Undergraduate Research Projects in Physics

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1- Design principles of molecular machines

          David Sivak dsivak@sfu.ca website
All living organisms face several fundamental physical challenges in their everyday existence. Among these are: the maintenance of order despite the propensity of everything to eventually get messy (a.k.a., the Second Law of Thermodynamics); and the performance of mechanically demanding tasks with the incredibly jiggly materials at hand (a.k.a., proteins). My group’s theoretical and computational biophysics research focuses on determining in this context the design principles for effective operation of molecular machines (proteins that convert between different forms of energy, but are 100 million times smaller than the car engines that engineers already know how to design). More specifically: what are the physical limits on how well these machine can operate; what kinds of designs achieve these limits; and (in collaboration with experimentalists) do real, evolved biomolecular machines actually conform with these theoretical predictions? We have a few projects (either working independently or in collaboration with a graduate student) that involve computational simulation of the behavior of model molecular machines, such as ATP synthase (an ingenious crankshaft that makes the basic chemical currency in all living things) and kinesin (an equally ingenious bipedal ‘walker’ that transports cargos along the cytoskeletal tracts that criss-cross every cell). With this simulation data we can examine the soundness and usefulness of recently developed theoretical frameworks (our own and others’) to understand how molecular machines can maximize their miles per gallon. A successful summer would produce theoretical ideas to be tested in later experiments, and (with some follow-up during the next school year) would produce a paper for publication. The day-to-day work involves writing computer programs to simulate dynamics (typically in Python, Matlab, or C/C++, but we are flexible), debugging (sad but true) and testing your programs to make sure they do what you intend, and analyzing the data you generate. These projects are generally best suited for students with some exposure to statistical/thermal physics and computer programming, but most important is enthusiasm to pursue the ideas and dedication to solve problems.

2- Unconventional superconductivity

          David Broun dbroun@sfu.ca website
Our research group studies unconventional superconductivity in materials such as cuprate high temperature superconductors, heavy fermion systems, organics and ruthenates. On the experimental side, we use microwave spectroscopy to measure superfluid density and quasiparticle dynamics and to look for order parameter collective modes and states that break time reversal symmetry. On the theoretical side, we carry out phenomenological studies of these systems using models based on realistic parameterizations of electronic structure and disorder potentials. We then use Greens function techniques to calculate experimental properties such as superfluid density and optical conductivity, allowing us to compare with experiment. The goal of the project will be to carry out a complete investigation of a particular unconventional superconductor, using our powerful and easy-to-use dilution fridge system. The student will have the opportunity to work on subprojects that include some or all of the following: theory of superconductivity and correlated electron systems; mechanical design and construction of low temperature apparatus; microwave electronics and signal processing; experiment automation and data acquisition; and data analysis and modelling.

3- Beta- and Neutrino-less Double Beta Decay Studies Using Sophisticated Radiation Detectors

          Corina Andreoiu corina_andreoiu@sfu.ca website
We are seeking motivated candidates with a good background in science and decent computer skills to investigate exotic nuclei and their decays. The students should be genuinely interested in experimental nuclear physics and be highly motivated to learn. Following your internship with us, we guarantee you that your CV will stand out and you gain a set of skills that are equally transferable to both academia and industry. The prospective students will get familiar with fundamental concepts on subatomic particles, particle accelerators, radioactive/unstable beams and nuclei, radioactive decays, quantum mechanics, interaction of radiation with matter, nuclear instrumentation and detectors, computers and simulations, etc. It is expected that the students will work in collaboration with other students and postdoctoral fellows and participate in experiments at TRIUMF.

4- Beta decay using radioactive beams and large spectrometers

          Corina Andreoiu corina_andreoiu@sfu.ca
We have openings for motivated students interested in gaining experience in research in the area of experimental nuclear physics. Our projects use radiation detectors to study the nuclear decays of various beams to investigate nuclei with an unbalanced number of protons and neutron that are created in laboratory. If you have taken quantum mechanics and particle physics courses, and have computer skills, come and work with us for a summer or a term.

