Wooster physics students find opportunities amidst uncertain summer

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor


The value of an internship is hard to overstate. For many undergraduate students, an internship represents the potential to spring into a good post-graduation job. Equally hard to overstate is the value of research here at The College of Wooster, where the students’ efforts culminate in the year-long Independent Study thesis. Thus, summer research positions, just like internships, have always been a premium — especially to students seeking admittance to graduate schools. Unfortunately, many internships and research opportunities were cancelled this past summer due to the novel Coronavirus. Yello, a talent-acquisition company, conducted a survey of almost 1,000 undergraduates. 35 percent of the respondents claimed that their internships or research programs had been cancelled because of COVID-19. However, students here at the College’s Physics Department persevered, finding opportunities in internships as far away as Germany or research positions as close to home as campus itself.

Close to home, Melita Wiles ’22, a physics major, worked with Professor of Physics Susan Lehman here on campus through the Sophomore Research Program. She studied the movement of bead piles as they collapse into an “avalanche.” Bead piles can be thought of as a system of granular materials interacting until one bead breaks the pile’s back and an avalanche, big or small, occurs. Wiles used software called Particle Image Velocimetry (PIVLab) to “measure the velocity over a given pile.” Using a graphical user interface (GUI) process, she was able to “analyze multiple avalanches at a time,” in addition to creating a mathematical process to resolve the distortion of the bead pile input images.


Throughout the summer, Wiles had to learn software applications such as MATLAB “on the fly.” She found this to be one of the most rewarding parts of the research experience as “[her] ability to learn new programs and troubleshoot on [her] own are very valuable and attractive to real-world prospects.”

Matt Klonowski ’21, a physics and chemistry double major, interned at General Atomics through the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships Program. Klonowski worked on the cutting edge of fusion energy research by analyzing turbulent behavior in plasmas using Python — a popular programming language. Plasma can be thought of as a soup of ions and electrons allowing electrical currents to flow (lightning is an example of plasma). Images of plasma taken at a Japanese laboratory were fed as input to Klonowski’s Python program. The results of his analysis then informed the overall fusion energy research processes at General Atomics.

Among the highlights of his experience was a series of talks hosted by Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL). These talks introduced Klonowski to the expansive field of plasma physics and fusion energy. Additionally, he attended a seminar at which “Sir Steven Cowley, a plasma physicist that was appointed a Knight Bachelor for his contribution towards the development of nuclear fusion” was a speaker. Klonowski stated that his “Wooster physics and chemistry education prepared [him] well for this internship because the labs emphasize an independent approach to answering questions.” On the flipside, the internship “helped solidify [his] critical thinking and independent approach to research” here at Wooster.

Dani Halbing ’22, a physics and philosophy double major, interned across the pond at Shaeffler Group. Shaeffler is an automotive and engineering company headquartered in Germany with branches all around the world — including one here in Wooster. Halbing did research on hydrogen fuel cells — the hopeful future of sustainable, clean energy in the automotive world. There are many complications with introducing these to the global market. One of the primary challenges to be overcome is in the bipolar plates that house the actual fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells “create a very corrosive environment,” Halbing said. His research focused on developing a surface coating for the bipolar plates that would “resist corrosion, but also maintain a high electrical conductivity.”

The coolest part of the research, Halbing said, was conducting the “compression electrical resistance test.” A constant current was run through the bipolar plates while a force was applied to the plates in steps of 100 Newtons up to 1000 Newtons. He found it “incredibly interesting to see the vast differences in electrical conductivity for coatings that varied in formulation by just a few micrometers.”

In these uncertain times it can be hard to come by opportunities such as internships and research positions. Yet, the opportunities are there. Wiles encourages students to “talk to professors! They love to share their research with students!” Wooster professors represent the leading edge of research in their respective fields. Klonowski advises his fellow students to “start looking early and apply to as many opportunities that interest [them].”  He also shares that “internships are a great way to better understand where your professional interests are, without actually committing to a real job.” Halbing advises undergraduate students to expand their horizons and try new things that they may not have much knowledge in. He says “surface coatings are almost entirely based in materials science, and while [his] educational background is in physics, a lot of materials science is based in chemistry.” So, armed with your Wooster education, go forth, explore and effect change.