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Rensselaer Catalog 2008-2009 [Archived Catalog]

Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy

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Head: Gwo Ching Wang

Associate Head:
Peter D. Persans

Department Home Page:

Physics is the source of new concepts about the nature of the universe and is a driving force for new technologies. The fundamental physics research of one generation frequently leads to the applied physics and technology of the next.

The Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy programs prepare undergraduate students to contribute to these new concepts and technologies through innovative teaching methods that combine student-faculty interactions, computer-based education, and “hands-on” experience in modern laboratories. The curricula are flexible so that students can prepare for either technical employment upon graduation or for graduate study in physics, applied physics, or engineering. Physics also provides an excellent foundation for a nontechnical career. Another important aspect of the physics program is student-faculty research projects involving collaboration between physics undergraduates and faculty on a variety of research topics at the forefront of the field.

The Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy’s graduate programs lead to the M.S. and the Ph.D. in physics. These degrees are available in several research areas that are summarized below. For graduate students specializing in Astronomy and Astrophysics, the M.S. degree is available either in astronomy or physics with specialization in astrophysics.

Rensselaer’s graduate study in physics prepares students for a variety of careers including industrial research and development, government laboratory research, and university research and teaching. The department conducts both fundamental and applied research, often in collaboration with researchers from other Rensselaer departments, other universities, industry, or the National Laboratories. Characterizing the Physics Department’s intellectual climate are lively interactions between theorists and experimentalists with common research interests. Colloquia and department seminars supplement course work. As an important part of their graduate education, students collaborate with faculty members to make original research contributions in their area of specialization.

Research Innovations and Initiatives

Astronomy and Astrophysics
Research in the astrophysics group includes astrobiology, the chemistry of the interstellar medium, and Galactic structure. Research in astrobiology and interstellar chemistry describes how interstellar clouds evolve into new solar systems. Current interest focuses on spectroscopic detection of organic molecules in interstellar dust and gas and their contribution to the organic inventory of protoplanetary disks. Theoretical projects include simulations of protostellar collapse, multifluid magnetohydrodynamic shock waves, and shock chemistry. Galactic structure research focuses on the outer structure of the Milky Way as revealed by millions of stars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  The structure is used to constrain the processes by which the Milky Way galaxy formed and the distribution of the dark matter within it.  The astrophysics group makes use of ground-based telescopes located at world class observing sites in Hawaii, Australia, Chile, and South Africa. Rensselaer also has access to data from major satellite facilities including the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra, the Infrared Space observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope; and large ground-based astronomy projects, including the Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS).

Biological Phyisics
Current research addresses theoretical and computational aspects of dynamics and statistical mechanics of biomolecular systems. The objectives are to understand the structure, dynamics, stability and function of biomolecules from physical principles. Protein folding, binding and dynamics are important for understanding how proteins work and how they interact with other biomolecules. Knowledge gained from this research has applications in biotechnology, drug design, and biomaterials.  Parallel computer simulation methods are being applied to study protein folding, binding and aggregation. Highly parallel computer simulations of the folding and thermodynamics of biomolecules in aqueous solutions are being performed. Other research interests include the hydrophobic effect, enzyme catalysis, nucleic acids, proteins, and membranes. For example, using first principles quantum mechanical modeling and molecular mechanics scheme (QM/MM) research are being carried out to address various issues involving enzyme catalysis.

Another area is the application of femtosecond near-infrared laser beams for cellular nanosurgery and delivery of membrane-impermeable molecules (opto-injection) into single living cells. Tightly focused femtosecond (fs) near-infrared (NIR) laser beams allow for an unprecedented precision of cellular laser nanosurgery and opto-injection, greatly improved cell viability and the possibility analyzing in-situ the created immediate and long-term effects. Current research is focused on standardization of fs NIR opto-injection by understanding how laser parameters control transient pore creation.

Condensed Matter Physics
This research program concentrates on three areas: surfaces, interfaces, and nanostructures; optical, electronic and energy materials; and electronic transport. New research concepts, materials, and techniques are developed for high technology applications. Many research projects are interdisciplinary.

Experimental and theoretical work on surfaces, interfaces, and nanostructures involves the deposition, growth, and characterization of metals, semiconductors, and insulators from monolayers to multilayers to three dimensional nanostructures. The phenomena that are studied include homo- and hetero-epitaxy, initial stages of epitaxy, nucleation of thin films, surface phase transitions, and interface (solid-solid and solid-liquid) structure and bonding. Theoretical studies using quantum mechanical calculations include semiconductor defect and impurity physics, nanophysics, surface and interface physics, nanostructures under extreme conditions, and weakly interacting many-body systems.  Techniques include Auger electron spectroscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, high resolution low-energy electron diffraction, reflection high-energy electron diffraction, atomic force microscopy, scanning tunneling microscopy, X-ray absorption spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography, and ellipsometry. The department’s major facilities include ultrahigh vacuum evaporation, group-III-V, group-IV molecular beam epitaxy, metal-organic vapor phase epitaxy, chemical vapor deposition, atomic layer deposition, and the extensive facilities of the Microelectronics Clean Room facility. Theoretical work also includes applications of statistical physics and large-scale simulations to study the dynamics of natural, artificial, and social systems, including ecological systems, agent-based models, and social networks. 

