Conducting Research that Matters

Whether they are working in core physics areas or collaborating with colleagues in mathematics, computer science, engineering, or life sciences, faculty members and students in WPI’s Physics Department are actively engaged in research to develop practical solutions for real-world problems.

Learn more about two of the areas in which WPI physicists are making groundbreaking discoveries: biophysics and nanoscience.

physics

Biophysics / Soft Matter

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary science that uses the methods of physical science to study biological systems by applying the principles of physics and chemistry and the methods of mathematical analysis and computer modeling to understand how biological systems work.

This science seeks to explain biological function in terms of the molecular structures and properties of specific molecules. WPI researchers are making strides in molecular and multimolecular aspects of biophysics by fostering groups engaged in multidisciplinary research in this field.

Biophysics gives us medical imaging technologies including MRI scans, CAT scans, PET scans, and sonograms for diagnosing diseases. It provides the life-saving treatment methods of kidney dialysis, radiation therapy, cardiac defibrillators, and pacemakers.

Biophysics Research Groups

  • Germano Iannacchione’s  group studies order-disorder phenomena in biomaterials. Using calorimetric, dielectric spectroscopic, and optical microscopy techniques, participants study the ordering and self-assembly of biomaterials such as proteins, DNA, and cholesterols. Current work is focused on understanding the elements controlling protein denaturing and folding dynamics, mesoscopic phase behavior of DNA segments, and self-assemblies of filament, tubule, and helical microstructures formed in cholesterol-based model-bile systems.
     
  • Erkan Tüzel's group seeks to identify fundamental mechanisms in biology and emerging nanoscale physics, especially in areas where there is the potential for significant medical and industrial applications. Using theoretical and computational tools (in particular, coarse-grained modeling approaches) to provide insight into open problems in these interdisciplinary areas, the group has been shedding new light on such areas as the dynamics of biopolymers and their interactions with molecular motors, the development and applications of particle-based algorithms for complex fluids, and capillary waves in binary and ternary mixtures. Professor Tüzel works closely with Professor Luis Vidali (Biology and Biotechnology) in his explorations of these problems. 
     
  • Qi Wen's group is interested in studying the physics of living cells, particularly the mechanical properties of cell cytoskeleton and the mechanical interactions between cells and extracellular materials. He is leading the experimental biophysics laboratory at WPI's Life Sciences & Bioengineering Center. The research in his lab interfaces with physics, chemistry, nanotechnology, and biomedical engineering. The aim of the research is to understand the physical principles governing the transmission of force inside cells and the transduction of mechanical force into intracellular biochemical signals to regulate cellular functions.

    The lab is equipped with a combination of cutting-edge biophysics tools such as fiber optical tweezers, traction force microscopy, and atomic force microscopy, for single cell and single molecule studies. Results from the research will guide the design of novel materials for wound healing, tissue engineering, and tumor treatment.
    Research in Professor Wen’s group is currently funded by the National Science Foundation. The group is accepting new graduate students, both PhD and master levels. Students with a strong interest in experimental biophysics, good communication skills, and some experimental background are strongly encouraged to apply.

Nuclear Science and Engineering Group

  • Dave Medich’s group performs experimental and computational (Monte Carlo) research in the field of applied nuclear physics with a focus on medical and health physics. Presently he is developing a novel technique to enable high-resolution in vivo functional imaging using neutrons, researching localized intensity-modulated Yb-169 HDR brachytherapy, developing a field-deployable nuclear forensics device for radiological and topological characterization, and analyzing the time-dependent resuspension of radioactive Am-241 into the atmosphere.

Nanoscience

Nanoscience, an interdisciplinary field that incorporates elements of physics, engineering, biotechnology, and chemistry, deals with structures that are very small in nature, generally those smaller than 100 nanometers—or about one ten-millionth of an inch. Nanoscience and nanotechnology involve the ability to see and to control these tiny, individual atoms that make up everything on Earth. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, and even the human body, all consist of atoms.

But something as small as an atom is impossible to see with the naked eye—in fact, the atom is impossible to see with the typical microscope. Therefore, physicists generally have to invent the instrumentation they need to study things at the nanoscale. Once physicists developed the right tools, such as the scanning tunneling microscope (STM) and the atomic force microscope (AFM), the benefits of nanoscience research to society became very clear.

The potential applications of nanoscience research are considerable, affecting such areas as drug development, transportation, communication, and sustainable energy.

