Summer Centered: Lucas Nelson ‘23 Packs the Particles
The physics and math double major is studying particle packing and deformation with Assistant Professor Ted Brzinski.
Lucas Nelson ‘23 is packing as much science as he can into this summer. The physics and math double major, who is also concentrating in scientific computing, is spending the summer in Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Ted Brzinski’s SquishLab, with the support of the Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center.
Nelson’s research investigates how the shape of hard, solid particles relates to their behavior when they are packed together.
“A lot of materials we interact with every day, like sand and gravel, are made up of a bunch of small, hard particles, but usually those particles are relatively round and compact like spheres,” he explained. “When you pack together particles with unusual shapes, they can exhibit a lot of unusual properties, like cohesion; think about how ‘barrel of monkeys’ toys tend to get tangled with one another when you leave them in a heap.”
Nelson is applying this same thought process to particles from a class of shapes called SeSPs; these shapes can range from hooks and arcs to rods and circles.
“By squeezing a bunch of particles into a simulated box and then measuring how they tend to line up with, entangle, and nest with one another, we can get a better sense of how complicated behaviors like entanglement and cohesion depend on the exact shape of the particle,” he said.
Nelson has long been interested in programming, and has greatly enjoyed the opportunity to apply his skills to a real-world research problem. He is submitting his research about SeSP packing to Physical Review E, a scientific journal, and is now also focusing on modeling SeSPs out of plastic, comparing the results of his computer simulations to real-world particles. As his research moves off of the computer and into the physical world, he is eager to learn from both Monica Ripp, a postdoctoral researcher in Brzinski’s lab, and Professor Scott Franklin from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
“Since my research so far has been mostly computational, I'm hoping to learn more about designing and running physical experimental setups from them this summer,” he said.
Four other Bi-Co undergraduates are also working in the SquishLab this summer. His work has also brought him into contact with students from the Rochester Institute of Technology who are also researching SeSPs: Ollie Yakmow, Jack Ryan, and John Colt, the latter of whom wrote much of the paper the group is publishing.
Nelson hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in physics, and believes that the research he is doing now will better prepare him for that.
“Soft matter physics, the field which my research falls into, is generally not covered in undergraduate classes, so doing research in the field is a good way to broaden my knowledge in preparation for graduate school,” he said.
As he submits his research on SeSPs, Nelson looks forward to choosing his next project.
“My current simulation work is a continuation of the thesis work of a previous student, Sykes Cargile ‘21, so most of the details of the simulation were pinned down before I got involved,” he said. “Once we publish the paper on this research, I will have a lot more latitude to plan out my next project.”
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ campus-supported summer work.