Departmental Research Opportunities

Research is an important component of the physics curriculum at Dickinson College and all majors must undertake a year long senior research project under the guidance of a faculty advisor. The topics for these research projects are limited only by the interest and imagination of the students and faculty. Below is a listing of some broad research areas that are actively pursued at Dickinson.

Photograph of Professor Hamilton-Drager in the Observatory beneath the telescope

Ultrafast Laser Lab

Professor Pearson is constructing an ultrafast laser to measure, image, and control molecular systems, with a particular focus on applications of non-linear microscopy.  Students have assisted with the design and construction of the laser system and experiments. For more information, visit the optics research website.


Dickinson students have the opportunity to conduct independent research using the Britton Observatory's 24-inch telescope under the guidance of Professors Boyle (variable stars) and Hamilton-Drager (young star formation).  Some recent projects include: searching for exo-solar planetary transits, and monitoring a possible supernova progenitor, v723 Cas.

Nonlinear Dynamics in Solid-State Systems

Professor English's research explores “the nonlinear dynamics of complex systems” and broadly falls into the field of nonlinear and statistical physics. In recent years, he has involved physics majors in the study of systems as varied as nonlinear electrical transmission lines, chains of coupled pendula, networks of neuronal oscillators, and spin lattices. In all of these systems, nonlinearity and lattice/network geometry play important roles, as they enable and guide processes of patterns formation. Broadly speaking, the aim is to experimentally characterize emergent patterns, study their onset and boundaries in parameter space, and to formulate mathematical models which allow a numerical and/or analytical exploration. Ideas from the field of dynamical systems (such as fixed points, stability, bifurcation, hysteresis) are essential in this endeavor. He enjoys working with students in these endeavors and has co-authored a number of papers with them. 

A physics major produces solitons running down an electrical lattice

Prof. English's other interests include the Calculus of Variations, magnetism and spin resonance, microwave spectroscopy, medical imagining techniques, and issues in the philosophy of science.  

Pattern Formation

Professor Jackson maintains an active research program in pattern formation that revolves around the interfacial instabilities of a magnetic liquid (ferrofluid) in an applied magnetic field.  Students can take part in experimental, theoretical, or computational aspects of this research.

Plasma Physics

Professor Pfister maintains an active research program in plasma physics.  His students are involved in examining the properties of a closed-drift Hall thruster.

Photograph of Sean Brannon working in the Plasma Lab

Curriculum Development and Physics Education Research

Although retired from teaching, Professor Priscilla Laws continues to develop and assess curricular materials that engage introductory physics students in active learning.  Based on the findings of Physics Education Research, Dickinson's curriculum development efforts have achieved a number of innovative materials for use in introductory courses as well as courses for non-science majors. Workshop Physics and Exploration Physics are two examples. These efforts are spearheaded by Research Professor Priscilla Laws, a member of the Activity-Based Physics Group. As part of the Activity-Based Physics group, she conducts professional development seminars for physics teachers nationally and internationally.

Activity-Based Physics is a multi-institutional project to sustain and enhance current efforts to render introductory physics courses more effective and exciting at both the secondary and college level. This program represents a collaborative effort by an informally constituted team of educational reformers to use the outcomes of physics education research along with flexible computer tools to develop activity-based models of physics instruction.

Independent Student Projects

In addition to the main departmental research opportunities, many of our students get involved in research projects based on a particular interest or through a summer internship.  Below is a sampling of some of the more successful independent research projects our students have been involved in.