5- Operation of a gamma-ray CUBE spectrometer at the Nuclear Science Laboratory

          Krzysztof Starosta starosta@sfu.ca website
The quest to develop a fundamental understanding of the nuclear interaction is aided greatly through measurements made with complex, multi-detector systems. As these systems allow for both an increase in total efficiency due to greater angular coverage as well as correlation measurements in both time and space, the information which can be probed using these detectors is greatly increased over single-detector systems. With an increase in both number of detectors and complexity of detector systems comes challenges in data acquisition. As each detector can obtain data independently, the required throughput of the data acquisition system also increases. To address this problem, real-time event filtering can be performed on the data to only process and store events with certain characteristics. Traditional methods for event filtering require large arrays of electronics to perform logic on unprocessed data, which can be both cost and space prohibited for small laboratories in addition to being difficult to scale to larger systems. At the Nuclear Science lab at SFU, we implement a single unit, computer controlled XLM72S universal logic module to perform real-time event filtering. Specifically, the XLM72S logic module has been implemented in the data acquisition system for the CUBE spectrometer, a detector system consisting of 6 Compton Suppressed Spectrometers at the faces of a cube. The USRA student will be working to maintain, optimize, and operate both the event filtering and CUBE detector systems in order to perform experiments. The student will develop and utilize skills in gamma ray spectroscopy, data acquisition, and general nuclear physics. Opportunities to publish experimental results may be available.

6- Fun with feedback, stat phys, and thermodynamics

          John Bechhoefer johnb@sfu.ca
Feedback can regulate the temperature of our homes or our bodies, the flow of fluid in a pipe, drive autonomous cars on a road, and more. But there are more creative uses, too: we can use feedback to create entire new dynamics for particles. Placing a small silica bead in water in a “virtual potential” created by a feedback loop gives us nearly complete freedom to implement what had been only thought experiments: Maxwell’s demon, Szilard’s engine, Landauer’s bit erasure, and more. At SFU, we have several setups for exploring such questions. Previous undergraduate students who have visited the lab have worked on projects ranging from the technical development of new techniques for trapping to new ideas for controlling effective damping (dissipation) to new versions of the classic thought experiments described above. We also explore new ways to make the control of systems more “robust”. Depending on your interests and experience, you can work on a project that will be interesting, challenging, and fun.

7- Rydberg- and autoionizing state spectroscopy using laser resonance ionization

          Jens Lassen LASSEN@sfu.ca website
The laser applications group at TRIUMF - Canada's particle accelerator centre provides intense beams of radioactive isotopes for user experiments. This is done by using element selective resonant laser ionization. To this end we are investigating the relevant atomic states, i.e. Rydberg and autoionizing states for elements of interest. Students will be introduced to atomic physics and laboratory principles, instrumentation, and techniques in order to prepare them to conduct laser resonance ionization spectroscopy on an element of interest (current elements of interest: Hg, Ga, Au, Bi) at our laser ion source test stand facility. Data taking and data evaluation will close off the research project. In parallel students will experience research at a large scale user facility for nuclear and particle physics, and will be embedded in the TRIUMF undergarduate and coop-student program.

8- Materials Synthesis and Characterization

          Eundeok Mun emun@sfu.ca website
Our group is focused on the discovery and synthesis of novel materials with unusual magnetic and electronic ground states as well as the coupling between them. We are particularly interested in, however not limited to, magnetism, superconductivity, and quantum criticality. Our research is more fundamental than applicable. Why is this important? Materials synthesis is a milestone, to a certain extent, because it provides objects to any further studies. If new compounds are synthesized, new properties could be found, leading towards new directions of research. Exploratory synthesis of materials and their characterizations contribute to building a large body of knowledge. Fundamental research and materials discovery ultimately affects the strength of industry and therefore the economy. From the earliest days of condensed matter physics to the latest 21st century initiatives, the pioneering ideas and technologies of materials physics have transformed every aspect of society. Nature has many surprises and has provided an abundance of exotic properties for researchers in structurally complex materials. The exploration of phase-spaces will reveal more unexpected phenomena. The student will synthesize a range of magnetic and electronic materials, and characterize the grown samples by means of XRD, magnetization, electrical resistivity, and specific heat measurements.

