RESEARCH EXPERIENCE FOR UNDERGRADUATES STUDENTS

 

Villanova faculty are teacher-scholars—conducting nationally distinguished research and inviting undergraduate students to be partners in their lab. Supported by a REU grant from the National Science Foundation, professors in the Departments of Physics and Astrophysics and Planetary Science are looking for promising undergraduate students from other institutions to participate in hands-on research with them in summer 2021.

You don't need to have the best grades or go to the best schools to apply—YOU JUST NEED PASSION!

  

Physics professor Joey Neilsen works with a student in the lab.

The 10 week program runs from May 24 – July 30, 2021. Students will receive a $6,000 stipend, round-trip travel from their home to Villanova and free room and board on campus.

 

Areas for Research Opportunities

The example projects below are reflective of each mentor’s research. If you are interested in working with a specific mentor, the project you work on will be very much like the one listed below but may be modified to match both your specific skills and the latest developments in the field.

Astrophysics

Faculty Mentor: Amber Stuver, PhD, Department of Physics

Gravitational wave detectors make some of the most sensitive measurements humans have ever made and are also extremely sensitive to environmental vibrations or instrumental artifacts. Data contaminated by these non-astrophysical effects are referred to as glitches and have a detrimental effect on the search for transient gravitational waves and on the confidence estimation of a potential detection. Glitches can be removed from the data by determining their source and mitigating them or by removing the contaminated data from the analysis. Only glitches that have a coincident signal in an instrumental or environmental monitor that is insensitive to gravitational waves can be removed.

Students will work as part of the LIGO Detector Characterization group to perform data quality investigations on observed noise artifacts, called glitches, contaminating the data and reducing confidence in candidate gravitational wave detections. They will be trained to make use of standard LIGO tools as well as modify existing tools to perform our investigations. Remote collaboration with scientists from around the world, as part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration and the Virgo Collaboration, will take place regularly including periodic research updates. A final report to the LIGO Detector Characterization group will take place at the end of the summer in addition to any other presentation of research. A successful project can range from the basic characterization of a glitch to the development of a mitigation plan.

Faculty Mentor: Scott Engle, PhD, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science

Housed within the top floor of Villanova’s Mendel Science Center, with a roll-off roof, is the Student Research Observatory. Three telescopes are installed, two with photometric/imaging instruments and one with a long-slit spectrograph. An exciting new research opportunity is made possible by our recent purchase of a beam-shaping diffuser for the 0.5-meter telescope. Stefansson, et al. showed that such a diffuser can allow ground-based telescopes to achieve levels of photometric precision approaching space-borne observatories. Such high precision data is very well-suited to transit observations of known exoplanets or searching for suspected transiting exoplanets. Recently, with Villanova undergraduates Liam Dowling Jones, Lucas Marchioni and Joe Michail, analysis has been carried out on transit timing analysis of the exoplanet HD 189733b. This study used literature photometry, in addition to four newly observed transits with Villanova telescopes. In addition to transit observations and searches, the high-precision photometry will allow measurements of stellar rotation rates, flare frequencies and energies, which are important for assessing the potential habitability of the exoplanet. Undergraduates would be involved in the target selection; they would plan, carry out and analyze the observations and will assist in preparing the results for presentation at professional meetings and publication in peer-reviewed journals.

Faculty Mentor: David Chuss, PhD, Department of Physics

Star formation is a critical process in the history of our universe, because stars are responsible for both providing the environments for planets (and ultimately life) as well as for producing most of the elements necessary for life to exist.  Stars form from the gravitational collapse of clouds of gas and dust in our Milky Way Galaxy; however, they do so at a rate far lower than expected.  One of the prime suspects in regulating the star formation process is pressure due to interstellar magnetic fields.  Using polarimetry data from NASA’s airborne observatory, SOFIA, to trace the magnetic field geometry enables one to test models of magnetized turbulence in star forming regions to understand the effect of interstellar magnetic fields on how stars are formed.  Students involved in this project will learn the physics behind far-infrared polarimetry and the basics of our current understanding of the role of magnetic fields in star formation.  Students will work with data from SOFIA using the Python programming language and develop tools for analyzing the data to test theoretical models of star formation.

Faculty Mentor: Joey Neilsen, PhD, Department of Physics

In the last decade, X-ray and radio observations of actively accreting black holes have revealed that (rather than acting as cosmic vacuum cleaners) these objects can eject far more matter and energy than they accrete. The stellar mass black hole GRS 1915+105 has been an essential source of these revelations, which spring from its long, bright outburst and exotic X-ray variability. But something changed for GRS 1915 in 2018, and by the middle of 2019, the black hole had suddenly faded to a mere ~1% of its former brightness. By monitoring GRS 1915 with NICER, an extremely sensitive X-ray spectrometer on the International Space Station, we have found the culprit for the sudden fading: large clouds of cold, warm, and hot obscuring gas. Little is known about this mysterious obscuration, and students involved in this project will have the opportunity to make a substantial contribution to this new area. Students will develop strong skills in X-ray spectroscopy as they study the rich X-ray spectrum of the “obscured state” of GRS 1915+105. They will be instructed on the use of standard analysis tools, fitting models to their data (focusing on a suite of strong emission lines from highly-ionized silicon, sulfur, argon, calcium, and iron), and build their astrophysical intuition with a review of relevant literature.

