Research in Physics + Astronomy

So many theories, so little time

Whether your focus is liberal arts, applied physics, dual degree engineering, conducting faculty/student collaborative research through the Department of Physics is not only degree enhancing work —it can set you on a path toward an innovative career goal as well. Conducting collaborative research with any of the dedicated faculty members of physics and astronomy can lead to publication in peer reviewed journals and presentations at regional or national conferences. These are not typical undergraduate experiences, and it's exactly the kind of research opportunities available on this campus.


Areas of collaborative research

Here is a list of the research project titles presented by physics students at CERCA in recent years:

Faculty in the department are active in many areas of astronomical and astrophysical research:
  • Dr. Lauren Likkel has been involved with near-infrared spectroscopy of planetary nebulae and studies of meteorites.
  • Dr. Nathan Miller uses data from NASA and ESA satellites to study the X-rays emitted from stars which are hotter, more massive, and have much stronger winds than our Sun.  With the discoveries of so many extrasolar planets during the last ten years, he has recently been exploring the meaning of those discoveries for hot star research.
  • Drs. George Stecher and Lyle Ford make photometric observations of astronomical objects using telescopes at Casey and Hobbs Observatories. They have been primarily obtaining the light curves of asteroids but are currently exploring working on other objects.

Dr. Scott Whitfield’s studies the interaction of photons (particles of light) with atoms, i.e. the absorption of the photon by an atom. If the photon carries sufficient energy, an electron from the atom is ejected into space with a definite kinetic energy. This process is studied experimentally by analyzing the behavior of the electrons which are ejected after absorption of the photon. Experimentally one can determine not only the basic atomic structure of the atoms involved, but one can also probe basic aspects of the quantum-mechanical nature of this process. These experiments require photon wavelengths which are beyond visible radiation, namely ultraviolet and soft x rays. Therefore, these experiments are carried on outside the University at so called synchrotron radiation facilities

  • Dr. Doug Dunham's work on the synthesis and characterization of structural, chemical, and electrical properties of semiconducting nanowires. Structural and chemical properties are determined using Scanning Electron Microscopy, Scanning Auger Nanoprobe, and X-ray Diffraction. Electrical properties are measured using a 4 point probe system in the Scanning Electron Microscope.
  • Dr. Jim Ryblicki’s research interests focus on organic electronics, a young field which has shown promise in applications such as memory storage, television and cellphone displays, and solar cells. Of particular interest are organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs). The appeal of OLED's comes, in part, from their low production costs, the ability to manufacture mechanically flexible display screens, and their high emissivity which makes them ideal for outdoor viewing.
  • Recent work has involved the investigation of magneto-resistance in OLEDs (dubbed OMAR for ‘organic magneto-resistance’). As a magnetic field is introduced into the region of the material, the amount of current flowing through the organic layer changes. This appealing effect provides a new functionality in electronic applications. OLEDs are already in use as pixels for displays. With the addition of magneto-resistance, what was previously just a pixel now becomes a sensor, as well. The array of organic devices could be used simultaneously to detect the position of a magnetic stylus and light up to produce an image of the user’s writing.

Dr. Paul Thomas currently carries out computational research projects focused on the study of our solar system. Recent projects include:

  • Modeling of high speed collisions in the solar system using Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics (SPH) models. Past applications of this technique have included the introduction of organic molecules to the primordial Earth by comet impact, the formation of the giant basins on the Moon.
  • Applying N-body simulations to gravitational problems in the solar system, such as the dynamics of ring particles and shepherding satellites in the Saturn system, the interactions governing the debris from satellite collisions in Earth orbit (“the Kessler Syndrome”) and simulations of the gravitational influence of a possible “Planet 9” on comets in the solar system’s Kuiper Belt.
  • Using Finite Element models to calculate structural and thermal stresses in the icy moons of the outer planets.

Dr. Matt Evans investigates the effectiveness of technology both in and out of class including online homework and in-class polling.

Dr. Kim Pierson carries out research projects that involve renewable energy and robotics.  A current renewable energy project involves developing a low-cost light-weight solar water heater that can not only be used to pre-heat hot water for electric and gas water heaters but it can also provide hot water to be used with a ground-source heat pumps to heat buildings.  A current robotics project involves the design and fabrication of autonomous robots that can navigate and avoid obstacles using an array of sensors and cameras that can provide a 360 degree field of view around the robot. The robots can communicate with each other and perform coordinated activities. The robots can also serve as “avatars” for human operators. Dr. Pierson is also involved in the new unmanned aerial systems program (UAS) through the Geography Department that teaches students how to safely design, fabricate and fly small drones and planes to collect geospatial data for analysis and mapping. In addition, Dr. Pierson collaborates with local and regional companies to develop software/hardware systems to control industrial processes and equipment using the computer interfacing program called LabVIEW.

Austin Reidl

Summer research

UW-Eau Claire senior Austin Riedl joined students from across the nation at the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the University of Minnesota.

Austin's story
Michelle Gervais

The art of physics

Michelle Gervais loves to solve problems but she’s also has had a lifelong passion for art. When it came time to declare a major, rather than choose between her passions, Gervais decided to pursue them both.

The art of physics
UWEC students presenting research at yearly CERCA event


CERCA is the annual event for student research to shine and be shared with the campus and community. In 2015, 8 physics posters were presented, featuring collaborative work between 14 students and faculty mentors.

Learn more about CERCA
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