Nanoscience Research Groups

  • P. K. Aravind’s research centers on quantum mechanics and quantum information theory. He has worked on refinements of proofs of the Bell and Kochen-Specker theorems and their applications to quantum protocols such as state discrimination and cryptography. In 2001 he proposed a scheme (simultaneously with, but independently of, Adan Cabello) for proving Bell’s theorem “without probabilities” using an entangled state of four quantum particles shared between two observers. More recently he and his collaborators have worked on geometric proofs of the Kochen-Specker theorem, based on structures such as the 600-cell, that suggest new experimental tests of quantum contextuality.
     
  • Nancy Burnham's nanomechanics group studies the mechanical properties of materials at the nanoscale, typically using atomic force microscopy (AFM). Projects in this area take various forms, from instrumentation and nanometrology, to revamping existing theory in light of new experimental data, to applications as diverse as the minimization of adhesion in microsensor systems, the characterization of tissue-growth substrates, and the understanding of bacterial adhesion. 

    Areas of current (2016) interest, for which experimental PhD students would be welcome, include improving dynamic AFM characterization techniques, the micro-rheology of fluids near surfaces and within pores and cells, and the development of sustainable asphalt binders for the four million miles of roads in the U.S. Prior experience with AFM is not required. Demonstrated experimental background, good communication skills, and a high level of commitment are advantages to applicants.  
     
  • Ramdas Ram-Mohan has developed an international reputation as a pioneer in solid state physics, a field that has helped propel extraordinary advances in the speed and power of computers, telecommunications systems, lasers, and other high-tech devices. In addition to exploring the quantum mechanical properties of condensed matter, he has developed powerful computational tools that have made it possible to predict with great accuracy the properties of increasingly complex semiconductor and optoelectronic devices and to precisely control the design of these ubiquitous systems. 

    Ram-Mohan's work on high-energy physics, condensed matter, and semiconductor physics has resulted in more than 200 peer-reviewed publications that have garnered more than 3,800 citations. He is also the founder of wavefunction engineering, a method for specifying certain quantum properties of semiconductor heterostructures—assemblies of two dissimilar semiconductor materials that display unique electrical or optoelectronic properties. This innovative method arises from the application of the finite element method, or FEM, a numerical analysis technique used widely in engineering, to quantum heterostructures.

    Ram-Mohan, recognized as one of the foremost authorities on FEM, described this new field in his landmark 2002 book, Finite Element and Boundary Element Applications to Quantum Mechanics. CCN was created to address the solving of nonlinear problems in many fields utilizing a multidisciplinary approach. Ideas come from physics, numerical analysis, computer science, and other fields of research. Some areas of research being addressed at the CCN include quantum modeling of nanostructures, quantum computation, designing MEMS (micro-electromechanical systems), NEMS (nonoscale electromechanical systems, multicomponent diffusion in fluids and solids, nonlinear optics, and mathematical biology).
     
  • Richard Quimby and his students study fundamental aspects of lasers, fiber optics, and optical spectroscopy that are relevant for contemporary photonic devices. Both experimental and numerical modeling work is being pursued. Current interests include modeling of high power fiber lasers, new host materials for mid-infrared fiber lasers, and novel light field distributions in an optical fiber. The latter includes light with orbital angular momentum.
     
  • Alex Zozulya's group does research in ultracold atom optics. This includes theoretical analysis of Bose-Einstein condensate-based atom interferometers and gyroscopes, atom "chip" technology and, more recently, atomtronics. The field of atomtronics deals with creating atomic devices and circuits that have functionality of their electronic counterparts and can do much more. One of the most important components of a microelectronic circuit is a transistor.

    Several years ago Professor Zozulya's group in collaboration with researchers from University of Colorado at Boulder proposed an atomic device which they called an atom transistor.
    A transistor enables one to control a large atomic flux with a smaller atomic flux and demonstrates switching and both differential and absolute gain, thus showing behavior similar to that of an electronic transistor. An atom transistor can be used to build a variety of atomtronic circuits such as atom amplifiers, oscillators, or logic gates.

Additional Faculty Research Areas

  • Hektor Kashuri researches noninvasive study of electrical properties of human muscles. 
  • Isabela Stroe's research area is in the hydration effects on protein dynamics, thermodynamics of proteins and DNA, dielectric relaxation spectroscopy, relaxation calorimetry, resonant ultrasound spectroscopy.  
  • Frank Dick’s research focus includes modeling fundamental particles as curved space-times as well as inelastic atom-photon interactions.
  • Marco Popovic’s research focus includes high energy particle physics; applied general physics; biomechanics, biomedical engineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and robotics; and new generation internet and socio-business media. Learn more on Popovic Labs.

Physics Facilities

See WPI’s physics facilities to discover the equipment and space we offer for innovative and well-supported research.