While walking around campus it’s easy to forget that behind closed doors students and faculty are engaged in potentially life-altering experiments, but that’s exactly what’s occurring in the Hall of Science building at CSULB, thanks in part to a grant secured by Physics Professor Michael Peterson.
CSULB and Ohio State University (OSU) physics departments have been in touch for years coordinating on the American Physical Society Bridge Program that identifies students who have shown success and want to complete a PhD upon graduation from CSULB. And while at a related conference, the two departments decided to take their partnership to the next level and applied for the Partnership for Research and Education in Materials (PREM) grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
The two universities met regularly over Zoom during the pandemic to complete the proposal and were ultimately awarded $800,000, according to Dr. Peterson.
The grant is made up of two components —research and education. The objectives are to propel the ongoing research projects taking place at CSULB and to simultaneously help ease the transition between graduate and PhD studies for CSULB students, who would potentially even transfer to OSU as well as initiate and foster cross institutional collaborations, which are often hard to get started and keep going due to lack of funding or distance.
Focus is on Student Success: “[OSU] wants to foster underrepresented minority success but they don’t always know what the incoming students are dealing with and what they’re struggling with,” said Dr. Peterson, who explained that many CSULB students do not take a linear path while completing their education and are not always the best test takers.
But students involved in the PREM grant who attend OSU will already have a project they're working on, a research group assigned to them at OSU, familiarity with faculty, and will have visited the campus numerous times.
Additionally, PhD programs in the physics field often take 5-6 years to complete. “That gets in the way of success because a lot of students look at that timeline and just think, well I can’t do this,” explained Dr. Peterson, especially because their master’s credits from CSULB are not always accepted.
Sometimes when they arrive to start their PhD, said Professor Peterson, the students are forced to re-do courses they’ve already taken or test-out since some are arriving just out of their undergraduate coursework. This delay in completing their next degree is an obstacle Dr. Peterson and others at CSULB are trying to help overcome with grants like PREM.
“We want to produce PhDs and highly trained students that are ready to either go into academia or go into the workforce in materials science,” he said.
“For us, we want to send our undergraduate students and our masters’ students to top schools for their PhD,” said Dr. Claudia Ojeda-Aristizabal, Associate Professor of Physics at CSULB, “and this is a natural bridge. So my hope is that after this, Ohio is more motivated to take our students.”
“I hope it serves as a great pathway for all our departments—chemistry and physics—to get new PhD students in the coming future,” added OSU Chemistry Professor Joshua Goldberger. “That’s definitely one of the long-term goals.”
While this portion has not kicked off yet due to high COVID-19 transmission rates, students will have the opportunity to visit the OSU campus as part of the grant.
There they will partner with a professor and work as an undergraduate researcher in one of the labs, explained Professor Goldberger. They’ll also have a graduate student mentor, will get involved in various training opportunities, attend lectures on potential career opportunities, and even take a trip to Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.
“The students are getting tons of opportunities to use great equipment at OSU and computation techniques and they’re learning all kinds of cool things,” added Professor Peterson.
Students can also expect visiting faculty and postdoc students from OSU to provide in-person lectures on the CSULB campus and get involved in various experiments.
But, the grant is so much more than just what OSU has to offer.
As Dr. Ojeda shared, “My students are very excited about doing experiments, writing pa- pers; we are doing science, and this is all facilitated by the NSF [grant].”
Science is a Priority, Too: The research component of the grant is also complex and delves into three fields of study.
The first is topological aspects of magnetism, which, simply put, is when thin films of magnets with strange geometries are studied. The second involves an interest in quantum materials in reduced dimensions. Essentially one can make very thin layers of materials and then stack them like Legos, explained Dr. Peterson, to tune the magnetic properties by mixing materials and adjusting the structures.
And the third area of focus is in biomolecular topology and properties. Dr. Peterson shared that DNA molecules can form very complicated links and faculty are experimenting with different conditions and knot theory to better understand what is occurring.
Each project, he said, fosters interactions between faculties at both universities as they find overlapping projects they are both interested to work on.
One such example is the dynamic between Professor Goldberger and Dr. Ojeda.
“[OSU] had just created a new family of magnetic materials that looked like they had some sort of interesting physical properties associated with them and Claudia’s an expert in measuring the electronic structure of these materials and we thought it was a natural starting point for collaboration to investigate these systems,” said Professor Goldberger.
Dr. Ojeda added, “Josh and I shared an interest in materials that are two-dimensional. These materials are made up of atoms that arrange themselves in a certain way that bring certain scientific properties that can be useful for applications seen in electronics.”
Ultimately, Dr. Ojeda was able to work with her students, including Derek Bergner, to con- duct experiments using materials provided by Professor Goldberger.
Bergner heard about the opportunity to work with Dr. Ojeda from Dr. Peterson and joined the grant research team in October 2021. Since that time he says the students have been working on two main techniques.
They used electron transport to learn more about the magnetism, voltage, and temperature of Professor Goldberger’s material that Bergner refers to as a crystal, as well as angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (ARPES) — the main technique Bergner is involved with.
“Pretty much what I do is I go to the Advanced Light Source in Lawrence Berkeley National Lab- oratories and we applied for beam time, successfully got it in October, and I pretty much shoot high energy photons at the crystal.”
This allows him to study the band structure, or different energies and velocities the electrons can have that live in the crystal, and, with some help from other scientists, he gets samples ready, shoots them with photons, then studies the distribution, and “some important physics come out of that,” he said.
The fact that he is involved with this level of scientific experimentation is still mind-boggling. As he shared, “I wasn’t at all prepared to go to a four-year school.” Instead he attended San Diego Canyon College first before transfer- ring to CSULB.
Now, he happily works alongside Dr. Ojeda who he speaks of very highly.
“I can’t say enough how lucky I was to meet Dr. Ojeda because not only is she one of the most empathetic and hardest working women in North America, but I’m doing novel, advanced, and cutting-edge science at Long Beach. I’ll work with her for as long as she’ll let me.”
However, he graduates next year, so their time will come to an end sooner than he’d like at which time he plans to continue on the PhD track and ideally attend a university that has access to a synchrotron—a type of cyclic particle accelerator.
In the meantime, he and Dr. Ojeda are both ex- cited to soon publish their lab results that used the ARPES technique and expect a few more research papers to emerge due to the grant funding.
As Professor Goldberger explained: “To do cutting-edge materials research you need to work with lots of different people who have lots of different expertise to answer really fundamentally unique and important questions.” And that’s exactly what the NSF grant allowed.
The grant lasts for three years and then CSULB and OSU can re-apply for further funding.
This article was published in the latest issue of Quest magazine (pages 18-21), a product of California State University Long Beach Office of Research and Economic Development.