Research Overview

Students in the Department of Physics and Astronomy have many opportunities to get involved in research at any level in their education at BYU. Graduate students each complete a significant research experience, and undergraduate Physics, Physics and Astronomy, and Applied Physics majors are each required to do research leading to a thesis or capstone report, respectively. Teaching majors are also encouraged to participate also. Below we list several opportunities for research with the faculty. 

Research Group Meeting Times

Research groups generally meet weekly during Fall and Winter semesters. These are generally open meetings where visitors are welcome. Some professors have individual research group meetings not listed below.

Group Day Time Location
Acoustics Thursday 4:00 pm C261
Astronomy Every Other Thursday
12 pm
Atomic, Molecular, Optical Contact individual professors
Condensed Matter Thursday
12 pm
4:00 pm
Theoretical and Mathematical Tuesday 3:00 pm N209

Research Opportunities

Brian Anderson (Acoustics)
  • Defect Imaging in Steel Using Time Reversal Nonlinear Acoustics

    We are developing new techniques to locate and characterize cracking in stainless steel structures using ultrasonics.  In the United States, spent nuclear fuel is being stored inside stainless steel storage casks.  We wish to prevent leaks of these casks by detecting cracks before they penetrate through the walls of the container.  We use a sound focusing technique called time reversal to focus energy to inspection points.  We then analyze the focus of energy to determine whether that location exhibits nonlinear acoustic behavior, indicative of cracking.

    We will be using modifications to the traditional time reversal process to redo some nondestructive evaluation experiments that a recent graduate student did in order to determine whether they improve the ability to detect and locate cracks in steel. Preliminary experiments show this has a high chance of success.

  • Numerical Modeling of Time Reversal in Rooms
    A recent graduate student completed a project on this and there are extensions of his work I'd like a student to work on.  These models explored the use of time reversal in various different rooms to see how the room affects the possible quality of the time reversal focusing.  One specific aspect to be done is to apply signal processing modifications to the time reversal process and see if the same conclusions hold as for the traditional time reversal process.
  • Remote Whispering Applying Time Reversal Acoustics
    We are developing new techniques to target an individual in a room and communicate with them without the need for that individual to have any equipment.  Time reversal is a sound focusing technique that allows remotely placed loudspeakers to focus sound to a selected point in a room.  We use time reversal as the carrier signal to deliver signals to a target location so that the individual at that location can understand the signal but others in the room cannot understand it.
  • Time Reversal for Exploding Balloons with Scattering

    This project will explore the impact of placing objects next to a sound source to change how the sound radiates away from the source. Time reversal has been shown to improve when objects are placed next to a source. This project would likely involve exploding balloons and lots of time reversal experiments.


  • Ultrasonic Time Reversal Focusing in Air

    This project will explore the use of time reversal to focus ultrasonic sound in air to create a high amplitude impulse of energy. We want to explore the limitations of doing this and what amplitudes are possible to achieve.  If the sound levels are high enough then we can explore some nonlinear acoustic phenomena that may create audible sound due to known nonlinear acoustic effects. This would create a phantom sound source.

Kent Gee (Acoustics)
  • Environmental Noise Monitoring and Modeling
    I am working with Dr. Transtrum and graduate students on a project to use machine learning and geospatial features (nighttime radiance, precipitation, forests, etc.) to predict ambient soundscapes throughout the U.S., and eventually, globally.  We have a need for an outdoor-oriented student interested in conducting making sound measurements in different urban and rural environments, formatting the data outputs, and helping to feed them into the machine learning models created by the graduate students.
  • Research in shock waves and high-amplitude acoustics

    Come analyze F-22, F-35, rocket, or explosion data for NASA and the U.S. military.  Other possibilities exist - email me to set up an appointment.  Numerous publication opportunities are likely.

Traci Neilsen (Acoustics)
  • Machine learning in Underwater Acoustics
    Large arrays of hydrophones in the ocean can be used to locate acoustic sources.  The reliability of these localization algorithms depends on the degree to which the ocean environment is correctly parameterized in the models.  Machine learning is needed to correctly tackle this problem in real-time. 
  • Underwater Acoustical Measurements

    Our underwater acoustics lab (U117) has a fully automated system for making acoustic measurements in our water tank (8 ft long by 4 ft wide).  Currently measurements are being made to accurately model sound propagation and test machine learning algorithms for source localization and environmental variability.

Scott Sommerfeldt (Acoustics)
  • Active Structural Acoustic Control of Shells
    This project focuses on minimizing the acoustic sound power radiated from cylindrical shells.
  • Detecting speech signals in noise

    This work focuses on developing methods to detect low-level speech signals in the presence of noise and reproducing that speech.

