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Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Undergraduate students in the physics department have the opportunity to get hands-on experience working with our faculty members. Below are some current projects open to interested students.

For additional information on internship and research opportunities for undergraduates, visit our undergraduate careers page.

The High Energy Particle Physics group of the University of Tennessee (UTK) searches for new fundamental particles and the forces with the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) of CERN in Geneva, Switzerland.

We study diamond detectors as potential application for measuring the trajectories of charged particles to potentially replace the commonly used silicon detectors as the LHC increases its beam intensity. Those types of detectors are also used for medical imaging, homeland security, nuclear reactors, fast dosimeters etc. The goal is to establish the robustness of those detectors and develop the best readout configuration such as 3D electrodes. We have a laboratory here on campus to characterize detectors using radioactive sources. We collaborate with nuclear engineering to apply other diagnostics. Interested in hands-on experience to study the charge collection properties of prototype detectors?

There is also the opportunity to get involved in testing those detectors with particle beams at Fermilab near Chicago and CERN, Geneva, Switzerland.

For more information, please contact Dr. Stefan Spanier by e-mail: spanier@utk.edu, by phone: 865-974-0597, or come to my office: 502 Nielsen Physics.

The accelerator physics group at the Spallation Neutron Source project is seeking interested candidates for undergraduate research internships. The project will involve simulations of high intensity particles beams in the SNS accelerator, and beam loss and radiation deposition calculations, using existing software. This work is a critical part of a larger project focused on designing, fabricating, and installing a laser-based ion stripping system in the SNS accelerator.

The SNS is the most powerful pulsed neutron source in the world, and is driven by the only superconducting proton linac in existence. The combination of new technology and record-breaking beam intensity make the SNS an exciting place to conduct research for students at all levels.

Interested candidates should contact: Sarah Cousineau (scousine@ornl.gov); http://neutrons.ornl.gov/contact/cv/Cousineau/.

  • Theoretical astrophysics, with particular emphasis on computer modeling of stellar explosions: supernova explosions, nova outbursts, X-ray bursts, gamma-ray bursts, calculation of gravitational wave signatures in such events, element production in stellar explosions (r process and rp process) ... Involves collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • Theoretical neutrino astrophysics: role of neutrinos in various areas of astrophysics and cosmology, with particular emphasis on their role in supernova explosions. Involves collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • Implementation of genetic algorithms (mathematical global minimization based on principles of evolutionary genetics) and neural networks for applications to astrophysics problems such as galaxy collisions or extrasolar planets.

Contact: Dr. Mike Guidry

Brightness enhancement of cold neutron source with diamond nanoparticles.

It was recently shown that non-expensive powder of diamond nanoparticles in layers of few centimeters can reflect slow neutrons more efficiently than high-technology neutron super-mirrors. This reflection is not specular, but can be used for enhancement of brightness of neutron sources with the spallation target. Due to this enhancement 1 MW target can shine like 10 MW target. Than can be used e.g. in the design of the neutron spallation source for the "Project-X" accelerator at Fermilab. This research project will be focused on computational Monte-Carlo simulations of the diamond nanoparticle reflectors. To be learned: basics of neutron scattering, computational Monte-Carlo methods, FORTRAN programming, statistics, data analysis and presentations of the results. Students interested in physics and computational methods are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at [kamyshkov@utk.edu]. Immediate involvement in the project this semester (Fall, 2012) is possible for 1,2, or 3 research class credits.

Calculation of possible interaction of Light Dark Matter particles with gas detectors.

Dark Matter is one of the biggest puzzles of the modern physics. It is known definitely that Dark Matter exists in the universe; it is even more abundant than the regular matter; however, the nature of Dark Matter is not understood. This research project will be focused on calculations that should answer the question how Dark Matter can be detected in the gaseous detectors filled with hydrogen or methane. This may allow detection of Dark Matter in the new unexplored region of masses. To be learned: physics of atomic collisions, computational Monte-Carlo methods, FORTRAN programming, statistics, data analysis and presentations of the results. Students interested in physics and computational methods are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at kamyshkov@utk.edu.