Faculty Mentor: Andrej Prsa, PhD, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science

Fundamental stellar parameters (masses, radii, temperatures and luminosities) are a crucial component of essentially every aspect of modern astrophysics. They are used to predict stellar evolution, study stellar populations, classify observations, make theoretical predictions on the inner structure, calibrate the cosmic distance scale and much more. Yet obtaining fundamental stellar parameters to a high accuracy has proven very elusive. In fact, reaching the routine accuracy of 2% or better remains exclusive to the field of eclipsing binary stars. Being involved with space missions Kepler/K2 and Gaia, and ground-based facilities such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, have provided access to a large database of precise photometric and spectroscopic observations. The student(s) will work within the research group to mine these observations, by using the in-house-developed and publicly available modeling tools, towards deriving fundamental stellar parameters for the objects of highest scientific interest. These predominantly include low-mass stars for which there is a notable reported discrepancy between observed and theoretically predicted radii, and pulsating stars with stochastically driven oscillations, in order to calibrate scaling relations – a promising new technique to obtain fundamental parameters from asteroseismology.

Faculty Mentor: Kelly Hambleton, PhD, Department of Astronomy and Planetary Science

Binary stars form the building blocks of our understanding of stellar physics. It is only from eclipsing binary stars that we can obtain direct masses and radii without any assumptions (using dynamics only). Solar-like oscillations are stellar pulsations driven by surface convection, where the convective flows lead to stochastic pressure modes. These modes form a well defined pattern, which can be analyzed to determine a plethora of information about the stellar interior, including empirical estimates of stellar masses and radii. For stars like our Sun, still burning hydrogen into helium in their cores, these radii and masses have been found to be highly accurate (5% and 10%, respectively). However, for older, larger red-giant stars, comparison with eclipsing binary stars show that the results are not as precise. The goal of this project is to validate the results from the binary star studies and to further calibrate the asteroseismic scaling relations. Student(s) involved in this project will work to generate binary star models of red giant stars in binary systems and then compare their results with those from asteroseismology. The student(s) will learn to work with the highly precise Kepler and Tess data, they will learn to model binary stars and understand the asteroseismology of solar-like oscillators. The results of this work will be publication worthy upon completion. 

Condensed Matter

Faculty Mentor: Jeremy Carlo, PhD, Department of Physics

Geometrically frustrated materials, in which the spatial arrangement of magnetic ions inhibits the onset of conventional antiferromagnetic order, have been a particularly hot topic in recent years. In these systems, frustration typically arises because moments favoring antiferromagnetic (antiparallel) nearest-neighbor coordination decorate triangular or tetrahedral lattices, resulting in a vast degeneracy of ground states resulting in rich magnetic phase diagrams. This provides a window into exotic physics tunable through subtle structural disorder, slight variations in moment size, and even relativistic spin-orbit coupling.  

Research at Villanova University has specialized in the synthesis of geometrically frustrated double perovskites and related systems exhibiting face-centered cubic symmetry.  Students will focus on synthesis and structural characterization of frustrated materials. To do so, students will learn a good deal of solid-state chemistry, as well as the principles and practical applications of x-ray diffraction. Following successful synthesis of samples, there may be subsequent opportunities to participate in collaborative muon spin relaxation or neutron scattering measurements at national facilities such as Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which would provide an ideal complement to the on-campus laboratory experience provided by the present project.

Faculty Mentor: Scott Dietrich, PhD, Department of Physics

Recent advancement in the creation of dielectric superlattice structures have made it possible to significantly customize the electrical properties of graphene through in-situ electrostatic tuning. However, this requires precisely defined nanoscale structures. While interesting physical studies have come from conventional electron-beam lithography techniques, these methods are difficult to mass produce. Students will work on alternative methods to create these superlattice structures: a solution-based growth of a semicrystalline polymer that forms a periodic structure for electrostatic gating; nano-indentation of the graphene to form a lattice of holes; alternating electroplated layers of thin film II-VI compounds for electrostatic gating; and self-aligned magnetic nanoparticles whose packing defines a triangular superlattice. Students will select one technique, learn the process through collaborations with the Villanova College of Engineering, and adapt it for this application. They will then integrate the technique into the assembly of exfoliated van der Waals material structures to test its effect on graphene. Electrical characterization of the superlattice structure’s effect on graphene will be done in existing cryogenic measurement systems at Villanova.

 

Application

During the application process, you will be asked to upload (all files are secure, confidential, and only viewed by the selection committee):

  • Your Personal Statement: including your research interests, career goals, and plans for employment or postgraduate education.
  • Your Curriculum Vitae: including relevant work experience, academic achievements, memberships in professional and community organizations, honorary societies, etc.
  • Transcripts: including every college or university where you have received credit towards your degree. This primarily for us to know what courses you've taken, rather than a record of your grades.
  • Verification of enrollment for the spring 2021 semester.
  • Two recommendations: including names and email addresses of individuals who have agreed to write letters of recommendation addressing your scholarly ambition and potential for research. The letters are to be sent separately by the writer, and you will need to provide your recommenders with the webpage for submitting a letter: tinyurl.com/VillanovaREU21. Villanova will not request them for you.
 
The application deadline has been extended to March 1, 2021.
 

  

Benefits of the Program

  • Professional training in conducting responsible research, delivering elevator pitches for your work, and developing effective research posters
  • A trip to Goddard Space Flight Center and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
  • An opportunity to present your research at a local symposium
  • Up to $1500 to present your research at a professional conference of your choice during the next school year—which can cover registration, airfare, hotel, meals, etc.

Once you do research with us at Villanova, you are a member of our community. We are wholly invested in your future success and will continue to mentor you long after the summer ends.