  • Measuring Acoustic Sound Power Using SLDV Measurements
    Scanning Laser Doppler Vibrometer (SLDV) measurements provide vibration measurements of a structure in a noncontact manner.  This data can be used to determine the sound radiated from the structure, and this project looks at trying to use the information to come up with an accurate estimate of the radiated sound power.
Benjamin Boizelle (Astronomy)
  • Building an Atlas of Molecular Gas Kinematics From the ALMA Archive

    Archival data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) reveal molecular gas in many early-type galaxies (ETGs, including elliptical and S0 types). In many cases, the observations trace regular rotation about the galaxy center. However, relatively few of these data sets have been published, and there is little consistency between the published data products. We are uniformly measuring gas properties in a large sample of ETGs with ALMA carbon monoxide (CO) observations, which will then be compiled into an atlas of molecular gas kinematics in luminous galaxies. In addition to measuring and analyzing kinematic properties, this atlas will also help identify candidates for higher angular resolution ALMA imaging to measure the mass of the central supermassive black hole mass.

  • Dust Attenuation in Circumnuclear Disks

    Roughly 10% of all elliptical and S0-type galaxies contain morphologically round dusty disks that obscure stellar light behind these disks. These molecular gas-rich disks are prime candidates for precision mass measurement of the supermassive black hole (BH) at the disk centers. Unfortunately, the high dust column densities preclude any confident determination of the host galaxy mass profile simply by modeling the observed stellar light distribution in optical (and often even near-IR) images. Using a large sample of multi-wavelength data obtained with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), we are modeling the dust attenuation of these circumnuclear disks to recover a range of plausible dust-corrected stellar mass models. These will be used to more confidently constrain BH masses in about 30 elliptical and S0 galaxies.

  • Dust Properties From ALMA Observations

    Cold dust found at the centers of many nearby galaxies emits thermal radiation. With typical temperatures of 10-30 K, the dust black body spectrum peaks in the far-IR range. In many cases, the Rayleigh-Jeans tail of the dust thermal emission is detectable at mm-wavelengths with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). Together with continuum measurements from the radio to the mid-IR, data points at ALMA wavelengths are important when measuring dust mass and temperature. We are measuring ALMA continuum flux densities (or upper limits) and building spectral energy distributions (SEDs) to separate out non-thermal contributions and model the SEDs as using a modified black body function.

  • Supermassive Black Hole Mass Measurement

    The improved sensitivity and larger baselines of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) now enable imaging of molecular gas deep within the centers of numerous nearby galaxies. In a small percentage of luminous elliptical galaxies, ALMA observations trace the motion of molecules like carbon monoxide (CO) well within the supermassive black hole's (BHs) sphere of influence, wherein the BH dominates the overall gravitational potential. Using detailed gas-dynamical models, we are able to measure the BH mass and determine its overall error budget.

Eric Hintz (Astronomy)
  • Astronomy Education

    I'm currently working on a number of projects to do with astronomy education.

    1) We are also examining our constellation quiz to provide a baseline level and determine which constellations and bright stars students know when they start the class. What to test difference between Digistar and Zeiss projectors.

    2) Development of a core set of test questions for descriptive astronomy class.

    3) Will likely do a modified project on teaching moon phases to improve on a past MS project.

    4) Work on bring robotic telescopes into the Phscs 127 class.

  • Impact of Cadence on Variable Classifcation by Machine Learning

    This is a project to examine how little data is needed to determine an accurate period in the pulsations of a short period variable star.  There are many large survey programs running, or soon to be running, that find new variable stars.  Through machine learning they try to classify these objects. However, for short period variables the classifications and periods determined, are found to often be wrong.

    We are also examining the impact of space velocity on the measurements, phase jumps in the pulsation curve, and measurement errors.

    We do observational work to follow-up on these new variables and modeling work to show the limits.

    This is a program that is currently very active and where students are needed.

  • Period Changes in Medium Amplitude delta Scuti Variables

    In general, researchers consider there to be two groups of delta Scuti variables; the High Amplitude delta Scuti (HADS) and the Low Amplitude delta Scuti (LADS). However, the in between realm is interesting. The Medium Amplitide delta Scuti stars seems to show a range of changes in both amplitude and period. This makes them a very interesting group to monitor. Often we participate with astronomers from around the world in taking data for these projects.

    We are now adding some computer modeling to try to better understand these changes.