The activity of Dr. Mannella's group is based on the study of the electronic structure of strongly correlated electron systems such as high Tc superconductors, thermoelectric materials and giant magnetoresistive materials. Experiments are carried out at synchrotron radiation facilities due to the availability of different soft x-ray spectroscopy such as Angle Resolved Phototemission (ARPES), x-ray absorption (XAS) and x-ray emission (XES). At present, the data analysis is based on a collection of macros running under IGOR software, one of the most common data analysis software. All these macros have been independently developed by the various group that manage the the end stations at synchrotron facilities such as the ALS (Berkeley, CA), APS (Argonne, IL) and Elettra (Trieste, Italy). It is desirable to compile a user-friendly software that could handle the analysis of the data collected in different experiments in only one workbench. Available is a position for a motivated undergraduate student who will be responsible for the design and testing of such as a user-friendly interface, and for writing a new collection of macros based on the existing ones. The project constitutes an opportunity for undergraduate students to learn how different soft x-ray spectroscopic experiments are used to unveil different properties of solids. This experience would also constitute an opportunity for students to acquire a sound knowledge of the basis of data treatment, possibly turning in the near future in an RA position for a Ph.D. degree at UT to study complex electron systems with x-ray based spectroscopies. See Dr. Mannella's website for more information.

The research of the low-energy experimental nuclear physics group is focused on the properties of exotic short-lived nuclei and their reactions which are of consequence for the synthesis of the elements in the cosmos. Our group is very active in detector development and has played a leading role in developing charged-particle detector arrays such as ORRUBA, a neutron detector array; VANDLE; and high efficiency gamma-ray array MTAS. We are currently developing a scintillator array for detecting gamma rays called HAGRiD, based on new generation scintillator material LaBr3(Ce). A particular strength of the group is the tradition of use of digital data acquisition techniques. Students entering the group will be involved in both hardware development and cutting-edge nuclear physics experiments.

Our experiments are run at national user facilities such as the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University, with new experimental programs starting at TRIUMF in Canada, and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

Decay of the most exotic nuclei

One main focus of our group is exploratory research on the most exotic nuclei that can be synthesized. We develop ultra-sensitive detection techniques, and then employ them in discovery experiments at very low production rates. We investigate phenomena that occur only in very unstable isotopes, for example, beta-delayed neutron emission using the VANDLE detector. Our expertise in digital electronics has allowed us to engage recently in the super-heavy element research program, a newly re-open nuclear physics frontier.

Direct reactions

Direct reaction techniques include transferring a single nucleon or multiple nucleons, knocking out a nucleon, or simply scattering a nucleus on a target, and are very sensitive to the structure of the nucleus. Recent developments have allowed these techniques to be used with beams of exotic nuclei, some of which are important to understand reactions in stars or in explosive scenarios, such as novae or supernovae.

Contacts: Prof. Robert Grzywacz, rgrzywac@utk.edu
Prof. Kate Jones, kgrzywac@utk.edu
Assistant Prof. Miguel Madurga, mmadurga@utk.edu

Development of state-of-the-art programming for interactive animation in the sciences. Present efforts center on object-oriented programming in languages like Java and Flash + Actionscript in the fields of astronomy, physics, biology, and genetics. These efforts underlie the development of a next generation of interactive and web-deliverable interactive textbooks in these fields for several major publishers. They also provide the basis for a variety of practical applications such as demonstration for non-specialist audiences of how drugs work in the body, the principles of DNA fingerprinting, science issues in bioterrorism, or how various high-tech medical devices function. Students will participate in the development of those interactive projects and gain extensive practical scientific and programming experience in the process. These projects can have strong overlap with areas 2, 3, and 4 listed under Topics in Computational Science, and the scientific problem depends partially on the interests of the student. Involves programming in some combination of Java, Flash Actionscript, JavaScript, XML technologies such as XML, SVG, or MathML, and database technologies such as PostGresSQL. Contact Professor Mike Guidry at guidry@utk.edu

Symmetry in mathematical physics: application of algebraic symmetry principles to the understanding of problems in various fields of physics (condensed matter, particle physics, nuclear physics). Present efforts center on a new theory of high-temperature superconductivity based on Lie algebras defined in the fermion degrees of freedom, and other possible applications in condensed matter physics. Contact Professor Mike Guidry at guidry@utk.edu

Calculation study of the possibility of Mirror Matter detection.

