Undergraduate Opportunities in Faculty Research

Many UC Davis professors include one or more undergraduates in their research groups. Doing research as an undergraduate can expose you to a side of physics very different from coursework, train you in marketable skills from machining to computer programming, and provide a break from problem sets. Usually a student interested in joining a research group contacts the professor directly. The following list of faculty and brief research descriptions is meant to make this process easier. All faculty named here (as well as some who aren't) are willing to work with undergraduates.

Complexity Sciences

Professor James Crutchfield investigates the structures and patterns that emerge in complex systems. Topics include nonlinear dynamics, thermodynamics of nanoscale information processing, quantum computation and dynamics, interacting multiagent systems, distributed robotics, and evolution (both as optimization, as pursued in computer science, and as a model of emergent biological organization). A main thrust is programming that automatically discovers emergent structures and builds filters to identify similar patterns. Students will develop a particular numerical simulation, track its output as additional complexity is introduced, and analyze resulting patterns. The student will become familiar with mathematical concepts from statistical mechanics, dynamical systems, information theory, and the theory of computation. Only minimal prior programming background is needed for a successful experience, but enjoyment of mathematical and computational work is key.


Condensed Matter Experiment

Professor Shirley Chiang usually has one or two undergraduates working with her group on high resolution surface microscopy. The scanning tunneling microscope (STM) allows images of solid surfaces down to the atomic level, and the low energy electron microscope (LEEM) permits the measurement of real-time movies of surface. Recent undergraduate researchers used these instruments to make measurements of nucleation and growth of surface structures of several different metals on germanium. Other undergraduates have performed data analysis, written computer programs for data visualization, and helped to build complex instrumentation.

Professor Xiangdong Zhu uses optical techniques to study surface behavior, including biochemical processes. One project uses special robots to fabricate microarrays of tens or thousands of biologically significant molecules on functionalized glass slides, and then uses novel optical scanning microscopes to detect and analyze how selected proteins react with the surface-bound molecules ("targets"). The special optical microscopes are based on detection of minute changes in optical reflection when a protein reacts with some of the targets. Students may also help with instrumentation, improving the microscopes' sensitivity or developing additional capabilities. The project will introduce a physics-oriented undergraduate to some of the issues significant for life sciences that can be addressed in a condensed matter physics laboratory.

Usually two or three undergraduates work in Professor Rena Zieve's group, with about two openings each year. The emphasis of her projects varies from hands-on (setting up experiments and other equipment) to taking and analyzing data to computer programming. One project uses an artificial sandpile at room temperature to investigate how the exact arrangement of grains relates to the pile's stability.Others relate to low-temperature experiments on superfluid helium vortices and on superconducting, magnetic, and structural phase transitions in solid materials.

Professor Valentin Taufour usually supervises 3 or 4 undergraduates students. The students can learn how to synthesize crystals of new materials with bizarre physical properties. These properties can be explored and controlled with low temperature, high-magnetic field and high-pressure. The students can learn the characterization techniques and develop new ones. You can view Professor Taufour's website at http://taufourlab.faculty.ucdavis.edu, and his department page at https://physics.ucdavis.edu/people/faculty/valentin-taufour.


Condensed Matter Theory

Professor Daniel Cox applies ideas from condensed matter physics to biologically relevant systems. One ongoing project studies how metal ions bind to proteins and whether attached ions affect how the protein folds. The particular proteins are those relevant for mad cow disease and Alzheimer's. The binding sites are identified and modeled. The models can be compared to experimental data by calculating the resulting binding energies with density functional theory code.

Professor Sergey Savrasov has undergraduate research projects related to calculations of electronic structure of various materials and building material research databases which will then be posted to the web. The prototype of the database and the software for the electronic structure calculation is available at http://www.physics.ucdavis.edu/~mindlab. Students would learn how to use the material research software (which is Windows-based), and how to perform calculations of several properties of real materials using methods of condensed matter theory. The output for such a project would be the result of the calculation, prepared in html format with graphics and explanation and posted on the Web.

Professor Richard Scalettar uses classical and quantum monte carlo simulation methods to study magnetism, superconductivity, and metal-insulator transitions in solids. Work in his group involves writing codes and applying them to these problems.Some papers by undergraduates in his group include:


(Nicole Hartman, 2016);


(Thierry Flottat, 2015);


(Tyler Cary, 2012);



Professor Tony Tyson takes on students with programming experience. Students should also have interest and some knowledge of astrophysics (especially cosmology). Experience with image processing would be a real plus. Possible projects include running simulations for the performance of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (http://www.lsst.org), a large ground-based telescope now under construction, and analyzing data from the Deep Lens Survey (http://dls.physics.ucdavis.edu), a detailed multi-year observation of seven regions of the sky.

Professor David Wittman has ongoing opportunities in observational extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. Generally, projects will consist of analyzing data from large telescopes with considerable room for the student to develop and/or improve the algorithms. See his website for more information.

High Energy Experiment

Professors Max Chertok, John Conway, Robin Erbacher, and Mani Tripathi all include undergraduates in their work. The high energy experiment group is involved in major particle physics experiments at Fermilab (CDF) and CERN (CMS), as well as the experiments LBNE and Double Chooz, which study the neutrino sector. With most contributions to construction of the CDF and CMS detectors complete, our current focus is on analysis and software issues, as well as on future upgrades of the detectors. Double Chooz is now running with the Far Detector and the Near Dectector is under construction. Turning on of the LHC in 2008 is expected to usher in an era of discovery. The group is also involved in detector R&D aimed at the International Linear Collider. Undergraduate students can get involved at all levels, including detector development, hardware construction, computer system management, programming, and data analysis. Undergraduate students are integrated into the ongoing effort with projects such as searching for peaks in multi-particle invariant mass distributions, implementing new algorithms to refine particle identification capabilities, and designing circuit boards for testing custom electronics circuits and chips.

High Energy Theory

Professor Markus Luty is studying computational methods to perform non-perturbative computations in quantum field theory. The methods used are based on the Hamiltonian formulation of the theory on a lattice. Undergraduates interested in participating in this research must have strong background in quantum mechanics (at the the level of Physics 115 or above) as well as Python and/or C++ coding skills.

Nuclear Physics Experiment

Professors Daniel Cebra and Manuel Calderon study collisions of gold nuclei moving at nearly the speed of light at Brookhaven National Laboratory's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC). The collisions create a quark-gluon plasma state of matter which is similiar to the nature of the universe during the earliest phases of the big bang. Student projects can include analyzing data from RHIC and preparing for the more powerful Large Hadron Collider at CERN, which will start taking data in 2008.

Mentorship and Professional Development Program (MPD) Fellowship

The Mentorship and Professional Development (MPD) Fellowship is intended to provide high-achieving, upper division undergraduate students who have experienced adverse situations or conditions, the opportunity to participate in a culturally relevant mentorship and professional development program.

Learn more about the MPD Fellowship

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