  • Spectrophotometic Comparison of H-alpha and H-beta Index
    Traditionally the H-beta index has been used as a reddening free index to measure the surface temperature of stars. Prof. Joner in the department has developed a new H-alpha index that has great promise. We are working together to spectrophotometrically compare the two systems.
  • Spectroscopic Survey of Northern Sky delta Scuti Variables
    To understand the nature of the delta Scuti variables in the instability strip one needs as much information as possible about the stars. However, an examination of the catalog of delta Scuti variables shows a lack of basic information on many of the group. Of the 247 delta Scuti stars visible in the northern hemisphere we currently have spectra of 242 of them. These need to be reduced to provide estimates of some basic stellar properties like [Fe/H], radial velocity, rotational velocity, and perhaps information on any binary companions.
  • Variable Star Search in Open Clusters
    We are currently searching for new low amplitude variable stars in a large sample of open clusters. The clusters cover a wide range of ages and will provide a evolutionary test of how the variable stars change with age. We are also looking for very small eclipses that might be the sign of a planet.
Mike Joner (Astronomy)
  • Photometric Reverberation Mapping
    Traditional reverberation mapping to estimate AGN black hole masses uses a combination of photometry and spectroscopy to determine the time lag between variations that occur at the accretion disk and then later in the broad line region. With such techniques, there is a need for a large amount of moderate to large telescope time in order to secure the spectroscopic data with an observing cadence suitable for a determination of the time lag. Photometric reverberation mapping uses a single epoch spectroscopic determination of the broad line region velocity and a time lag determination based on photometric observations that include predominantly continuum features or broad line components that can be seen to vary at a later time. This technique is still being tested but hold promise for the determination of black hole masses in the age of several large scale surveys.
Joseph Moody (Astronomy)
  • Testing the standard model of active galactic nuclei through automated multi-color broadband CCD imaging
    Remote Observatory for Variable Object Research is a 16" RC Optical telescope on a Paramount pier sited near Delta Utah. Operational since 2008, it is used to remotely monitor active galactic nuclei (AGNs) which includes blazars, quasars, Seyfert nuclei and Low Ionization Nuclear Emission Regions, or LINERS. The standard model of AGNs assumes each is a supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disk. The disk is fed by a more extensive lower-density region surrounding it. The disk brightens and dims as gas falls upon it and as dusty clouds orbiting around it obscure it from our view. Optical variability measures these effects providing data that can be used to model the specific nature of different AGNs.
Darin Ragozzine (Astronomy)
  • Orbits in the Outer Solar System
    Beyond the orbit of Neptune lies a population of icy bodies whose orbits can reveal unique information about how our solar system formed. This region of the solar system is called the Kuiper Belt and these small icy bodies are called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs or sometimes Trans-Neptunian Objects or TNOs), though some are large enough to also qualify as "dwarf planets" like Pluto and Haumea. There are multiple projects available in my research group to study KBO satellites (e.g., Haumea's moons) and KBO orbits (e.g., the Haumea and other collisional families). There are a variety of projects available at a variety of levels. Please contact me for more information. 
  • Studying the Architectures of Exoplanetary Systems

    Like our Sun, other stars are known to host planetary systems. As we continued to discover many more exoplanetary systems, we learn about how these systems are put together. The "architecture" of these systems (are small planets on the inside or outside? how close are the planets to each other? etc.) gives us invaluable clues to the formation of planetary systems. I used state-of-the-art statistical and computational techniques to discovery new exoplanetary systems, study existing systems, and remove the biases on their properties from our limited observational methods. I have many projects at different levels and durations available for students. Please contact me for more information. 

Denise Stephens (Astronomy)
  • Brown Dwarf Binary Systems - modeling

    Looking at peculiarities in the spectra of known binary brown dwarfs. Trying to understand the large number of L/T transition binaries, and why the spectra of these objects change so quickly over a constant temperature range. We want to determine binary statistics with spectral type, and how many of the L/T objects are truly single objects. We want to understand which spectral features vary the most between a single brown dwarf and an unresolved binary system, so we can use these spectral features as a way to identify binaries from existing spectra. Eventually we will use high resolution photometry and psf fitting to identify marginally resolved and unresolved binaries.

  • Education - Learn Astropy and create training videos

    I would love to have a student work through several tutorials I have that teach astropy, learn it very well, and then create zoom videos and jupyter notebooks that future students can use to learn how to use astropy to do photometry and spectroscopy.  They could even extend this beyond to creating notebooks and videos to reduce TESS data (or any data from the roof) and in the future notebooks that can reduce APO data.

  • Spectrophotometry of brown dwarfs observed with ARC 3.5 meter

    Use IDL to reduce spectra of brown dwarfs taken with the ARC 3.5 meter telescope.  

