Passion for Research Carries Students, Faculty through the Summer
Professor of Physics Shila Garg guides two rising seniors in study of new liquid crystals
WOOSTER, Ohio — Undergraduate research is more than an intellectual exercise at The College of Wooster; “It’s in our blood,” says Shila Garg, professor of physics. “We are very meticulous about the way we train our students to conduct research. They hit the ground running, and after four years, they are ready for graduate-level research.”
Indeed, Wooster is nationally known for its commitment to undergraduate research, particularly its senior capstone experience, known as Independent Study, in which a student works one-on-one with a faculty mentor on a project that results in a thesis, performance, or exhibition of artwork.
The process begins early in a student’s career with a range of opportunities, including the college-supported Sophomore Research program and Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which is supported through funding from the National Science Foundation for research collaborations between undergraduate institutions and research universities. Garg was instrumental in bringing an REU site in physics to Wooster 18 years ago, and she has returned to the lab this summer after a decade-long hiatus, during which she served as dean of faculty and provost at Wooster.
“I was anxious to get back to doing my own research,” says Garg, who specializes in the study of liquid crystals. “It is very intellectually stimulating. I’m happy to get my hands dirty again working in the lab.”
Garg is collaborating with scientists at Kent State University’s Liquid Crystal Institute and the physics department through a grant from the National Science Foundation known as a Research Opportunity Award. In addition to her research, Garg, as part of the grant, is overseeing work by Matt Schmitthenner and Theresa Albon — both rising seniors from the Columbus area and both double majors in mathematics and physics — on a new family of liquid crystals, similar to the ones used in television flat screens, video games, wristwatches, cell phones, and other innovations of modern technology. The three are part of a research group at Kent State, which includes three faculty members and several graduate students.
Schmitthenner is focusing on three basic properties of the new crystals — elastic, optical, and electrical — in an effort to characterize them and determine their suitability for applications. Albon is looking at a mechanical model of bent wire, or staples, in U, V, or H shapes to determine how they entangle and untangle in order to better understand how the process occurs at a microscopic level in a liquid crystal system.
Despite having no prior experience with liquid crystals, Schmitthenner and Albon have impressed their senior researchers at Kent State. “Matt and Theresa are outstanding students,” says Garg. “They are conducting research that is fundamentally very important. They are creating new knowledge and original, publishable results, which has been a strong tradition in our REU program at Wooster.
“Not only that,” adds Garg, “but they are also interacting with graduate students and university scientists in lab settings, which prepares them for scientific research in the real world. It is great exposure and excellent preparation for graduate school or the workforce.”
- Libby Fackler ’13 also contributed to this story