lasting impact on their lives as not only a physician but a counselor, teacher, and friend—draw me to the field of pediatrics," he says.

Since its first award in 1989, the Barry Goldwater Foundation has bestowed 7,163 scholarships worth approximately $46 million, including 288 scholarships for the 2014–2015 academic year. The one- and two-year scholarships will cover the cost of tuition, fees, books, and room and board up to a maximum of $7,500 per year.

Written by Kathy Svitil