  • Transiting Exoplanets
    Take data with the 16" telescope on the roof of the Eyring Science Center of stars that may have transiting planets.  Reduce this data using IRAF and AstroimageJ software.  Characterize the radius of the planet (if we see a transit) by fitting the transit light curve.  Return results to the team so that we can either obtain further observations of a possible planet candidate or expire the target as spurious or an eclipsing binary star system.
  • Variability in Brown Dwarfs
    Reduce Spitzer observations of 3 brown dwarfs taken sequentially in time to look for evidence of variability. If variability exists, the amplitude is very low. The evidence of variability would suggest that cloud features or holes in the clouds are not homogeneously distributed across the surface.
David Allred (Atomic, Molecular, and Optical)
  • Advanced Materials for Nuclear Energy

    We are able to produce as thin films existing and novel materials for nuclear energy that cannot easily made at other universities.

  • Advanced Mirror Coatings for Hubble's successor
    In 1999 the IMAGE spacecraft was successfully launched and functioned for over 6 years studying the various plasma filled regions surrounding the earth (ionosphere to magnetosphere) in wavelengths from radio through EUV. We designed and coated mirrors for the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUVI) instrument, which was one of about four observational components of the IMAGE Mission. IMAGE, which stands for Imager for Magnetopause to Aurora Global Exploration, was a NASA funded Medium Explorer (MIDEX) program) [1].

    We are now working with NASA scientist and engineers in the process of designing, fabricating and testing novel mirror coatings for the next generation space observatory. The flag-ship mission that comes after the James Web Telescope and WFIRST.
  • Atomic layer & chemical vapor infiltration of C nanotube forests.
    Atomic layer and chemical vapor infiltration of carbon nanotube forests with metals such as tungsten to make three-dimensional microstructures for MEMS applications. This work is closely aligned with that of Prof. Robert C. Davis and Richard R. Vanfleet.
  • BYU's Entry into the University Rover Challenge
    Help prepare mars simulation rover for annual competition near Hanksville, UT  June 1  Specifically help the science team design on-rover test for life. 
  • Heavily doped p-type zinc oxide for UV optoelectronic devices
    Zinc oxide- especially heavily doped p-type material. This is a promising material for UV optoelectronics applications including UV lasers, light emitting diodes, and visible light-blind detectors. It also has applications in piezoelectricity, spintronics, transparent electronics, and as a substrate for the growth of other materials.

  • optical constants of metals, semiconductors & insulators

    1.  we use ellipsometer in Chemistry C387 BNSN

    2. we measure Optical Constants in VUV in U161 with R. Steven Turley


Scott Bergeson (Atomic, Molecular, and Optical)
  • Ultra-cold Plasmas

    We are making ultra-cold plasma by photo-ionizing laser-cooled calcium atoms in a Magneto-Optical Trap (MOT). The trap size is about 1 mm and it holds about 10 million calcium atoms at a temperature of 0.001 K above absolute zero. The ultracold plasma is formed when we shine in two laser pulses that ionize all of the atoms.

    The plasma is "strongly coupled", meaning that the average "nearest-neighbor" Coulomb energy is orders of magnitude larger than the mean thermal energy of particles in the plasma. A strongly coupled plasma behaves in some ways more like a solid than a gas. One of our major research goals is to understand how strong coupling changes basic processes like recombination and collisional ionization.

    We use calcium to create this plasma because the energy level scheme in Ca is favorable for laser cooling and trapping. The blue wavelengths for both Ca and Ca+ are easily generated with standard laser technology. So when plasma is created we can measure the ion temperature and plasma density in a straightforward manner.

    Our newest two projects are using lasers to cool the ions in the plasma, and also generating a plasma with both Ca and Yb ions at the same time. This last project will allow us to study the approach to thermal equilibrium in a two-temperature and two-mass system.

Steve Turley (Atomic, Molecular, and Optical)
  • Effects of Roughness of Reflectance
    Simple calculations of optical reflection and transmission from surfaces assume flat surfaces with abrupt interfaces. These assumptions are often sufficiently incorrect to lead to significant errors in computing the optical properties of mirrors and coatings in the extreme ultraviolet. We have several projects which involve computing the of surface roughness on the optical properties of thin films. The projects involve numerically solving Maxwell's equations from first principles on representative surfaces and developing algorithms to apply the results to general surfaces.
  • Extreme Ultraviolet Optics
    I am working on a project with Prof. David Allred and a group of undergraduate and graduate students that began with designing and testing a mirror for the Medium Exploror (MIDEX) Program. The research involves computer-aided optical design, multilayer mirror fabrication, measurement of optical properties of materials, and design and fabrication of test and measurement components. Measurements are made both at our facilities at BYU and at the Advanced Light Source at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Michael Ware (Atomic, Molecular, and Optical)
  • Computing electron behavior in high-intensity laser interactions

    When high-intensity lasers interact with materials, they rip electrons from atoms and pull them around at nearly the speed of light.  We study electrons under these extreme conditions using MATLAB coding.

