Undergrads Conduct Research
The Lure of Research
Researchers Pick A&EP
22 Volume
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2009 Year
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At Cornell

Undergraduate Researchers Pick
Applied and Engineering Physics

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Kenneth Ferguson ’11 and Nitin Malik ’11

As the incoming writer of the undergraduate research feature for Connecting with Cornell, I chose to interview two undergraduate researchers in the Department of Applied and Engineering Physics. I, too, am fascinated by physics, a wonderfully challenging area of study. Undergraduates in the physics laboratories on campus do such interesting work. These students, Kenneth Ferguson ’11 and Nitin Malik ’11, are only two examples.

Designing and Building Custom Lab Optical Equipment

Kenneth Ferguson

Research was the reason why Kenneth Ferguson chose Cornell. “I wanted to go to a research university that does high-quality research and provides opportunities for undergraduates to become involved in it,” Ferguson says. “I think Cornell’s done that.” A junior in the Department of Applied and Engineering Physics in the College of Engineering, Ferguson has already made considerable progress in what he set out to do at Cornell. Ferguson is in the lab of Alexander Gaeta, Applied and Engineering Physics, where he designs and builds advanced optical equipment. Gaeta’s research group concentrates on quantum nonlinear optics, a field that studies the interaction between light and matter.

Ferguson became very interested in the course material of a freshman-level lasers and photonics course, taught by Gaeta. He asked Gaeta about the possibility of joining his research group. Ferguson’s first project was to design and build an erbium-doped fiber amplifier (EDFA). The EDFA amplifies optical signals that pass through it for better detection and analysis. After reviewing published literature on the subject, Ferguson assembled the necessary components for his design: pump lasers operating at 980 nanometers (nm), fiber connectors, two isolators, two wave division multiplexers (WDM), and erbium-doped fiber. The main component of the amplifier is the erbium-doped fiber, which directly increases the intensity of an optical signal. As the pump laser beam travels through the fiber, it excites erbium ions to high-energy states. A passing signal wave then de-excites the erbium ions, whose energy is transferred to the signal and amplifies it. In order to ensure that only the signal passes through the system, isolators are placed at its beginning and end to filter noise. Between the isolators and on either side of the erbium-doped fiber are wave division multiplexers, which effectively combine the signal wave (at 1550 nm) and the pump laser beam (at 980 nm) into the single amplifying fiber.

Studying Biofuels at the Molecular Level for an Improved Energy Source

Nitin Malik

Nitin Malik chose Cornell partly for its renowned engineering college and partly for its stellar Department of Applied and Engineering Physics (AEP). But another reason for his decision was Libe Slope. “I was thinking of Johns Hopkins University, but I was at the top of Libe Slope on a college visit, and that’s when I really fell in love with campus,” he reveals. He applied by early decision and was accepted. He was awarded a place in the Hunter R. Rawlings III Presidential Research Scholars program and began his research experience at Cornell in the spring of his freshman year.

In his senior year of high school, Malik had conducted an independent study project focusing on biology. At Cornell, as a prospective medical student majoring in AEP, Malik found his research match in the combination of physics and biology, studying the molecular-level interactions of cellulase through a technique called fluorescence correlation spectroscopy (FSC). Malik works as part of a long-term collaboration between Harold Craighead, Applied and Engineering Physics, and Larry Walker, Biological and Environmental Engineering, to improve the processing of biofuels as a more efficient energy source. The current research examines cellulose-cellulase interactions through optical techniques and by developing nanodevices to investigate biological systems on the nanoscale.

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