Results of some recent experiments performed with ultra-cold neutrons can be interpreted as indication of transformation of neutrons to mirror neutrons that disappears from our world. One can see for example popular discussion at http://www.universetoday.com/95870/. Research project will be a calculation study on how to detect such a transformation to mirror matter in a less ambiguous experiment. Students interested in physics, mathematics, and FORTRAN computations are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at kamyshkov@utk.edu.

Calibrate the linearity of liquid scintillator by Compton scattering.

Neutrino oscillation experiment NOνA at Fermilab will employ huge volume of liquid scintillator with mass ~ 10,000 tons where neutrino energies will be measured. A small prototype of this precision detector was built at UT in order to calibrate the linearity of detector energy response with the help of Compton gamma-spectrometer, where monoenergetic gamma-rays scattered at the fixed angle will produce in the scintillator the monoenergetic electrons. Research project will include measurements of NOνA scintillator with the Compton gamma spectrometer at UT lab and the data analysis. To be learned: Compton effect, liquid scintillator detectors, WLS fibers, radioactive gamma source, germanium detector, electronics, trigger, computer data acquisition, LabVIEW, programming, data analysis and presentations of the results. Students interested in physics (not necessarily only physics majors) are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at kamyshkov@utk.edu.

Computational optimization of sensitivity for new NNbarX experiment for Project-X at Fermilab.

New fundamental physics experiment was recently proposed for the Project-X at Fermilab where transformation of matter to antimatter will be searched with cold neutrons from spallation target source. Sensitivity of this experiment depends on large number of different parameters that need to be chosen to optimize the sensitivity and the cost of proposed experiment. This research project will be focused on development of FORTRAN software for neutron transport and sensitivity optimization. To be learned: neutron physics, computational Monte-Carlo methods, FORTRAN programming, statistics, planning of big experiments, data analysis and presentations of the results. Students interested in physics and computational methods are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at kamyshkov@utk.edu.

An approximate model for a neutron gas consists of fermions with a short-range interaction and an infinite scattering length. This model captures some of the essential properties of the nucleon-nucleon interaction and is presently investigated experimentally in ultracold atom gases. We want to investigate such systems theoretically and compute their ground-state energies and densities. Undergraduate students who want to participate in this project should have an interest in theory, and a basic understanding of quantum mechanics. Contact Dr. Thomas Papenbrock.

Looking for a student who likes to get extensive experience in particle detector construction. During 2012-2013 we will build large aria veto system for the Majorana experiment. Majorana is a major USA based initiative to look for a neutrino less double beta decay. Veto system after construction and testing at UT will be relocated into Underground laboratory at the Homestake mine at South Dakota. Contact Dr. Yuri Efremenko.

Study of re-emission of Cherenkov radiation in the liquid scintillator for NOνA neutrino experiment.

Velocity of light in the liquid scintillator in smaller that velocity of light in vacuum. Thus, relativistic particles can move in the scintillator faster than in the vacuum. When it happens, the electro-magnetic shock wave arises, called Cherenkov radiation, mostly with a spectrum in ultraviolet (UV). Research project will include measurements of re-emission of UV radiation which makes it detectable in the visible spectrum of light. UV vacuum monochromator will be used to simulate the Cherenkov radiation. To be learned: optical properties of the materials, liquid scintillator detectors, WLS fibers, vacuum, electrical measurements, amplifiers, LabVIEW, programming, data analysis and presentations of the results. Students interested in physics and particularly in optics and particle detectors (not necessarily only physics majors) are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at kamyshkov@utk.edu.