  • Measuring Nuclear Decay Rates
  • Single photon radiation from relativistic electrons
    We are building an experiment to measure the radiation produced by an accelerated electron with a large quantum-mechanical wave packet.  This experiment uses extremely high intensity lasers along with single-photon detectors to study the behavior of matter at the most fundamental level.
  • Undergraduate research in string theory

    Scott Glasgow (in the math department), is looking for talented undergraduate physics students interested in studying string theory. Dr. Ware will server as a co-advisor and help students fulfill the of writing a senior thesis in the department of Physics and Astronomy.

Branton Campbell (Condensed Matter)
  • Binary alloys
    My group collaborates with Professor Gus Hart the discovery of novel alloys of Pt that have been predicted from first principles calculations, but never observed in nature. This work involves sample preparation, x-ray and neutron diffraction experiments, and extensive data analysis.
  • Magnetic structures from neutron diffraction
    We are exploring the use of symmetry principles to simplify the discovery and characterization of novel magnetic structures in solid-state materials. This work involves experimental (neutron diffraction), theoretical (group theory) and computational (ultimate curve fitting) aspects.
  • Structural phase transitions
    We are currently collaborating with Professor Harold Stokes to develop interactive software tools for computing and visualizing structural distortions in crystalline materials.

    Student researchers have the opportunity to apply these state-of-the-art tools to solve materials physics problems in advanced materials like superconductors, piezoelectrics and magnetoresistors.
  • X-ray scattering from embedded nanostructures
    I am currently applying state-of-the-art x-ray and neutron scattering techniques to study the local and intermediate-range structure of solid-state materials.  Systems of interest include the fast-ion conductors, ferroelectric relaxors, and colossal magnetoresistive manganites, where nanoscale structural features can be manipulated to determine the macroscopic physical properties.
Karine Chesnel (Condensed Matter)
  • Magnetic imaging

    We use Magnetic Force Microscopy (MFM) to image magnetic domains in ferrmagnetic thin films. The domain pattern may vary from a stripe maze pattern to a bubble pattern depending on the magnetic history. We study in particular the effect of the magnitude of the previously applied field on the domain pattern at remanence, when the field is brought back to zero.

  • Magnetic properties in nanomaterials
    We study magnetic properties in matter at the nanoscopic scale. Tools we use include magnetometry techniques (VSM, EHE, SMOKE), magnetic microscopy (MFM) and synchrotron techniques (XMCD, XMRS, magnetic speckles...). Types of systems we study vary from thin films (ferromagnetic, exchange bias), superparamagnetic nanoparticles, magnetically dopped materials with interesting electronic and optical properties...
  • Magnetometry

    We measure the magnetic response of materials to an applied magnetic field, using various types of magnetometry, including Vibrating Sample Magnetometry (VSM), Extraordinary Hall Effect (EHE) and Surface Magneto-optical Kerr Effect (SMOKE)

  • X-ray magnetic scattering

    We use synchrotron x-ray radiation to carry x-ray resonant magnetic scattering (XRMS) experiment at synchrotron facilities, such as NSLS, ALS APS, SLAC... The XRMS signal provides with information on the nanoscale magnetic correlations existing in the material under certain conditions of magnetic field and temperature.

