Pursuing the Ultrafast

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CATEGORY: Academics
TYPE: Articles
RELATED PROGRAMS: Music, Physics & Astronomy

Professor James Heyman

Professor Heyman’s research has involved more than 40 students and drawn over $1.5 million to Macalester from outside funders including the National Science Foundation. Though he loves research, he believes that “the most important consideration is the training of students who may go on to become physicists, electrical engineers or­­­­­­­­­ material scientists.” 

Maggie Molter ’14
Cedarburg, Wisconsin
Music, Physics

Graphene, discovered in 2004, consists of a one-atom thick layer of carbon. Because of its unique electrical properties, it may be useful in developing ultrafast supercomputers. It is believed that graphene-based transistors—the on/off switches used in electronic devices, switching from on to off, from 0 to 1—could operate much faster than existing silicon transistors.

Working with physics professor James Heyman, I learned about its conductivity by doing electrical measurements on graphene samples. We used a technique called Terahertz Time-Domain Spectroscopy, science jargon for “we shoot very short, very intense laser pulses at things and see what happens.” Using a complicated arrangement of mirrors, lenses, beam splitters, and other optical components, we direct the beam from a high-powered laser along different paths and through the sample, then analyze the results.

The first week was a little overwhelming. I had a great physics background from the classes I’ve taken here, but lab work requires detailed application of that knowledge. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to learn about physics as a summer job!

Once I was up to speed, I was assigned to carry out a specific spectroscopy measurement on graphene samples, working in collaboration with a chemistry research group at the University of Minnesota. Throughout the summer, I was back and forth between Mac and the U on most work days—a beautiful 30-minute bike ride along the Mississippi River! I worked on my own at the U, almost always the only undergraduate in the lab. Experiencing both research environments—small liberal arts college vs. research group at a big university—and the collaboration between the two was an awesome experience and gave me insight into possible future paths in physics.

PUBLISHED: 01/24/2013