Collaboration Empowers Summer Research in Physics Students to Delve into Complex, Interdisciplinary Research

Read more stories about students’ experiences in SRIP 2022.

Each summer, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics offers Summer Research & Innovation Programs across disciplines for rising seniors in the residential and online NCSSM programs. Students create research proposals and then meet on campus during the summer for intensive, hands-on lab work. 

On any given day during the Summer Research in Physics program, you might find students on the biology floor, in the fabrication lab, or consulting with instructors of Summer Research Experience in Computational Science.

These multidisciplinary projects allow students to follow their passions and interests in their work and build a strong sense of community among their peers in physics and across programs in SRIP. 

Alina Yang is a rising senior from Cary, North Carolina. She is working on a computational biophysics research project, studying cellular molecular motors to see if and how they respond to different stimuli, intending to make them more versatile. 

The project involves elements from not only physics but also computational science and biology. “I really like that it’s interdisciplinary,” Yang said. “I am learning a lot of basic biology, and it’s a computational study, so overall it’s been a really cool intersection of everything, and it’s nice to see how things can come together.” 

Yang says that her work across fields has also helped her gain a deeper understanding of the research process. “This program has taught me a lot about what research is, and that’s been really invaluable,” she said. “I’ve met really cool people through my classmates, my mentors, and everyone I’ve asked biology questions that I don’t understand. They’ve been really lovely to talk to, and I am getting a better understanding of what research is, a better understanding of computational projects, and learning a lot about biology and physics.” 

Eric Sullivan, from Pittsboro, North Carolina, is studying how different concentrations of ethylene diamine will affect the range and absorbency in fluorescence for carbon quantum dots. 

Sullivan’s project has a heavy emphasis on chemistry, and he has conducted most of his research in the chemistry lab. He credits Summer Research in Physics with being flexible to accommodate interdisciplinary projects. 

“Projects can be a lot different than what you set out to do,” he said, “but as long as you have a strong interest in it, you’ll have a lot of fun with it.” 

NCSSM Instructor of Physics Dr. Kyle Slinker, who heads Summer Research in Physics, emphasizes selecting projects that students are passionate about and gives them ample time to focus on those projects. “Having dedicated time allows you to get much deeper into a project,” he said. “Being able to give something your undivided attention really changes what you’re able to accomplish.” 

Alex Key, from Clayton, North Carolina, is working on a computational astrophysics problem, studying the concept of negative mass. 

“I’ve always been interested in space,” they said. “When I was a kid, I remember I would be under the covers watching videos about planets. Then I got into high school and took my first physics class, and got really interested in physics. My love of planets sort of came together with physics, and I got super interested in the movement of planets.” 

Key applied to Summer Research in Physics to learn more about a specific topic they were interested in. “I grew really interested in the concept of negative mass.” 

“That was something I wanted to look more into, but I never really had the time…when I learned about SRIP, I learned it was three weeks to research whatever I wanted to do. So that was the spark of saying, ‘Hey, I should actually look into this thing that I am interested in.’” 

After consulting with Slinker and Summer Research Experience in Computational Science Instructor Robert Gotwals, Key created a simulation in Python. 

For Key, analyzing the data that the simulation garnered was the most fun and rewarding part of the experience. 

“It was really interesting to see a bunch of the different types of data I had lined up next to each other with different values, and it was really rewarding at the end to be able to get a shape that was similar to that of dark energy,” Key said. “The data isn’t close enough or conclusive…but I’ve been laying the groundwork.”  

It’s that collaboration across departments and sharing successes with fellow students that stand out to Yang. 

“One of the biggest things I’ve enjoyed has been the community; it’s really nice,” she said. “You have friends who are really interested in physics and spend hours a week with you doing research, reading articles…and it’s really cool to get to know people, to get food together. It’s a very nice community. I really appreciate how we’ve gotten to know each other through physics and our projects.” 

See more about Summer Research in Physics and learn about past projects here