John Colton (Condensed Matter)
  • Nanoparticles as temperature sensors
    We're working with a mechanical engineering professor (Troy Munro) to use semiconductor nanoparticles as temperature sensors. The wavelengths of light present in the nanoparticles' photoluminescence (aka fluorescence), and the time it takes for the luminescence to be emitted after the electrons have been excited both depend on the temperature. By characterizing the nanoparticles’ photoluminescence spectrum in both wavelength and time as a function of temperature, we hope to be able to use the nanoparticles as non-invasive temperature sensors in e.g. medical applications. For example, one could use the optical emission from nanoparticles injected into tissue to monitor temperatures as focused ultrasound is used to heat up and destroy tumors.
  • Platinum nanoparticles
    Ferritin semiconductor nanoparticles can be used to help metallic platinum nanoparticles form. Platinum is well known as a catalyst, and nanoparticles are great catalysts because of the extremely high surface area to volume ratio. We've been making these nanoparticles and are looking to use them as photocatalysts for using optical energy to produce hydrogen gas... initially via a UV light-catalyzed reaction using a chemical called "methyl viologen" but hopefully eventually by using solar energy to split water molecules.
  • Semiconductor nanoparticles in ferritin
    Ferritin is a hollow protein about 10 nm in diameter, and can be used as a template for creating semiconductor nanoparticles. The particles form inside the protein shell. We're investigating ways to synthesize the nanoparticles, and their properties once synthesized, especially for solar cell applications. There's also a cool possible application for fighting cancer that we may be pursuing, binding fluorescent nanoparticles to cancerous cells and using them to image the tumor. This research is done in collaboration with Richard Watt, a BYU chemistry professor
  • ZnO thin films
    Zinc oxide is a semiconductor that potentially has good optical properties that should allow it to be used to make semiconductor devices such as LEDs and lasers. However, to make such devices you need both “n-type” and “p-type” material. (N-type has extra electrons compared to what is needing for bonding; p-type has an electron deficit.) ZnO tends to naturally form as n-type and it's traditionally been very hard to make good quality p-type ZnO, but we're working with faculty member David Allred and visiting professor Gary Renlund to develop a new synthesis technique. We've been doing film growth on substrates coated with ZnAs using a sputtering technique, and optical investigations of the resulting material. For that matter, we plan to publish a paper on the ZnAs coating that we’ve produced along the way.
Robert Davis (Condensed Matter)
  • Biological Separations
    This work is focused on capture of cells and molecules using precision filters for the detection of cancer and antibiotic resistant bacteria. 
  • Biomolecular Electronics
    Carbon nanotubes, proteins and nucleic acids are candidate structures for self assembled molecular electronic materials for sensing and the internet of things. .
  • Nanostructures and Micromachines
    We are developing three dimensional microscale structures from vertically grown nanotube forests. We are using films of carbon atoms, few atoms thick, to make ultrastrong materials. 
Dennis Della Corte (Condensed Matter)
  • ProSPr - Protein Structure Prediction

    A cross divisional team of physicists, computer scientists, biologists and chemists implements a novel protein structure prediction pipeline to solve one of the oldest challenges in computational biophysics: The Protein Folding Problem.

    We will apply our pipeline to a global community wide blind test in 2020 called CASP14. 

    The work entails:

    - training of convolutional neural networks

    - design of simulation algorithms

    - high performance super computer usage

    - chemical and biological evaluation of results

  • Radical SAM Engineering

    Together with the Chemistry department at BYU, we are developing  algorithms that aid the systematic design of novel enzymes.

    These enzymes can be applied to a variety of use cases, such as fertilizer production, detergent production, or drug production.



Benjamin Frandsen (Condensed Matter)
  • Atomic and magnetic structure investigations of quantum materials and technologically relevant materials

    One of the first steps toward understanding any given material of interest (a new superconductor, an unusual magnetic material, an energy-related compound, etc) is determining its atomic and magnetic structure. We utilize beams of x-rays, neutrons, and muons at large-scale accelerator facilities to do just that. Our primary experimental techniques include atomic and magnetic pair distribution function (PDF) analysis, conventional x-ray and neutron scattering, and muon spin relaxation/rotation. A few times a year, we visit these types of facilities to collect data, and then we come back home to analyze and make sense of it all. Through this process, we hope to shed light on the origin of the material's properties by gaining a detailed understanding of the local and average atomic and magnetic structure.

  • Developing open source, python-based software for investigating atomic and magnetic structure

    Data are only useful if we can understand them, and to understand them, we often need specialized tools. We are currently developing open source, python-based software tools to analyze experimental data collected from condensed matter experiments using x-ray, neutron, and muon beams. The software will maximize research effectiveness and enable new methods of analysis not only for our own research group, but also for the wider community of condensed matter physicists using similar types of experimental methods.

  • Investigating the structure of molten salts for alternative nuclear reactor designs

    Molten salt reactors (MSRs) are a promising nuclear reactor design concept in which molten ionic salts function as the coolant and/or fuel source in the reactor. MSRs have many potential advantages over standard designs in commercial use today, including greatly enhanced safety/security and the ability to produce critical medical radioisotopes in addition to vast amounts of carbon-free electricity. To make MSRs a reality, it is necessary to understand and predict the behavior of the salts in operating conditions. Gaining a detailed knowledge of the local structure of the molten salts on the atomic scale is an essential step in this direction, since the local interactions between constituent atoms determine the macroscopic properties. In this project, we use cutting-edge neutron and x-ray total scattering and computational modeling techniques to establish the structure of relevant molten salts.

Gus Hart (Condensed Matter)
  • Machine Learning for Discovering New Materials

    We are developing mathematics, algorithms, and software to discover the new materials that will define the next age of human civilization. Stone, Bronze, Iron, Steel, Silcon,...what material will define the next age? We are building a "virtual laboratory" so that artificially intelligent computers can discover the materials of tomorrow. Students with no prior experience are welcome.