9- Higgs Boson Properties - Particle Physics (ATLAS)

          Bernd Stelzer stelzer@sfu.ca website
The Group The SFU experimental particle physics group (hep.phys.sfu.ca) currently consists of four faculty (Matthias Danninger, Dugan O'Neil, Bernd Stelzer, and Mike Vetterli), four postdoctoral fellows, and 7 graduate students. We are actively involved in the ATLAS experiment and have openings for ATLAS students this summer. The ATLAS Experiment: This experiment is running at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva (atlas.ch). The accelerator is colliding 2 beams of 6.5 TeV protons in order to study, among other things, the mechanism of electro-weak symmetry breaking. The biggest physics breakthrough of 2012 has been the discovery of the Higgs boson by the ATLAS and CMS experiments. Our group contributed to the this milestone discovery and is very active in determining other properties of the Higgs boson. In the past 5 years, our group has helped determine the spin/CP properties of the Higgs boson and identified two additional Higgs boson production modes (VBF and ttH production). Most of these measurements were enabled by the use of advanced analysis techniques (Matrix Element Method, Machine Learning). We are also searching for phenomena that cannot be explained by the Standard Model of particle physics. Such phenomena would point the way to new theories that would extend the already impressive predictions of the Standard Model. Looking to the future, our group has taken on substantial responsibility in the development of the New ATLAS Inner Tracking detector (ITk) increasing the number of space points measurements 50-fold. We are leading the ITk activities in Western Canada, developing ITk silicon detector modules in cleanroom facilities at SFU and TRIUMF. Summer Projects on ATLAS at SFU: In your summer project, you will be able to contribute to determining the properties of the Higgs boson. In particular, we analyze the data that show evidence of Higgs boson decays to two massive W bosons. We are developing novel analysis techniques to increase the sample of Higgs events that lead recently to the first observation of VBF production in H-->WW event using the full LHC Run-2 dataset. We are adding additional observables to the existing results. Once completed, the analysis will likely lead to a paper publication.

10- Topics in theoretical quantum optics and quantum information

          Hoi-Kwan (Kero) Lau kero_lau@sfu.ca website
The `strange’ behavior of quantum mechanics also provides exceptional opportunities for humanity to build much more powerful devices. There have been many ideas of using quantum physics to make computers faster, communication more secure, sensors more sensitive, and many more. Our group focuses on a particular type of quantum devices that built with harmonic oscillators, such as light, quantum motion, a large collection of spins, etc. Through theoretical investigations, we want to look for the origins of problems in currently imperfect quantum devices, and explore strategies to get rid of the problems. Current undergraduate (honor thesis or USRA) project ideas include: 1. Devising controls of harmonic oscillator quantum information in trapped ion or superconductor quantum computers; 2. Studying how the exceptionally sensitive non-Hermitian quantum sensor can be used in quantum computation; 3. Analyzing various strategies that improve the efficiency of using optomechanics device to convert microwave to light; 4. Any other things in my mind. Students are also welcome to bring in topics and develop the research project together with me.

11- Single-molecule studies of protein and polymer mechanics

          Nancy Forde nforde@sfu.ca website
The Forde lab specializes in molecular biophysics, specifically focused on the relationship between chemical composition and mechanical properties of biological macromolecules. We utilize a range of techniques from physics, chemistry and biochemistry to manipulate and characterize these systems. This project focuses on collagen, the predominant structural protein building block of our connective tissues and extracellular matrices. In spite of its key importance to our physiology and health, and its wide use in a variety of biomaterials, fundamental questions remain unanswered regarding its structure and mechanics at the molecular level. Summer projects focus on characterizing the mechanics of this protein at the single-molecule level, using the imaging technique of atomic force microscopy (AFM) or with a high-throughput force spectroscopy technique, centrifuge force microscopy (CFM), both established techniques in our lab. Alternative project possibilities may involve instrumentation design and calibration of new microscopy and force spectroscopy instruments, and/or development of new image analysis algorithms.