Undergraduate Research Opportunity in High Energy Particle Physics

The high energy particle physics group of Dr. Spanier is searching for rare decays of the Higgs boson, which if found not to be rare are a sign of physics beyond the Standard Model. These searches require very high beam intensities to collide protons at very high frequencies and creating many particles at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). For this the LHC will be upgraded to the so-called High-Luminosity LHC. The central device for imaging such events in the CMS detector is the silicon pixel detector that is under development. It is a combination of pure silicon material that is bump-bonded to a fast custom readout chip. Charged particles create charge signals in the silicon that are registered in many individual channels of the chip. You can be involved in measurements with particles from radioactive sources and accelerator particle beams (at Fermilab, Chicago) to define the new device. First design options exist and we set up a data acquisition test stand in the SERF building. It has the flexibility to analyze different prototypes. It uses FPGA (free programmable gate array) boards which give you the opportunity to get in touch with this technology. Interested in novel detector readout for the LHC, make it work, and take measurements? Contact Professor Stefan Spanier at sspanier@utk.edu.

Quantum materials, in general, are materials whose electronics properties are understood by laws of quantum mechanics. Interactions between electrons at the atomic and subatomic scales result in exotic quantum phenomena, such as interference, tunneling, quantum fluctuations, quantum entanglement, and topologically non-trivial behaviors. We have a strong team (Haidong Zhou, Jian Liu, and Joon Sue Lee) working on quantum materials synthesis including bulk single crystal growth, thin film growth, and heterostructure deposition, physical properties characterization, evidencing the quantum phenomena, and manipulation of the quantum behavior for potential applications. We welcome highly motivated students to contribute to our efforts and enjoy the scientific adventure with us.

Zhou’s research interests are to discovery new materials possessing abnormal physical properties, such as geometrically frustrated magnetism showing quantum spin behaviors, multiferroicity, orbital ordering, and metal-insulator transitions. The strategies are to grow bulk single crystals of them using various methods including floating zone technique in image furnace, flux method, and chemical vapor transport method, and thereafter study them by x-ray scattering, low temperature and high magnetic field measurements, and neutron scattering measurements.

Liu’s projects span various topics, such as topology-correlation interplay, quantum critical phenomena, quantum magnetism, metal-insulator transition, and unconventional superconductivity. The focus is to identify, design, and create toy-model materials where we can tailor the dimensionality and the symmetry operations to capture fundamental physics of model Hamiltonians, such as the Hubbard model and Heisenberg model. This goal is achieved by exploiting advanced bottom-up synthesis technique, novel elastic strain engineering, multi-modal synchrotron x-ray scattering, and ultralow temperature high magnetic field measurements. In many cases, the observed unusual quantum phenomena also afford unparalleled functionalities for potential applications. Liu’s work involves broad collaborations within the department both experimentally and theoretically. Multiple positions are currently available for students to join Liu’s research on emergent phenomenain quantum condensed matters, which include atomically engineered quantum heterostructures and quantum materials.

Lee employs molecular beam epitaxy to synthesize high-quality thin films and nanostructures of quantum materials, by precise control over layer-by-layer growth in ultrahigh vacuum environment. His research group develops low-dimensional semiconductor systems, such as 1D nanowires, 2D electron gases, and networks of quantum wires by selective area growth, as well as topological materials including topological insulators and semimetals. His research extends to studies on quantum devices based on the grown quantum materials for unveiling fundamental quantum phenomena and exploring future device applications.

The relativistic heavy ion group studies the properties of the Quark Gluon Plasma produced in high energy heavy ion collisions. The hot, dense medium produced in these collisions reaches temperatures over a million times hotter than the core of the sun and energy densities approximately 60 times those of normal nuclear matter. The QGP, dubbed the Perfect Liquid, has the lowest viscosity to entropy density of any fluid ever measured. Our group works on both the PHENIX experiment at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Students working with our group will primarily do data analysis using the C++-based program ROOT. While the details of the project may be adapted depending on the interests and skills of the student and the needs of the group, we envision students studying jet production either in data or simulations. A jet is the collimated spray of particles created when a high energy parton (quark or gluon) hadronizes, or breaks down into lower mass and energy particles. By reconstructing jets the energy of the parton can be partially or wholly reconstructed. Contact Dr. Christine Nattrass.