  • Materials simulation: Algorithm development and applications

    Our group focuses on computer simulation of materials for the purpose of discovering new materials that have exceptional properties. There are two aspects of the research: 1) developing new approaches, algorithms, and mathematics that can be used in simulation, and 2) applying existing and new approaches to find new materials. Both aspects are challenging and require participating students to move far outside their comfort zone and learn things that won't be part of a regular physics or CS degree. Students with no prior experience are welcome.

Mark Transtrum (Condensed Matter)
  • Computational methods for exploring high-dimensional parameter spaces
    Modern computers enable large models of complex processes.  These models often involve a large number of parameters and a relevant question is often how the model's behavior depends on the parameter values.  Because the parameter space is high-dimensional, a brute force search will never be possible for models with more than a few parameters.  We are developing novel computational methods for efficiently and intelligently exploring these high-dimensional parameter spaces.  This project uses theoretical insights based on information theory and applies sophisticated techniques in computational differential geometry, automatic differentiation, and topology with high-performance computing.  Our goal is to improve algorithms for fitting models to data, performing statistical sampling, and classifying regimes of distinct model behaviors. 
  • Information theory of multi-parameter models
    Mathematical modeling is a central component of nearly all scientific inquiry.  Parsimonious representations of physical systems, together with robust methods for interacting with them, is one of the primary engines of scientific progress.  Much of the work in our group involves developing new methods, both theoretical and computational, for improving the predictive performance of complex multi-parameter models.  Our research explores the mathematical structures that enable predictive modeling.  We use information theory, statistics, differential geometry, and topology, as well as relevant physical laws from a variety of fields to better understand data, models, and the relationship between reductionism and emergence.
  • Machine Learning on Acoustic data sets
    Sound is one of the fundamental ways we observe our environment.  In collaboration with acousticians at BYU and Blue Ridge Research and Consulting, we use machine learning techniques to predict ambient sound levels from environmental parameters (such as the distance to a road or local population densities).  Our models will ultimately be useful for a variety of applications including military mission planning, public health, urban development, and ecology.  We also use machine learning to predict crowd dynamics from acoustic data sets.  Can analysis of acoustic data collected at sporting events be used to infer the shifting mood of a diverse crowd?  If so, can acoustic monitoring be used to improve law enforcement responses to crowds before they become violent?
  • Modeling Complex Biological Systems
    Biological systems are rich in the types of behavior they can exhibit.  This is enabled through a complex web of components.  In the case of development biology, the relevant components are networks of chemical reactions while in neuroscience, it is a combination of electrical and biochemical signals.  In both cases, the complex system responds to external stimuli and performs calculations to formulate an appropriate response.  The complexity of these systems is overwhelming.  New theoretical and computational tools are needed to organize our knowledge of these processes and compress it into a coherent theory.  Our research tries to develop minimal models from these "parts lists" in order to summarize and organize our understanding of biological and neurological processes.
  • Modeling Complex Energy Systems
    Models of energy systems involve a large number of heterogeneous components connected in complex networks.  Detailed models of these systems constructed from physical first principles are similarly complicated and involve a large number of unknown parameters.  In spite of their detail and complexity, models often have limited predictive capability because it is difficult to identify the model, i.e., find accurate values for all of the parameters.  Our goals it develop models that are sufficiently complex to capture the rich behavior of real power systems, but simple enough so that all the parameters can be learned from data.
  • Superconducting Materials for next generation particle accelerators
    Particle accelerators are are foundational technology in modern science, enabling fundamental research in facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), as well as providing some of our best sources of coherent x-rays for probing nanoscale structure in materials.  The same physical principles underly other technologies such as electron microscopy. Superconducting resonance cavities are the enabling technology that allows subatomic particles to be accelerated to near light speeds.  In collaboration with researchers at the Center for Bright Beams (, we are working to better understand materials properties of superconductors in order to lay the foundation for the next generation of particle accelerators.  Our work uses high performance computing to solve equations that describe how specific materials respond to applied magnetic fields, accounting for details such as surface roughness, grain boundaries, and material inhomogeneities.
Richard Vanfleet (Condensed Matter)
  • Atomic and near atomic scale studies of materials by Transmission Electron Microscopy.
    We attempt to determine in as direct observational way as possible the way materials actually chose to arrange themselves. This is often in contrast to how man has attempted to arrange them. We are interested in the structural arrangement of atoms as well as the elemental and bonding arrangements of atoms within nanometer scale features of the sample. An undergraduate would learn to prepare samples for TEM analysis as well as learn the basics of TEM operation to analyze their samples in the TEM.
Richard Sandberg (Laser Science)
  • Lensless imaging to study nanometer-scale material dynamics

    We have positions opened for undergraduates and upwards of three graduate students in the Physics and Astronomy Department starting immediately or for 2020. Our new lab is developing lensless or coherent diffraction imaging to study materials dynamics. We use coherent light sources (x-ray, XUV, and optical), Fourier Optics, and computer algorithms to produce nanometer scale images of materials lenslessly.

