Laurel Winter '09, Physics

Laurel Winter '09 , physics major, talks about how she became interested in the field of physics.

Why did you decide to major in Physics?

Laurel: Physics was something that interested me in high school.   I like it because it explains a lot of our everyday world, as well as the other sciences.  You can explain simple phenomenon with it, like what happens when cars run into each other, I’d say, “Oh that’s momentum.” Physics wasn’t easy, but I discovered that I wanted to study something challenging in college, not just something that came easily to me.

Now that you’re at Clark, how do you like the physics department?

Laurel: The department is small, which I think is a real benefit. I have small classes, I get one-on-one attention, and I know the entire faculty.  The small size is also a real benefit if you want to get involved in research.  You don’t have to worry about 40 kids trying to get into one spot.  Basically, if you are in the physics department and you want to work in a lab, you just find the professor and they’ll try to make room for you.

What has been your favorite physics class?

Laurel: My intro course about electricity and magnetism.  I have always been a big fan of electrical circuits—I’m interested in how circuits work, how different components in a circuit fit together, like how changes in resistance, current, or voltage affect each other—more the engineering type of physics. This year we’ll be going into more advanced electricity and magnetism, so I’m really excited.

How does the physics course sequence work?

Laurel: Most physics majors take a one-year calculus based intro course exploring classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism. Non-physics majors get into the intro sequence from a different route, which is a physics-based course without math. As sophomores we take courses on waves and particles and modern physics. As juniors we will take the intro courses that we took our first year over again in a more sophisticated manner, so basically using more math.

We also are required to take a lab-based physic course, which is different than the labs in our intro physics classes.  We can take a computer simulation lab, where you learn to write programs to simulate systems that you might not be able to easily observe yourself.   When I took that lab, I wrote a program about how planets orbit.  We also can take an electronics lab which traditionally Professor Chuck Agosta would teach, whose lab I’m working in now.

How did you get to work in Professor Agosta’s lab?

Laurel: Since I was unsure what I wanted to do with my physics major, I needed to do some research to find out if I want to pursue physics in graduate school or not.  I knew Professor Agosta’s lab involved magnets and electrical circuits, so I just asked him if I could join.  It was pretty easy. Now that I’m in the lab, Professor Agosta has been really helpful.  He gives me my own projects to work on, and I always feel supported by him and the grad students in the lab.

What are you working on?

Laurel: We are studying super conducting materials, organic materials. Traditionally superconductivity occurs in metallic conductors at low temperatures.  At some critical temperature the resistance in the material drops to zero and the current flowing in a loop of superconducting wire can continue indefinitely. So it’s the most perpetual form of motion that we can observe. The reasons for the superconducting state and the properties associated with it have all been established for metals.  But now we have organic superconductors, which are made of organic molecules but have superconducting properties. It’s a relatively new idea-- from about the 1960s so there is still a lot of research to be done, trying to see how they differ from the medal super conductors. It’s fun to be a small part of that.

How does doing research in a lab differ from doing experiments or work in a lab-based class?

Laurel: In labs that are part of courses here, you always know what you are investigating. You're told what you need to discover, given all the equipment you need, and helped by the teaching assistants along the way. In professor Agosta's lab, we know what we are trying to looking for but it doesn't mean the answer or data is clear. I don't know necessarily if my answers are wrong-I just have to see if they make sense in the system. Or if something is obviously wrong I need to try and find out what is going on in the experiment. So it is very different from being told what you are discovering.