Optical and electronic material studied at Rensselaer include wide bandgap semiconductors, photonic crystals, polymers, semiconductor nanoparticle composites, dielectrics, and magnetic and metallic thin films. Optical characterization facilities include Raman, Brillouin, and Rayleigh scattering, cathodoluminescence, photoluminescence, photoreflection, photomodulation spectroscopy, photothermal deflection spectroscopy, magneto-optic Kerr effect, and Faraday rotation.

Studies of the electron transport in semiconductors, metallic materials, and nanostructures include ballistic transport in ultrathin epitaxial multilayers; electrical resistance of metallic films, and plasma wave electronics in high electron mobility transistors. Electron transport in nanoscale systems (single molecule to atomic wire to carbon nanotube) is studied using state of the art first principles calculation. Current research includes spin assisted transport (Spintronics) at the nanoscale. Nanoscale structures, patterns, and devices are studied for their use in energy efficient lighting. Computational facilities in the theory group include an in house Linux cluster and the group has access to National Super Computer facilities and CCNI (Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations).

Other experimental facilities used in these programs include those at the Center for Integrated Electronics, the Focus Center for Interconnects, the Center for Advanced Interconnect Systems Technologies, the electron microprobe and electron microscope facilities, accelerators at the University of Albany, the National Synchrotron Light Source at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory.

Optical Physics
Department research in optical physics is directed towards developing new measurement techniques, new optical materials, nano-photonic devices, photon management for energy applications and novel devices.  Faculty research includes terahertz generation, detection, imaging, and spectroscopy; development of novel light emitting devices; preparation and spectroscopy of nanoparticles, nanoparticle arrays, quantum dots and wells; photonic nanostructures, plasmonic nanostructures and photonic band gap materials; and ultrafast spectroscopy of semiconductors, magnetic systems, and biological systems.  

Major facilities include ultrafast laser and terahertz systems at the Center for Terahertz Research and semiconductor processing, broadband and laser spectroscopy facilities at the Future Chips Constellation. Other individual faculty capabilities include linear and nonlinear optical absorption, luminescence, Raman and Brillouin scattering, and various modulation spectroscopies.

Particle Physics
The nature and structure of matter and energy remains one of nature’s research frontiers. Our faculty members are engaged in experimental studies of the fundamental interactions of matter at sub-femtometer distances. This includes a search for neutrino oscillations using a nuclear reactor complex in China. We are also engaged in searches for new forms of matter and tests of the strong and weak interactions, using the CLEO/CESR facility at Cornell University. In addition, we have a longstanding program of experiments at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab), examining the properties of the proton and its excited states.  The theoretical high energy physics research program focuses on aspects of physical interactions beyond the Standard Model. This includes investigations of supersymmetric and composite matter using lattice field theory techniques, gauge-gravity dualities in string theory, as well as more standard particle theory approaches. There is a long-standing interest in string compactifications and work continues actively in this field.

Undergraduate Programs

Undergraduate students begin with core curriculum courses that teach basic scientific principles and develop skills in problem solving, scientific thinking, and clear oral and written expression. Students also choose from a broad range of advanced courses in the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy and in other science and engineering departments depending upon their individual career goals.

Baccalaureate Programs

Rensselaer offers two undergraduate programs in physics, one leading to the B.S. in Physics and the other to the B.S. in Applied Physics. Students in the applied physics program must declare a concentration in a specific technological area, in which they take at least four elective courses.

Dual Major Programs

Physics students can obtain a dual major with any other degree at Rensselaer by fulfilling the requirements for both degrees. Overlapping requirements can be applied to both programs, permitting many dual degrees to be completed with the credits required for one degree. In some cases, special templates have been agreed upon which permit specific substitutions of courses. An example, the Applied Physics/ECSE program, can be found online at the ECSE department website.

Accelerated Programs

Students may generally select, in their junior year, to follow a five-year B.S.-M.S. program. These students receive the B.S. in physics and the M.S. in either physics or another science or engineering discipline.

Graduate Programs

Graduate students develop flexible individual programs of study and research in one or more of the available research areas. The department offers both the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physics.

Course Descriptions

Courses directly related to all Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy curricula are described in the Course Description section of this catalog under the department codes PHYS or ASTR.



Adams, G.S.—Ph.D. (Indiana University); experimental particle physics; photo reactions, hadron structure, exotic hadrons.

Garcia, A.—Ph.D. (Cornell University); theoretical and computational aspects of biomolecular dynamics.