    Graduate and undergraduate student position projects available:

    1. Imaging atomic strain in structural materials
    2. Nanoscale 3D few nanometer imaging
    3. Single shot imaging of materials in extreme conditions  

    For more information, contact Dr. Sandberg at, 801-422-1497 or N261 ESC

John Ellsworth (Nuclear)
Manuel Berrondo (Theoretical and Mathematical)
Eric Hirschmann (Theoretical and Mathematical)
  • Charged black holes in higher dimensions
    The Kerr-Newman black hole is the charged, rotating black hole in 4 dimensions.  The 5 dimensional version is not known.  Using numerical techniques we are trying to construct it.  
  • General relativisitic equilibrium models of magnetars

    We would like to construct axisymmetric, general relativistic, equilibrium models of neutron stars with ultra-strong magnetic fields (magnetars).  Physics inputs include poloidal and toroidal magnetic fields, realistic equations of state for the matter, differential rotation and convective motions.  

  • General relativistic compact binaries

    We are interested in all aspects of compact object binary mergers (black holes and neutron stars).  This includes predicting the gravitational and electromagnetic radiation from such systems as well as constraining the properties of dense matter in such mergers.

    This work involves large scale computation and necessitates developing numerical algorithms for solving the nonlinear partial differential equations of general relativity and radiation magnetohydrodynamics.   

  • Relativistic magnetohydrodynamics

    Past, present and future projects include

    1.   Establishing the characteristic structure of the equations of general relativistic magnetohydrodynamics (GRMHD) in different formulations.
    2.   Studying the instabilities and waves associated with this system in different geometries.  
    3.   Developing constraint preserving boundary conditions for GRMHD.
    4.   Developing simulations in 1D, 2D and 3D for flat space MHD.  
David Neilsen (Theoretical and Mathematical)
  • General Relativity
    General relativity describes gravitational phenomena geometrically as curvature in spacetime: Matter curves space, and the spacetime curvature affects matter. General relativity predicts that accelerating objects can emit gravitational radiation. While this radiation is typically extremely weak, some astrophysical systems, such as colliding black holes or neutron stars, may emit gravitational waves that we can detect on Earth. Large, kilometer scale laser interferometers, such as LIGO, are being constructed to study gravitational wave signals from these events. Unfortunately, we currently know very little about the radiation expected from the regions of spacetime with the strongest (nonlinear) gravitational fields. I study computational methods for solving the Einstein equations for these strong-field gravitational wave sources. Various projects are available to investigate black hole spacetimes, black hole formation, and properties of the Einstein equations. All projects require writing, testing, and running computer codes to investigate nonlinear gravitational phenomena.
  • Numerical methods
    Research with the Einstein equations and RFD requires sophisticated numerical methods and techniques (as well as cheats and tricks). Some techniques include adaptive mesh refinement (AMR), parallel computing, high-resolution shock-capturing methods for fluid equations. Some systems, such as moving black holes, may naturally be solved in multiple reference frames simultaneously. I am investigating the use of overlapping computational grids for these problems. One particular interest is combining modern fluid methods with overlapping grids.
  • Relativistic fluid dynamics (RFD)
    Neutron star collapse, supernovae, gamma-ray sources, etc., are some of the exciting topics in relativistic astrophysics, and the perfect fluid is the fundamental model for all of these. I study relativistic perfect fluids near black holes using computational methods. In particular, Eric Hirschmann, Steven Millward and I at BYU are studying a magnetized fluid around a black hole with computational Magneto-Hydrodynamics (MHD). Various computational projects are available in RFD and MHD, which require writing, testing and running computer programs to model relativistic fluids.
Jean-Francois Van Huele (Theoretical and Mathematical)
Chris Verhaaren (Theoretical and Mathematical)
  • Baryogenesis

    Building models of how the Universe came to have more matter than antimatter.

  • Dark Matter

    Developing models for the cosmological dark matter and determining their experimental signatures.

  • Understanding Nontopological Solitons

    Nontopological solitons are interesting objects that are possible macroscopic dark matter candidates. Making precise predictions of experimental signals depends on improving our theoretical understanding of these objects.