This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.
The term "theoretical physics" may conjure up the image of Albert Einstein's famous hair, Newton's apple or maybe even the fictional transporter room on Star Trek.
Much less likely to come to mind are dynamic young theoretical physicists seeking to gain a better understanding of graphene, the thinnest and strongest nanomaterial known to exist. Equally surprising is the growing number of teens and college undergraduates who are studying extremely difficult problems and publishing papers in top tier physics journals based on research that may advance fiber optics.
Yogesh Joglekar, assistant professor of physics at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, works on graphene and optical waveguides, two of the hottest fields in theoretical physics, and mentors a growing number of high school and undergraduate students in those fields.
Supported by a National Science Foundation CAREER award, Joglekar applies tools of theoretical physics — pencil and paper, white board, marker and a computer — to study graphene, the discovery of which earned two researchers a Nobel Prize in 2010. In the near future, graphene, a form of carbon that is only one atom thick, may supplement silicon in many electronics, Joglekar said.
Specifically, he is investigating how electrons and their positively charged, electron-hole counterparts form pairs in graphene. Those pairs, called excitons, can carry electricity without resistance and emit laser-like light.
In addition to his own research, Joglekar mentors high school and undergraduate students. Among those are a 13-year-old freshman and a team of three high school juniors who advanced to the regional finals of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology on their first foray into research.
Joglekar is engaging them and several other young students in theoretical research that has resulted in publications in top-tier physics journals such as Physical Review A and Physical Review E, a feat seldom attained by undergraduates, let alone high school students.
"Physics is nothing but curiosity, asking and answering questions about what's around you," Joglekar said. "High school students and early undergrads often think it's stuffy or boring or not at all cool to study physics. In chemistry, they can explode a volcano or concoct a scent. In biology, they can hold a beating heart, and in engineering they can build something early on. But in theoretical physics, you don't get to the cool stuff in the classroom until year two or three," he added.
However, through research, inexperienced students can get to the cool stuff earlier and come up with significant findings.
Part time projects
"Although I only had one year of high school physics and had to learn a lot of math on the fly over the summer to do the work, it was an amazing experience, and I couldn't have asked for a better opportunity," Mark Babbey, a sophomore at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who began working with Joglekar while in high school and co-authored one of the published studies, said. "Working in a real lab, on a real project that had never been attempted before, sparked my interest. This wasn't a textbook lab exercise that every other physics student had done before; this was research."
Babbey added: "Both grad student Derek Scott, who helped me understand the math and checked my work, and Doctor Joglekar, who patiently explained to me the concepts and the importance of what we were doing, were great mentors."
Natalia Meijome, an senior planning to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience, initially found the idea of doing independent research rather intimidating until a classmate recommended she talk with Joglekar.
"All the research ideas I had in mind were much too advanced for me to pursue, and he helped me find something I had never considered," she said.
Meijome is now studying memristors, microelectronic circuit components that are being commercially developed because they hold the potential for faster processing using less power.
"Memristive systems can hold memory of the past and mimic the synaptic connection between neurons in the brain," Meijome said. "So, surprising as it may sound, physics research triggered my interest in neuroscience."
Theoretical physics research has traditionally been viewed as beyond the capability of beginning physics students. And many areas of theoretical research, including the graphene work, require high-level trainees — grad students or post doctoral researchers. But, mathematical computing software with good user interfaces helps bright, computer-savvy high school and undergraduate students carry out original research in the field, Joglekar said.
Coming up with good scientific questions — ones that interest students and are answerable when they have a little physics under their belts — is extremely difficult, but it's a challenge Joglekar relishes. It also is key to an impressive total of six publications with primarily high school or undergraduate student co-authors in just the past three years.
Joglekar has noted that developing good questions propels his own research as well as his mentoring of those who are new to the field. Ultimately, it comes back to the curiosity that produces intellectual inquiry and the ultimate impact of that inquiry.
Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.