Undergraduate Research Opportunities

Fundamental Theory Group: Fields, Astrophysics, and Spacetime Theory (FAST)

Maria Rodriguez - Mentor

General Relativity and Black Hole Physics

My research focuses on theoretical aspect of black holes - which are one of the most fascinating objects in the Universe - and the astonishing effects they have in the surrounding space-time. In the frontier of theoretical relativity, string theory and astrophysics over the past years I have been studying and finding new black hole solutions of Einstein's Theory, deciphering patterns of the emitted signals as objects fall into the black holes and investigating the mechanisms by which black holes generate the most energetic beams captured by mankind after the Big Bang.

Skills: Programming skills and some level of differential geometry are desirable.

Charles Torre - Mentor

Gravitation, Relativity, Field Theory, Mathematical Physics, Geometrical Methods in Physics

Research opportunities are based upon a large collaborative research project involving development and applications of algebraic computing software for analysis of gravitation and relativistic field theory

Good computer and math skills are a must.

Oscar Varela - Mentor

String theory and supergravity

While gravity was the first fundamental interaction to be understood at the classical level, its quantisation remains an outstanding problem in theoretical physics. String theory is a candidate theory of quantum gravity that encompasses as a bonus all other fundamental interactions. Research in this topic includes the construction of solutions to the underlying supergravity equations and applications of the AdS/CFT correspondence.

Prerequisites include classical and quantum mechanics and good math skills.

Jim Wheeler - Mentor

Quantum field theory, general relativity, gauge theory, mathematical physics

Current topics of interest include: Gauge field theories of gravity, twistor string theory, supersymmetry, quantum field theory, general relativity, Hamiltonian and quantum mechanics as conformal gauge theories. The last of these is most suitable for undergraduate involvement.

Prerequisite tools include multivariate calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. Advance tutoring in differential forms, differential geometry, Lie groups, and Lie algebras is desirable.

Surface Physics Group: Center for Surface Analysis and Applications (CSAA)

JR Dennison - Mentor

Experimental Solid State Physics

The Materials Physics Group studies properties of materials and their interaction with electron, ion and photon beams. A particular emphasis has been characterization of materials used in spacecraft construction and the prediction and mitigation of spacecraft charging due to interactions with the space plasma environment for projects funded through NASA and private companies. Projects can involve instrumentation development and construction, computer automation, data acquisition, data modeling and analysis, and theoretical calculations. Topics include:

    1. Electron Transport in highly insulating materials: investigates the conductivity, luminosity, polarizability, and electrostatic breakdown of highly insulating thin film polymer, ceramic and composite materials. The focus is to understand the physics underlying the changes in electron transport that occurs over long time periods, and in response to variations in temperature, electron flux, charge accumulation and radiation damage.
    2. Electron Emission studies: involves measurement and data analysis of the number, energy and angle of electrons emitted from materials as a result of incident electron, ion and photon beams. A recent emphasis has been electron emission from charged and uncharged insulators.

Skills: Experience in experimentation and techniques such as electronics, computer interfacing, vacuum physics, cryogenics, surface physics methods, data and error analysis, and scientific writing are useful, but can also be acquired or enhanced during the course of the project. Skills in numerical methods and programming are useful for data analysis and transport simulations.

Mark Riffe - Mentor

Solid State Physics—Experiments, Data Analysis, and Modeling

My current research interest is vibrational dynamics of solids. Vibrations impact a number of physical properties, including the transport of heat and charge through a material. A main goal of this research is to understand how vibrations at single-crystal surfaces differ from vibrations inside the material. We model vibrational structure using an embedded-atom-method (EAM) theory, which is implemented in MatLab computer code.

Formal experience with another programming language, such as Fortran or C++, should be sufficient for a student to get started on this project.

TC Shen - Mentor


  1. Carbon nanotubes: Many applications involving carbon nanotubes require metallic substrates, but CNTs are notoriously difficult to grow on metals. This research involves exploring new catalyst deposition techniques to nucleate nanoparticles for CNT growth on copper, stainless steel, aluminum, and perhaps diamond.
  2. Functional devices: Digital computation devices have improved our productivity tremendously. With the development of new materials and paradigms many other types of devices at micro to nanometer scale can improve our lives too. This research involves patterning and functionalizing vertically aligned carbon nanotubes for chemical and biological sensing.

Students who are responsible, creative, curious, patient, and careful and with some programming experience (LabVIEW preferred) are welcome to apply.

