USU Undergrad Presents Research at International Physics Meeting
Thursday, Apr. 19, 2007
Undergrad researcher Steve Hart, left, and faculty mentor J.R. Dennison pose beside a vacuum chamber used for materials testing.
When he first stepped into physics professor J.R. Dennison’s materials science lab in January 2006, Utah State University student Steve Hart knew he had a lot to learn. As happy as he was to leave his telemarketing job, the now third-year physics student admits that his first days as a research assistant were a little intimidating.
“I remember going to lab meetings and I could barely follow what others were talking about,” says Hart, who graduated from Pocatello, Idaho’s Highland High in 2002.
Fast forward to March 2007 and Hart was confidently presenting his research on the conductive properties of a complex polymer to members of the American Physics Society – not in an undergraduate session, but as a peer.
“Very few undergraduates are invited to present at the meeting,” says Dennison. “It’s a major challenge but I knew Steve was up to it.”
Months before, Dennison was impressed with Hart’s reaction to comments made by peers to the undergrad’s earlier presentation in preparation for a regional meeting. “Steve took the extensive suggestions from the group to heart and something clicked,” says Dennison. “His revised presentation was very well organized and delivered. He grasped the nuances of the problem very clearly and it was obvious he’d made the connection between his hard work in the lab and the knowledge he was quickly acquiring in his field of research.”
Hart is exploring a quantum-based theory known as “hopping conductivity” – an idea originally developed to describe the electrical behavior of semiconductors when subjected to electrical fields – and applying it to a polymer known as Hytrel. A highly insulating material, Hytrel is among the choices under consideration for use on NASA’s planned James Webb Space Telescope, expected successor to the Hubble.
“Not much is known about Hytrel,” says Hart. “NASA is funding extensive tests to more accurately predict how it will behave in space.”
Nor is it known if a hopping conductivity model can be validly applied to complicated polymers such as Hytrel.
With funding from a College of Science Undergraduate Research Mini-Grant, Hart studied Hytrel last summer using a constant voltage resistivity test method over a range of electrical fields. “Among other things I noticed that Hytrel responded extremely slowly to an applied electric field,” he says. “That observation prompted my work over the last several months.”
With continued testing, Hart noticed several unusual patterns emerging. “I had a whole bunch of data but no idea what it meant,” he says.
Dennison introduced Hart to the work of Richard Zallen, a condensed matter physicist with Virginia Tech, who has conducted extensive research into polymer physics and electron transport. While perusing one of Zallen’s texts, the two found a graph describing dispersive transport during tests of a semiconductor that was remarkably similar to the pattern Hart had seen with Hyrtel.
“We don’t yet understand the significance of our findings, but we think it’s worth continued investigation,” says Hart.
Among the attendees at Hart’s APS presentation was Zallen. “He helped me understand what I don’t know,” Hart says. “Although I have much to learn, I do feel like my research now has a direction.”
Hart says his research experience introduced him to a common conundrum among scientists. “The quest for answers often leads to more questions.”
He hopes to secure further funding to continue his pursuit and is grateful for the opportunity to pursue what he calls “creative science.”
“Much of the research in our country is need-driven, deadline-driven and the focus is on applied science and technology transfer,” says Hart. “But a lot of important discoveries have resulted from tinkering. When you’re allowed the freedom and support to be creative, you sometimes discover things that you might otherwise miss.”
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto [firstname.lastname@example.org], 435-797-1429