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Tufts Physics Dept.
Tufts Condensed Matter Physics

 Comments from Former Undergrad Research Students

Travis Lau
BS 2002 (Biology)
Tufts Medical School
Staff Physician, Pacific Anesthesia, Inc.

TravisDuring my research experience with Professor Tobin, I was given an incredible opportunity to engage in hands-on learning and the responsibility to complete tasks on my own.  These tasks included:  The physics that I learned during the four years working in the lab is substantial, but I also learned a lot of other skills.  I learned to use common sense in the lab, especially when working with electrical equipment.  I also gained the belief in myself that I can complete tasks independently and efficiently.  I learned to think out-of-the-box when faced with difficult situations.  And a little bit of presentation skills.

 While working in a physics laboratory is important for improving physics knowledge, much of what I learned can be applied to experiences outside of the lab.  During the project on refractive index, I learned the importance of trial and error and persistence to try to find a solution.  Working independently and with confidence is important in any field.  And presentation skills are always important to get information across.

 Working as a student researcher has been extremely helpful to me and was an invaluable experience.  As a Biology major, working in the physics lab allowed me to have a more well-rounded understanding of science, and may have also helped with medical school applications and interviews.

Daron Kurkjian
B.S. 2004 (Engineering)
Gordon Institute,
Tufts University
Engineer, AMEC Environment and Infrastructure, UK

DaronThe theme of my undergraduate research experience was the gaining of real experience. The experience I gained was predominantly in how to problem solve, research, collaborate, and balance work demands with other time demands.

The benefit of hands-on research was being able to create a solution to a problem you could see functioning day after day and if not, correcting the malfunction. Working in real 3D space forced me to use skills developed in EN-2 to draw diagrams for parts that the machine shop would then read. These parts would have to match up to one another making careful and accurate measurements a must.

In the design of parts I learned a greater lesson in professionalism. Professor Tobin made sure he reviewed the diagrams before I brought them to the machine shop. The fact that a PhD holding professor would spend the time reviewing an undergraduate's diagrams to save retooling time for the shop machinists was evidence of mutual respect that as a freshman was more than I imagined a faculty member to hold. Professor Tobin explained the busy schedules of the machinists and critical work they did and I learned to be more thoughtful in my work as a result.

 The importance of collaborating was essential throughout my time in Professor Tobin's lab. Even after gaining a few years of experience in the lab, being able to ask questions directly related to the lab-work was critical in making progress in the diverse projects in the lab. Speaking with other undergraduate researchers, graduate students, and post-docs in addition to Professor Tobin himself, opened my eyes to the spectrum of research in academia. Exposure to the grant-writing process was great for when my own senior design (capstone) project group needed to secure the funds for international research.

Overall, undergraduate research is a great way to see the other side to Tufts professors. Without my lab experience I would be oblivious to a huge part of the highly specialized research going on at Tufts. Without my lab-work starting my freshman year, I only now in my senior year would have begun researching closely with professors and would not have utilized the benefits of the research university Tufts is.

 As an engineering student, being confident of technical skills doesn’t come from understanding theory alone. The application of physics, such as torque tests on stepper motors I performed, made equations meaningful and much more useful than just for answering question on a test. The application of science and technology made a big difference in my confidence of my technical skills. Having a purpose above gaining lab experience for the sake of lab experience, such as in classroom labs, made labwork exciting because the work was on the cutting edge of science. Undergraduate research gave me a deeper appreciation for the work professors are engaged in and also was very helpful job experience for future internship and job application.

Krish Kotru
B.A. 2008 summa cum laude, high thesis honors (Physics)
Aeronautical and Aerospace Engineering, MIT

KrishMy experience in Prof. Tobin’s lab spanned most of my undergraduate career at Tufts.  I began as a freshman by designing an alignment system using a laser.  The project sounded simple enough, and I imagined I’d finish it within a few weeks — a prediction that would have been correct had everything gone exactly according to plan.  Of course, plans had to be re-planned from time and time, and two months later I felt a great deal wiser, not only about physics, but also about being an experimentalist. 

 This design project was multi-faceted and tremendous for a freshman: it involved mechanical design (in collaboration with Tufts’ machine shop), electronics, optics, budgeting, and lots of one-on-one discussion with the Professor.  I was fortunate because my future work in the lab allowed me to build on this first project.  As a sophomore, I wrote a computer program in LabVIEW that interfaced the laser with a PC to facilitate data collection.  After studying abroad for a year, I began a senior thesis in which the same laser system was used to monitor the deposition of extremely thin metal layers on a substrate (we’re talking about angstrom-level thicknesses).  The thesis research required one of Prof. Tobin’s ultrahigh vacuum chambers, among other things, and allowed me to develop an even larger skill-set, as well as a deeper knowledge of experimentation.  Most importantly, I had the opportunity to extend my initial work for three years and thereby make a meaningful contribution to Prof. Tobin’s research. 

 Rest assured that your assignment will be well thought-out and within the grasp of an undergraduate who has had some exposure to college-level physics. You will be given a fair amount of independence and will have to think creatively to find solutions to everyday experimental challenges.  And yet, help is almost always around the corner—in the form of either Prof. Tobin himself or one of his students—in case you get really stuck.  

 This resource is wonderful to have around the lab, particularly when you are struggling with a confusing idea. 

 He is an avid Red Sox fan, a jazz enthusiast, and a runner.  He also speaks multiple languages, and follows politics enough to occasionally send letters to the editors of The New York Times.  I realized I would enjoy working with the Professor, before I learned about all his extracurriculars, when he referred to physics during the 1970s as the “sexy science”—that’s ten points for sense of humor, in my opinion.  

 Take, for example, the Cavendish Experiment in 1798, which provided evidence for the accuracy of Newton’s Law of Gravitation.  Cavendish’s experimental results were extraordinarily sensitive, given the technological challenges he faced in measuring vanishingly small gravitational forces.  Textbooks bypass the meticulous and painstaking efforts that go into such work, perhaps for the sake of brevity, and instead present only final results.  The reader, consequently, does not see the creativity and follow-through of the experimentalist:  Cavendish had to build his apparatus and then repeat a fairly tedious experiment 29 times before obtaining publishable results.  In Prof. Tobin’s lab you will become a better experimentalist, and you will learn that experimentation is not second to theory, but rather, that it is a means to learning in and of itself.