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Posted August 15, 2016

CSUEB Science Students Exchange Summer Break for Extra Lab Time

Mentored by Assistant Professor Ryan Smith, students are studying the behavior of electrons

Students Nikesh Poudel, left, and Mandan Sharma, center, aren't getting credit for their summer research with Assistant Professor Ryan Smith, but they are gaining valuable experience.
COURTESY

Tucked away in a laboratory in the far corner of Cal State East Bay’s South Science building, two students are bent over a complicated-looking table of lasers, mirrors and electronic equipment.

It’s summer and they aren’t getting school credit for their work, but as their guide Assistant Professor Ryan Smith says, it’s worth it.

“I’m interested in understanding the fundamental science behind quantum computers,” said Mandan Sharma, 18, a sophomore at CSUEB double-majoring in physics and computer engineering. This summer is a chance for him to explore the science of the quantum world using lasers.

Another student, a rising sophomore from nearby Mt. Eden High School, said spending the summer in the lab quenches his thirst to keep studying even though school is out. “It’s a summer full of learning, and it’s satisfying my interests and curiosity,” Nikesh Poudel, 14, said.

Smith, who joined CSUEB’s physics department last fall, has been working with five students this summer to study in an experimental setting how electrons behave on very fast time scales in different types of materials that have features only a few nanometers in size. These materials may be used for renewable energy production as well as yet-unimagined applications in computation and communications technologies.

The researchers control and probe the behavior of electrons in these various materials using laser pulses to explore properties that will help them understand how electrons interact in crystals and thin films. The behavior of electrons on this very short time scale governs the behavior of materials, such as the likelihood that a photon from the sun hitting a solar cell will actually cause an electron to flow and make a current that could charge a battery.

This research helps prepare Smith’s students for careers in science and technology. The skills they are learning — optics, electronics, computer programming, and clarity in defining and pursuing meaningful inquiries — will be invaluable to them in their future endeavors, the professor said. And the practical application of the work is rewarding, too — for instance students seeing the direct link between important social and environmental problems such as climate change.

“Our research addresses basic questions like how electrons interact with light… but we’re also interested in how we can use this information to better improve our lives,” Smith said.

He said that even though the students this summer are not part of an official program, they have been coming to the lab because they enjoy the process of exploring physics and learning how things work and the implications for society. And while he is also not officially teaching this summer, Smith said that this time is a chance for him to mentor and help eager students move forward.

“I have a strong interest in helping these students create an exciting career path for themselves; it’s gratifying to see them taking ownership of their learning process and development,” he said.

Smith is among several faculty members and students who say they enjoy the school’s small lab and classroom sizes because it allows for more one-on-one interactions and additional mentoring to occur.

“An exciting part of being in the physics department at Cal State East Bay,” Smith said, “is being able to run my own research laboratory and work with students that appreciate the chance to have real face time with a principle investigator. Our department is enthusiastic to engage with nontraditional students and welcomes different approaches and learning styles as this environment often leads to insight and breakthroughs.”

Smith said he and his students will be looking to publish their findings in basic physics and nanoscience journals by the end of this year. 

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