Jackson, S.A.—Ph.D. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); theoretical physics (Joint appointment with Engineering).

Lin, S.-Y.—Ph.D. (Princeton University); theory, fabrication, and experimental assessment of photonic crystal structures.

Lu, T.-M.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin); thin films and interfaces.

Napolitano, J.J.—Ph.D. (Stanford University); experimental nuclear and particle physics; scientific computation.

Persans, P.D.—Ph.D. (University of Chicago); spectroscopy of semiconductors; thin films; optical materials.

Roberge, W.G.—Ph.D. (Harvard University); theoretical astrophysics.

Schroeder, J.—Ph.D. (Catholic University of America); optical properties of solids at high pressure.

Schubert, E.F.—Ph.D. (University of Stuttgart); physics of semiconductor devices. (Joint appointment with ECSE).

Shur, M.S.—Dr.Sc. (Ioffe Institute); semiconductor physics, ballistic transmission, terahertz radiation (Joint appointment with ECSE).

Stoler, P.—Ph.D. (Rutgers University); particle and nuclear physics; structure of hadrons.

Wang, G.-C.—Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin); physics of surfaces, interfaces, and nanostructures.

Whittet, D.C.B.
—Ph.D. (St. Andrews University); astrophysics; observational astronomy; interstellar dust; origins of life.

Zhang, S. B.—Ph.D. (University of California at Berkeley); Computational condensed matter theory, physics and chemistry of nano, optoelectronic, photovoltaic, and hydrogen storage materials.

Zhang, X.-C.—Ph.D. (Brown University); ultrafast optics, photonic, optoelectronic and terahertz science and technology (Joint appointment with ECSE).

Associate Professor

Korniss, G.—Ph.D. (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University); statistical and computational physics, complex systems.

Nayak, S.—Ph.D. (Jawarharlal Nehru University); theoretical physics and first principle calculations.

Newberg, H.J.—Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); astrophysics.

Wetzel, C.M.—Ph.D. (Technical University, Munich); III-V nitride semiconductor physics and technology.

Assistant Professors

Eah, S.-K.—Ph.D. (Seoul National University); nano science; optical spectroscopy of single nanoparticles, self-assembly of nanoparticles, thermal microscopy of single mitochondria.

Giedt, J. —Ph.D. (University of California, Berkeley); particle phenomenology, lattice field theory, string theory, high energy mathematical and computational physics.

Lewis, K.—Ph.D. (University of Michigan); self-assembly of organic materials; transport of hybrid electronics; single electron devices.

Wilke, I.—Ph.D. (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology); ultrafast optics, photonic, optoelectronic and terahertz science and technology.

Yamaguchi, M.—Ph.D. (Hokkaido University); structural and electronic dynamics in condensed matter, THz spectroscopy of advanced materials, THz science and technology.

Clinical Professor

Washington, M.A.—Ph.D. (New York University); photonics.

Clinical Assistant Professor

Ciolek, G.—Ph.D. (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign); Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics.

Adjunct Professor

Xu, J.—Ph.D. (Institute of Physics, China); ultrafast optics, terahertz science and technology.

Research Professors

Lee, S.—Ph.D. (University of Michigan); condensed matter.

Schowalter, L.J.—Ph.D. (University of Illinois); material physics.

Research Associate Professor

Chen, Z. —Ph.D. (Nankai University, P. R. China); tomputational nanomaterials science, hydrogen storage, lithium storage, novel chemical bonding, nanotoxicity.

Detchprohm, T.—Ph.D. (Nagoya University); III-V nitride semiconductor epitaxy and technology.

Research Assistant Professors

Chen, Y.—Ph.D. (Chinese Academy of Sciences); THz spectroscopy of chemical and biological agents.

Dai, J. —Ph.D. (Tianjin University, Tianjin); terahertz optoelectronics; time-resolved ultrafast spectroscopy; tltrafast lasers and phenomena; tear-field Optics.

Redo-Sanchez, A.—Ph.D. (University of Barcelona); applied physics, terahertz technology and engineering, signal processing.

Visiting Scientists

Alizadeh, A.—Ph.D. (Universidad Autonoma de Madrid).

Kersting, R.—Ph.D. (University of Aachen); optical physics and terahertz radiation.

Kubarovsky, V.—Ph.D. (Institute for High Energy Physics, Russia); experimental nuclear physics.

Lee, S.—Ph.D. (Harvard University); experimental X-ray specroscopy.

Uzqiris, E.—Ph.D. (Harvard University); polymeric contrast agents for medical imaging.

Wagner, D.J. —Ph.D. (College of William and Mary); physics education.

* Departmental faculty listings are accurate as of the date generated for inclusion in this catalog. For the most up-to-date listing of faculty positions, including end-of-year promotions, please refer to the Faculty Roster section of this catalog, which is current as of the May 2008 Board of Trustees meeting.




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