12- Calibration studies for the Pacific Ocean Neutrino Explorer

          Matthias Danninger mdanning@sfu.ca website
The Pacific Ocean Neutrino Explorer (P-ONE) is an initiative to construct one of the world's largest neutrino detectors in the deep Pacific Ocean. Located in the Cascadia Basin region of the Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), P-ONE will consist of cutting-edge photosensors arranged in a three-dimensional array along 10 cables (strings). Each string will extend a kilometre upwards from the ocean floor, with a 50 m inter string spacing, instrumenting more than a 1/8 km3 volume. This provides sensitivity to very high-energy neutrinos originating from some of the most extreme astrophysical processes in the Universe. P-ONE collaborators and ONC's operations team have already been able to build, test, deploy and operate a particle physics payload at the Cascadia Basin site. These detectors consist of calibration modules to characterize the P-ONE site for a neutrino telescope. These P-ONE precursors, STRAW (STRings for Attenuation length in Water, deployed in 2018) and STRAW-b (deployed in 2020) allow systematic and independent determinations of the optical properties of the ocean water. The primary objective of this USRA project is to contribute to ongoing data analyses using the STRAW-b calibration data.

13- Studying Polymer Morphology

          Barbara Frisken frisken@sfu.ca website
In my research group, we are studying the morphology of ion-conducting polymers, with the long-term goal of improving material properties of polymer electrolyte membranes (PEMs) for fuel-cell applications. Good conductivity in PEMs depends on polymer morphology and ionic nanostructure; controlling this morphology is essential to the design of high-performance materials. These experiments will contribute to the fundamental understanding necessary to optimize polymer design for fuel cell applications, and ultimately aid our transition to a low-carbon society. Several projects are possible, depending on interest. Most will involve experiments using light scattering or X-ray scattering, some data analysis and modelling. Changes in morphology at nanometer length scales will be monitored using a state-of-the-art small-angle X-ray scattering instrument recently installed in Simon Fraser University’s materials facility. These changes will be compared to results of simulations and chemical studies.

14- Magnetic interface phenomena

          Erol Girt egirt@sfu.ca website
Students will be involved in fabrication of magnetic multilayers and micrometer size pillars and study of their structural, magnetic and electric properties.

15- Terahertz Conductivity Measurements

          J. Steven Dodge jsdodge@sfu.ca website
Our group uses time-domain terahertz spectroscopy to determine the terahertz-frequency conductivity of semiconductors, metals, and superconductors. With this information we can experimentally determine the mobility of semiconductors, the carrier scattering lifetimes of metals, and the superfluid density of superconductors. Generally, we try to choose materials that are not well understood within the current frameworks of condensed matter physics, particularly metals in which magnetic fluctuations play a role in determining the electrical conductivity. An NSERC USRA would take on the responsibility for measuring the temperature-dependent terahertz conductivity of one or two materials that we are studying, and analyze the resulting data in light of current condensed matter theory. Materials currently under study include high temperature superconductors and MnSi, a magnetic metal that is associated with an interesting quantum phase transition.

16- Finding new Physics with Global Fits in particle and astroparticle physics (ATLAS, GAMBIT)

          Matthias Danninger mdanning@sfu.ca website
Many different probes are sensitive to physics beyond the Standard Model (BSM): direct and indirect searches for dark matter (DM), accelerator searches, and neutrino experiments. Experiments such as CRESST, Fermi-LAT and PAMELA may even already show tantalising hints of DM. To make robust conclusions about the overall level of support for different BSM scenarios from such varied sources, a simultaneous statistical fit of all the data, fully taking into account all relevant uncertainties, assumptions and correlations is an absolute necessity. This approach is commonly called a `global fit'. Such holistic analyses exploit the synergy between different experimental approaches to its maximum potential. Robust analysis of correlated signals, in a range of complementary experiments, is essential for claiming a credible discovery of DM or new physics at the TeV scale – and indeed, even for definitively excluding theories. This `win-win' 'situation is a particular feature of a global fit analysis, as even non-detections provide crucial physical insight into which theories and parameter regions are disfavoured. In this summer student project the student will integrate in a first step the latest ATLAS Run 2 results into this global-fit framework. In a second step they will perform a smaller-size global fit of a sensitive model, to see what impact their newly integrated analyses have.

17- Development of single ZnO nanowires for quantum information studies

          Simon Watkins simonw@sfu.ca website
Zinc oxide is a semiconducting material that is under active investigation for a variety of potential applications including visible and UV LEDs and laser diodes, UV optical detectors, gas sensors, etc. Recently it has been shown that donor spins in ZnO can be optically addressed as possible quantum bit (qubits). In order to investigate the feasibility of this approach we are studying the growth of single nanowires as a platform to ultimately address a single donor spin The candidate will assist in the growth of ZnO nanowires and their characterization by optical techniques as well as electron microscopy. Experience with data collection and analysis (e.g. Labview, Python, Matlab, IGOR etc.) are an asset. Some knowledge of basic semiconductor physics is desirable but not necessary.