Space Physics Group

Ludger Scherliess - Mentor

Space Physics - Space Weather Modeling, Data Analysis

My interests involve what is broadly referred to as space weather. I am particularly interested in the Earth's ionosphere and in the development of weather models for this region. These models are much like the ones that are used for our daily weather forecasts. Undergraduate students can be involved in the development and testing of these models, in the monitoring and analysis of the dayto-day space weather, or in the study of ionospheric weather over regions like North America, Europe, or Asia.

Data Analysis: Large quantities of ionospheric data are available on a daily basis from observations on the ground and from satellites. I use this data to study physical processes that are active in the ionosphere. Undergraduate students can be involved in the analysis and interpretation of this data and/or can compare the data with output from numerical/theoretical models of the ionosphere.

Skills: Programming skills (C, Fortran, etc.) and a basic knowledge of data and error analysis are of advantage, but can also be acquired during the course.

Jan Sojka - Mentor

Space physics

I am specifically interested in: instruments to monitor the upper atmosphere, both from the ground and from satellites; data analysis and interpretation of measurements obtained from such instruments; development of computer and analytic models of the upper atmosphere (solar-terrestrial physics), and project management. A specific example of an interest would be a ground-based GPS receiver that also monitors the effects of the ionosphere on your location. Other instruments used in my research are ionosondes, magnetometers, and VLF receivers, examples of which are operating at the USU Bear Lake Observatory in Northern Utah. Currently NASA data streams from the ACE satellite provide monitoring of the solar wind, and from the SDO EVE instrument a real time monitoring of the solar irradiance that creates the dayside ionosphere are data streams used in our models.

I am also the faculty mentor of the USU Get Away Special Program—an interdisciplinary undergraduate organization that designs, fabricates, tests, and flies experiments in space. Currently, MRT students are working on a 1 kg “cubesat” to celebrate the 1957/58 anniversary of Sputnik 1, the first man-made satellite to orbit Earth. However we missed this anniversary! The team has in the interim flown in zero gravity on three separate NASA zero-g flight competitions and placed an experiment on the International Space Station. Currently the team is working up the "cubesat" for a picture of the Earth mission as well as gearing up for tracking satellite drag POPACS spheres.

David Smith - Mentor

Space Physics – Space Weather and HF Propagation

The High Frequency Radio Wave Propagation Group (HFRP) is currently monitoring an international beacon network across 5 radio bands, gathering data that allows us to study key parameters that affect radio wave propagation. Findings from these studies will provide better understanding of radio wave propagation generally and has the potential to uncover deeper insights into the effects of Solar Energetic Proton (SEP) events and Polar Cap Absorption (PCA) events. Our goal is to provide students the opportunity to engage in meaningful research that builds upon their academic courses, practice real-world applications of learned principles, gain experience in collecting, formatting, and analyzing data, and presenting their findings. Some areas of research include, space weather, D-region absorption, HF propagation, antenna basics, and transmission line basics.

Mike Taylor - Mentor

Upper Atmospheric Imaging Studies

My research group utilizes an array of sensitive digital and video imaging systems for studying a range of upper atmospheric optical phenomena. These include acoustic-gravity waves, polar mesospheric clouds, equatorial ionospheric instabilities, thunderstorm-induced transients called "sprites" and "elves", infrared meteor emissions, and satellite re-entry tracking and disintegration. We operate cameras at a number of sites around the world for long-term measurements of the atmosphere. Our remotely operated cameras in Utah, Chile, South Pole, Antarctica (and soon in northern Norway) are used to study the global variability of atmospheric gravity waves and their dissipation signatures, while other studies such a sprite imaging are usually performed on a campaign basis, most recently from southern Brazil. We are also Co-Investigators on the NASA Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) mission to study the dynamics of polar mesospheric clouds (NASA Group Achievement Award 2008), which are the highest clouds on Earth at an altitude of 82 km (50 miles). Graduate and undergraduate students are involved in all aspects of these programs, including field measurements, data analysis and presentations at scientific meetings. In particular, undergraduate students participate in regular group meetings where we discuss ongoing (Taylor continued) research results and they also have the opportunity to participate in the annual CEDAR conference at Boulder, Colorado in June (sponsored by the National Science Foundation). At CEDAR the students participate in seminars, workshops and present posters of their research work to leading scientists in this field and to fellow undergraduate and graduate students.

Titus Yuan - Mentor


My research current projects are focusing on optical remote sensing of the upper atmosphere. Measurements are made with a Faraday filter based ultra-narrow band Sodium spectrometer for Na nightglow measurement and an advanced Na lidar. This allows us to measure neutral temperature and horizontal wind with high spatial and temporal resolutions in the “mesopause region” near the bottom of thermosphere, the boundary layer that connects the neutral atmosphere and ionosphere. The complexity of atmospheric dynamic and chemical processes in the region makes it extremely difficult for precise model simulations and, thus, requires large amount of observations to help scientists’ understandings of these processes and how they affect the coupling between the lower and upper atmosphere.