Create a volume with zero magnetic field.

In a new fundamental physics experiment at Fermilab NNbarX where transformation of matter to antimatter will be searched for the magnetic field of Earth should be reduced by 50,000 times to below ~ 1 nano Tesla level. A small prototype of the shielding system was built at UT Physics lab to learn how different shielding methods and materials can be efficient for the magnetic field suppression. Research project will include measurements and analysis of residual magnetic field for different configurations of the shielding system with the purpose of finding the optimum shielding solution in the maximum volume. To be learned: measurement of weak magnetic fields, properties of ferromagnetics, hysteresis, demagnetization, programming, data analysis and presentation of the results. Students interested in physics (not necessarily only physics majors) are welcome to contact for interview Prof. Yuri Kamyshkov at kamyshkov@utk.edu.

Living systems at all scales ranging from populations of animals to replicating DNA molecules are dynamic, fluctuating, and explicitly out-of-equilibrium. Our group is interested in developing analytic and computational approaches to study such systems. We use tools from statistical physics to elucidate the evolutionary dynamics of spatially distributed populations, pattern morphogenesis on the surfaces of cells, the phase separation of nuclear material in a microbial cell, and many other biological processes. This work is necessarily collaborative, as the best theories are those that make contact with experiment. Our group interacts with, among others, the Mannik group at UTK, the Sweeney group at Yale, and the Tran group at Utrecht University.

We are also interested in fundamental questions in statistical mechanics, which are often addressed by appealing to simplified models and more experimentally accessible systems in condensed matter. For example, our group has started characterizing the motion of domain walls in ferroelectric materials, in collaboration with Petro Maksymovych at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. These walls, in the presence of an applied electric field, move with a velocity that is influenced by both thermal fluctuations and disorder within the material. We aim to build a theory of this driven motion. We are also interested in pattern formation in strongly driven systems. Our recent work builds a field-theoretic approach to understanding a stripe formation in a driven, phase-separating lattice gas model, first developed by our collaborators.

Students can find a wide range of projects depending on their skills and interests. To get an idea of the scope of the work, it may be helpful to consult our publication list.

The best way to get to know us is to contact me at "mlavrent@utk.edu" if you are interested!

  • Development of parallel programming for scientific applications. Students will participate in developing code and implementing it on our parallel cluster, using Message Passing Interface (MPI) with Linux running on the nodes. Possible programming languages include F90, C, C++, and Java.The particular scientific application depends partially on the interests of the student. Depending on application, students may also be given access to larger supercomputers at Oak Ridge National Lab and other high-performance computational centers.
  • Development of a next generation of lightweight, interactive tools for scientific visualization. These tools will exploit the power of Java distributed network programming and vector graphics technologies (SWF and SVG formats). They are intended to be accessible through desktop PCs and standard networks, thus making high-quality collaborative visualization tools available even to research projects with limited budgets and computational resources. (Though our interests are serious, there is strong overlap of these issues with games programming technology. ) The particular scientific application depends partially on the interests of the student. Involves programming in Java and possibly C or C++ , and in XML (Extensible Markup Language) technologies such as scalable vector graphics (SVG).
  • Many workhorse programs in physics and astronomy have crude command-line interfaces that are cumbersome to use compared with modern graphical user interface (GUI) tools that we now expect as standard in non-scientific software. This project, which is closely related to the visualization project of the previous paragraph, develops sophisticated graphical user interfaces for such programs. Although the actual computational programs may be written in various languages (e.g., F90, C, or C++), graphical user interfaces to control them are typically written in Java or C++.
  • Application of high-end data visualization techniques for large-scale simulations of neutron-star mergers, gamma-ray bursts, gravitational wave production, and core-collapse supernovae. Involves collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
  • Development of new methods for solving large systems of coupled differential equations for application in astrophysics, oceanography, geochemistry, and other fields of science. Involves collaboration with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Contact Dr. Mike Guidry


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