18- Staying in Phase

          Karen Kavanagh kavanagh@sfu.ca website
The student will carry out glancing incidence x-ray diffraction and planview electron microscopy to evaluate the perfection in the structure of 2-D materials grown by CVD. They will also measure the transmission of coherent He+ ion beams through the 2-D material with comparisons to theoretical models. They will be jointly supervised by graduate students working on electron holography, ion beam diffraction, and 2-D materials growth and device fabrication.

19- Muon Studies of Quantum Materials

          Jeff Sonier jsonier@sfu.ca website
Quantum materials are being widely explored for their novel and fascinating electronic, magnetic and optical properties that emerge from underlying exotic collective properties of electrons, and are already leading to innovative technologies and advanced applications. The use of the muon as a sensitive local probe of internal magnetic fields through a collection of techniques known as muon spin rotation/relaxation/resonance (µSR) has evolved into a powerful research tool for the study of quantum materials. This project primarily involves µSR studies of quantum materials (e.g., superconductors, topological insulators, magnetically-frustrated heavy fermion systems) at TRIUMF's Centre for Molecular and Materials Science. Between scheduled experiments, preliminary sample characterization and data analysis will be worked on at SFU.

20- Quantum computing: Quantum control and qubit hardware development

          Stephanie Simmons s.simmons@sfu.ca website
We have known the laws of quantum mechanics for nearly a century, however we have yet to fully harness these physical processes to build quantum technologies. Quantum technologies such as physically-encrypted quantum communications (as opposed to todays computationally-encrypted schemes such as RSA), and powerful quantum computers (able to exponentially outperform todays computers at specific key tasks) are still under construction. The worldwide race is on. Our lab is working to build these technologies using silicon, the very material used for modern CMOS semiconductor chips. Not only is this to benefit from the large and highly successful semiconductor industry - one could readily imagine a quantum co-processor - it is also the material of choice because the quantum bits embedded in silicon are arguably the best solid-state quantum bits ("qubits") available.

Our team aims to link silicon spin qubits using photons by using carefully engineered integrated photonic circuits in silicon. There is a lot to do, and there are a number of projects that motivated students could fit into a summer which will hopefully lead to a publication. Particular projects will be chosen to match the capabilities and interests of the successful USRA applicant(s). These projects could include a selection from:

Software (simulation and application of quantum algorithms, development of our quantum control software package)

Hardware (engineering of custom cryogenic quantum equipment able to deliver pulsed and CW optical, microwave and radio quantum-control signals to the qubits, qubit measurement tools)

Design (integrated photonic circuit simulation, design, testing and analysis, chip screening, fabrication, and quality assurance).

21- Lipid nanoparticle phase behaviour

          Jenifer Thewalt jthewalt@sfu.ca website
Solid state deuterium nuclear magnetic resonance is a uniquely powerful experimental approach to the study of phospholipid structure in lipid membranes, yielding quantitative and sensitive determinations of the conformational order of lipid chains as well as the membrane topology. Cell membranes have traditionally been characterized as liquid crystalline lipid bilayers containing membrane proteins and other membrane-associating biomolecules. Membranes are effective barriers to many drugs, including those used in gene therapy, but recent advances in the design of drug delivery vehicles have been promising. Specifically, the use of small interfering RNA complexed with lipids in the form of lipid nanoparticles (LNP) has been an area of great excitement. See, for example, Figure 3 in Fougerolle et al., "Interfering with disease: a progress report on siRNA-based therapeutics" Nature Reviews Drug Discovery 6, 443-453 (2007). These lipid complexes typically contain positively charged lipids which stabilize the negatively charged RNA "cargo". Understanding how LNPs associate with endosomal membranes to eventually release the cargo into the cytoplasm requires understanding how these unusual positively charged lipids behave - how susceptible to form non-bilayer phases are they? Endosomal membranes contain a significant amount of negatively charged lipids, one of the most important being lysobisphosphatidic acid (LBPA). The project will determine how LBPA interacts with cationic lipids. The results of this study are expected to directly benefit researchers optimizing the design of lipidic drug delivery vehicles.


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