Physics Majors Conduct Summer Research at Berlin’s Fritz-Haber

Two Hamilton physics concentrators are having the opportunity of a lifetime, spending six weeks at the Fritz-Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, Germany, one of the most prestigious research institutions in the world. Clare Munroe ’18 and Hannah Burrall ’19 accompanied Assistant Professor of Physics Kristen Burson there to work with her and her collaborators on projects related to the structure of glass.

Both students are spending a lot of time collecting data on the state-of-the art microscopes at Fritz-Haber and analyzing images to better understand atomic scale structure.

about hannah Burrall '19

Majors: Mathematics and Physics 

Hometown: Geneva, N.Y.

High School: Geneva High School

Burson explained, “Our approach uses two specialized microscopes to look directly at the atomic positions in the glass samples.  (Burrall) is using the ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope that uses quantum tunneling to ‘see’ individual atoms.  (Munroe) is working with a liquid atomic force microscopy, which uses a tiny probe to ‘feel’ atomic scale corrugations in the samples," Burson said.

As undergraduates working alongside doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers, the Hamilton students are learning far more than a textbook can show.  Munroe said, “It's a different feeling than doing labs as part of a course; there are problems that don't have solutions, and I can't just go to a TA for help.  But that means that when I do find an answer, I feel like it was my own work and that I contributed to something new.”

Her project is focused on understanding the structure of silica glass, an abundant glassy material used in everything from window panes to drinking glasses.  Glass has an amorphous structure, which makes it particularly challenging to characterize and describe on the atomic level.

Clare munroe '18

Major: Chemical physics

Hometown: Wayne, Pa.

High School: Conestoga High School

“This research experience has given me a greater appreciation of what it is like to work as a scientist,” Munroe said. As a chemical physics concentrator she will be doing her senior project with Burson this year.  “My experience at the Fritz-Haber Institute has given me a foundation from which to jump-start my work on my thesis,” she added.

Through her project, Burrall hopes to understand the atomic scale structure of germanium oxide, a material commonly used in fiber optics.   “The opportunity to do research as an undergraduate is invaluable,” she said.  “At Fritz-Haber I’m able to apply the theories and concepts I learned in the classroom to physical experiments in the laboratory that have a real world impact.” She called it fulfilling “to see the results of your hard work and preparation come together in a single (atomic) image, which leads to further understanding and investigation.”

Burrall said her research at Fritz-Haber has enriched her perspective on post-graduate research and reinforced the importance of project collaboration.  In addition, she said, “I have learned to appreciate the details, obstacles, and setbacks that occur throughout the experimental process, because they turn into opportunities to learn more about the system. ”

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