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Mudd Students Accidentally Make Groundbreaking Physics Discovery

Physics Professor Sharon Gerbode and her students shared their recent findings in “Local melting attracts grain boundaries in colloidal polycrystals,” published recently by Physical Review Letters. (Photo Courtesy of Harvey Mudd College)

Harvey Mudd College professor Sharon Gerbode and her summer research students made an accidental physics discovery over the last two summers that changed their understanding of materials science.

The students developed a new technique called optical blasting that manipulates gain boundaries — irregularities in the structure of crystals that give materials their physical properties. Their findings could be used to find new means of modifying material properties.

Materials science typically changes the physical properties of material externally, by manipulating the material to give it desired properties. This new research, however, allows properties to be manipulated from the inside of the material at the microscopic level.

Gerbode was trying to recreate her graduate school research, which involved using a laser on crystals. The students accidentally added different proportions of the required chemicals than intended, causing the laser to repel particles instead of attract them.

Kemper Ludlow HM ’18, one of the student researchers, realized how fascinated they were with their research. One morning when they went into the lab, they saw that their teammate Jeremy Wang HM ’17 had stayed up until 3 a.m. making a smiley face-shaped hole in the crystal.

“I love research because you get to discover science that nobody has seen before,” Ludlow said.

The research took place over the course of a year and a half. Gerbode said the significance of their discovery did not resonate until they were writing and editing a paper about their research.

“It was not until the last six months until I finally realized, wait a second, this might actually be huge,” Gerbode said.

The research team, which also included including Caitlin Cash HM ‘18,  have since had their paper published in the top physics journal, “Physical Review Letters,” instead of the one they originally intended on submitting it to.

Even after the submission process, “[the discovery] is even bigger than I could imagine it could be,” Cash said.

“This research was really impressive work that my students did,” Gerbode said. “Graduate students would be proud to have done such good work, but this work was done by a bunch of of undergrads. They really deserve a lot of credit.”

This article was updated on Feb. 9 to update two instances in which Kemper Ludlow was misgendered due to an editing error.

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