I am interested in hiring students with some basic optics knowledge and experimental skills, since the above projects are all laser/optical physics related. To understand these measurements, I am also (Yuan continued) studying atmospheric dynamics and ion-neutral coupling in the upper atmosphere, so students would be involved in some projects that require data analysis and calculations of some critical parameters. Thus, programing skill (no requirement for the tools) would be desired.

Jonathan Price - Mentor

LIDAR (LIght Detection and Ranging) Used to Explore the Middle Atmosphere (30 km to 115 km)

The Rayleigh Scatter Lidar located on top of the SER building is a valuable instrument for observing the middle atmosphere. It began operation in 1993 and is still being used today. A high-power Nd:YAG laser, known colloquially as the green beam, directed vertically into the sky causes scattering of the neutral molecules in the atmosphere which we can then detect with our array of large telescopes. The return signal is reduced into absolute neutral densities and temperatures using an optimal estimation approach. Python is our primary data analysis software. Using these data, studies have been made into noctilucent clouds, gravity waves, tides, planetary waves, and long-term trends. There is still much work to be done studying energy transport, coupling of the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere and thermosphere and their interactions, and what role weather and climate change play on the middle atmosphere. We anticipate future instrumental improvements that will allow us to extend the reach of our system both downwards and upwards.

Plasma Physics Group

Eric Held - Mentor

Theoretical/computational plasma physics—Stability and transport in magnetically confined plasmas

Possible projects:

  1. Explore relativistic corrections in plasma kinetic theory and computation.
  2. Study particle, momentum and heat transport in magnetized fusion plasmas.
  3. Develop novel numerical treatments of the Coulomb collision operator for ionized plasmas. (Held continued)

Skills: E&M, Newtonian Mechanics, Thermal Physics, Lagrangian/Hamiltonian Dynamics, Fluid Mechanics, Fortran programming experience and Unix skills (or a willingness to learn).

Jeong-Young Ji - Mentor

Plasma kinetic/fluid theory

Possible projects:

  1. Develop a plasma fluid model including runaway electrons
  2. Study heat confinement with the integral (non-local) heat flow

Skills: Mathematical Physics and Programming

Complexity and Nonlinear Dynamics

Boyd Edwards - Mentor


I model the dynamics of charged and neutral particles in solution in response to applied electric fields. Applications include forensic and disease detection in microfluidic lab-on-a-chip devices. These devices are like computer chips but with electronic pathways replaced by fluid pathways.

Skills: Strong interest in theoretical electromagnetism and Newtonian mechanics, and programming experience.

David Peak - Mentor

Complex systems


My interests involve modeling and analyzing “complex dynamical systems” and “complex materials.” By “complex” I mean systems consisting of many elementary pieces whose collective activity results in unexpected and surprising behavior. I am especially interested in how biological systems (plants, colonial organisms, brains) process information, reallocate resources, and correct errors through complex dynamics, and whether such processes can be mimicked in nanoscale electronic circuits to help them function better than more conventional strategies.

My research is highly interdisciplinary and is partly computational, partly theoretical, and partly experimental. Students interested in working with me/us should have (a) some programming skills (C++, Python, or some dialect of Basic or Fortran) or some familiarity with Mathematica, Maple, Mathcad, or Matlab, (b) good familiarity with calculus and algebra, and/or (c) the ability to make delicate measurements without destroying stuff.

Some facts about undergraduate research in Physics at USU

  • Except for the Physics and Composite Physical Science teaching majors, all degree programs in Physics require at least 2 credits of Physics 4900 – Research in Physics. This requirement is designed to give the student a taste of what real science is like (as opposed to doing canned labs or solving end-ofchapter homework problems) before they graduate.
  • Though Physics 4900 is usually taken in the senior year, most Physics majors get involved in research earlier—some as early as first term freshmen. Getting started early in some kind of scientific work outside of the classroom is strongly encouraged by the faculty. With extended experience, students often can be employed as research assistants on faculty grants.
  • Many physics majors continue to gradate study after leaving USU and ultimately establish research careers. Those who enter the technical workforce immediately after receiving their BS degrees invariably attribute their employment success to their undergraduate research experience.
  • Faculty listed above have substantial experience mentoring undergraduates. Their students have received prestigious awards, including Rhodes, Fulbright, and Goldwater Scholarships and honorable mentions, national SPS Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher awards, and College of Science Undergraduate Researchers of the Year. Dennison, Taylor, and Peak have also been named College of Science Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentors.