Friday, June 12, 2015

FWS Research Assistant Highlights: Iris Stone

This semester I have been unbelievably fortunate to work as an OSCAR Research Assistant with Dr. Patrick Vora, a new professor and experimental physicist who is conducting research in solid state materials and their applications. In the simplest sense, solid state physics focuses on understanding the properties of rigid materials (silicon is one example). Researchers modify the geometry and composition of these materials using quantum mechanics, optics, and electronics measurements, ultimately looking to understand how they can alter the systems’ behavior in useful ways. Graphene is an excellent example; interestingly, the electrons in this two-dimensional crystal of carbon atoms actually behave as if they don’t have mass. And although graphene is only one atom thick, it’s actually stronger than steel! These properties have the potential to revolutionize electronics technology, and I am incredibly excited to be studying both graphene and other nanomaterials with our collaborators at Georgetown University and Trinity College Dublin.

I started my RA position at ground zero when Dr. Vora’s lab was just an empty room. I have enjoyed playing a part in transforming the once vacant space into a fully functional laboratory, complete with an optical table, spectrometer, CCD camera, and cryostat (I can’t describe what all this equipment does in such small space, but just know they are both fun and expensive). Over the past few months I have helped program software, visited the Naval Research Laboratory in D.C., assisted in designing an optical microscope, and placed countless Amazon orders. On any given day, you might find me filling our cryogenically cooled CCD camera with liquid nitrogen, examining wavelength graphs of Neon and Mercury lasers to help calibrate our equipment, or cheering loudly as I successfully program new functions for our software.

Every week I learn something new – not only about the theory behind our research, but also about the commitment and dedication it takes to be a successful experimental physicist. The timelines are long, but the payoff is big. The moment I signed up for Mason’s Physics program I knew I wanted to be a professor and conduct research – I just had no idea what specialty I should choose. I hadn’t considered quantum mechanics or solid state physics before, but today I find the challenge and growth of the field irresistible. Dr. Vora’s passion for his work is infectious, and he will gladly run off on a tangent to share details about the intricate theoretical concepts behind our research.  There are always plenty of tasks in the lab to keep me busy, but these conversations are my favorite. I am excited to continue my work with Dr. Vora over the summer through a URSP grant and discover even more about the incredible potential of this field.