Summer Centered: Shufan Xia '21 Joins the Flock
The physics major is learning more about our winged companions by examining the scientific intricacies of their feathers.
There’s a sequence of complex scientific interactions surrounding every component of nature, including the ruffling of a bird’s feather, an act that Shufan Xia ’21 is studying the biophysical implications of this summer. Supported by a Velay Fellowship, awarded through the Marian E. Koshland Integrated Natural Sciences Center’s Summer Scholars program, the physics major is examining the scientific nuances of bird feathers in an on-campus lab.
“I am doing biophysics research on the dynamic iridescence of the peacock and the ocellated pheasant during their courtship displays,” Xia said. “We are trying to investigate the dynamic visual signal, a.k.a., the color, reflected by various feathers on male pheasants and the brightness of the reflected light perceived by their potential female mates.”
The work, which is multifaceted in its nature, is a direct extension of research conducted by previous students in the lab of Professor Suzanne Amador Kane. Xia’s relationship with Kane, who has been studying the biomechanics of avian creatures since 2017, is proving to be highly constructive.
“I enjoy working closely with Professor Kane,” she said. “She is so inspirational as a scientist who thinks and works critically, rigorously, and always brings up new directions. Professor Kane makes the collaboration very open and encouraging for a student who has never had research experience.”
In the lab, Xia tackles an array of distinct tasks, from examining a feather under optic equipment to running software to further her analysis. The process is teaching her valuable lessons about the birds she’s studying and the nature of research itself.
“To answer a complicated scientific question requires putting pieces of information from different aspects together to think holistically,” she said. “It is like multiple rivers converging at the end. I think that is one of the most exciting things about this work.”
In addition to allowing her to foster an independent spirit in her research, working in Kane’s lab has offered Xia an incredible look into a specific application of her academics not commonly broached in the classroom.
“Biophysics has always been a field of study that I’ve wished to step into since my freshman year,” she said. “I am interested especially because I get to work with extremely pretty iridescent feathers, and uncover tons of information from nature that is encrypted and so easily overlooked.”
Xia’s perspectives on both the birds she’s scrutinized and her studies have forever changed this summer, placing a valuable feather in her cap.
“This work has made me think more seriously and specifically about what kinds of questions in the field of physics I want to look at, and where I want to apply the skills and knowledge I have acquired,” she said.
“Summer Centered” is a series exploring our students’ Center-funded summer work.