Department Contact Information

Physics Department

Location: 180-204
Phone: (805) 756-2448
Fax: (805) 756-2435
Chair: Jennifer Klay

Support Physics

Website Update

Newsletter 2012

Table of Contents



A Message from Department Chair Nilgun Sungar

Greetings, past and present physics students, faculty, staff and friends. At last, after a-year-and-a-half, we are back to publishing our newsletter. The delay is partly due to many changes that took place in the department administration. At the end of the 2010-11 academic year, after serving as the department chair for three years, Matt Moelter returned to his true passion of teaching, and I was elected chair. Matt did a wonderful job running the department, and it is a challenge to fill his shoes.

Read more about developments in the department

back to top

Department News

Physics Department Hosts American Physical Society Regional Meeting

On November 2 and 3, 2012, the Cal Poly Physics Department hosted the American Physical Society's California-Nevada section annual meeting. Dr. Jennifer Klay did a great job as the local organizer, and physics faculty, staff and students volunteered to make it all happen. The conference brought together scientists and students from all over California and Nevada to present talks on their current research, listen to plenary presentations by distinguished speakers, and attend a career panel on opportunities for physicists in the aerospace industry.

Read more about the APS meeting

$233,000 NSF Grant Funds Telescopes for Research and Community Use

Illustration showing the orbits of planets and the kuiper beltA free 11-inch telescope may be coming to a rural California town near you, thanks to a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant recently awarded to Physics Professor John Keller. The $233,000 grant, which Keller will share with Marc Buie of the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in Boulder, Colo., will bring 10 telescopes to towns stretching along the California-Nevada border.

Keller and his collaborators at SWRI want to learn more about Kuiper belt objects (KBOs) — large, frozen bodies that orbit the sun beyond Neptune. The most famous KBO is the former planet Pluto. Not much is known about KBOs because they are so far from the sun. This experiment will measure their sizes, which could in turn help scientists understand their physical composition.


Cal Poly Added as SQuInT Node Institution

Cal Poly has been added as a node institution to the Southwest Quantum Information and Technology Network (SQuInT). SQuInT is run by the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Center for Quantum Information and Control (CQuIC) at the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona. While Cal Poly students and faculty have participated in the annual SQuInT workshop since 2010, the elevation to node institution status officially recognizes the university as an active, consistent contributor to the quantum information field.

Read more about SQuInT

Experimental Nuclear Astrophysics Research Group Upgrades Spectrometer

The gamma-ray spectrometer, a silver metal cylindrical device with eight lenses protruding from the top.

The experimental nuclear astrophysics research group spent the last two years repairing and upgrading its multidimensional gamma-ray spectrometer. The spectrometer is used to measure radioisotopes found on or in artifacts that were recovered from space and are on loan from NASA's Johnson Space Center. In particular, the spectrometer's old, plastic Compton-suppression ring was replaced with a superior NaI(Tl) ring counter (see photograph), reducing the background counting rate by the order of 50 percent. The spectrometer was ready for use in senior projects beginning in fall 2012.

While under reconstruction, the spectrometer was used for a joint Physics Department/Aerospace Engineering Department senior project by aerospace senior Greg Stratton.

back to top

Learn by Doing Exemplified by Cal Poly Physics Students and Faculty

Cold Atom Trapped at Cal Poly

Katharina Gillen, Dani May, Sara Monahan,
Travis Frazier and David Roberts stand in front
of Cal Poly's first magneto-optical atom trap.

During summer 2011, the students in Katharina Gillen's cold atom research lab finished constructing a magneto-optical atom trap — a vacuum chamber with two electromagnets and six laser beams expected to cool down rubidium atoms to about 200 micro-Kelvin from absolute zero. The students worked hard to make the lasers sufficiently stable (with a frequency stability of 1:100,000,000), align the entire optical system, and make all parts of the magneto-optical trap fully functional. On the last day of summer, the students successfully created Cal Poly’s first cold atom sample. This research project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Summer Research is Out of this World

A number of students conducted astronomical research during summer 2012. Physics majors Kelsi Flatland and Bryan Scott worked with Professor Vardha Bennert studying emission-line spectra of a sample of 100 active galaxies in the local universe. The spectra were taken with one of the largest optical telescopes in the world, the 10-meter Keck telescope on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii.

Read more about astronomical research

Sustainability and Physics in Guatemala and San Luis Obispo

Group of Guatemalan school children with Cal Poly studentsPhysics Professor Pete Schwartz has founded an appropriate technology field school in San Pablo Tacana, Guatemala, a small mountain village at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The program, called Guateca, is an experiment in collaborative learning and development. Guatemalan and U.S. college students study energy, society and the environment. While working together on projects, the students share languages and cultures and build lifelong relationships.

In 2012, Schwartz and the students focused on connecting with the community. The overarching concerns of the people in San Pablo were thermal — they were tired of being cold. To address these needs, the students built a number of heating technologies in the building they were living in, transforming it into a demonstration house.

Read more about Guateca


Summer Research in Italy

sam meijer fully covered in protective lab clothing, including a sterile mask.
Sam Meijer at the Gran Sasso National Laboratory
in summer 2012

During summer 2012, several physics majors conducted research with Professor Tom Gutierrez both in California and abroad. Sam Meijer did research at UC Berkeley and also traveled to the Gran Sasso National Laboratory (LNGS) in Assergi, Italy, to assist with a suite of technical activities associated with the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events' (CUORE) neutrinoless double beta decay experiment. He focused on exploring a novel parylene coating method to ensure minimal radioactive backgrounds for the experiment. He traveled to LNGS with generous support from a student exchange program run by the Department of Energy and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Italy.

Read more on student research at Gran Sasso


Searching the Cosmos at High Energies

Two Cal Poly physics professors and their students are working in the Arizona desert at one of the world's top telescope facilities. Jodi Christiansen and Luis Reyes both conduct astrophysics research at VERITAS, the acronym for the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System in southern Arizona. The observatory complex has four sensitive gamma ray-imaging telescopes used by scientists from the U.S., Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Read more about VERITAS

Observing Hanny’s Voorwerp

Rebecca Rosen on the balcony of the Lick Observatory with distant mountain vistas behind her.
Rebecca Rosen at the Lick Observatory

In January 2012, Professor Vardha Bennert, physics major Rebecca Rosen, and UCSB graduate student Anna Pancoast spent two nights at the three-meter Shane Telescope at the Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton east of San Jose. The goal was to observe the famous Hanny's Voorwerp, an emission-line cloud outside of a galaxy. The emission-line cloud was discovered by Dutch school teacher Hanny van Arkel, a citizen scientist participating in Galaxy Zoo, an online astronomy project.

The nature of Hanny's Voorwerp is unknown. It might be the light echo of an accreting supermassive black hole in the center of a nearby galaxy active about 100,000 years ago that is now dormant. The team hoped to use imaging polarimetry of Hanny's Voorwerp to shed light on its unknown nature. 

Read more about observing Hanny's Voorwerp

Field Research Maps Landslides, Investigates Soil

In summer 2012, earth science major Andrew Farris studied the alluvial fans and marine terraces in the Kenneth Norris Rancho Marino Natural Reserve along the California coast south of Cambria. Farris was investigating the relationships between soil characteristics and landforms as well as landscape position. He completed the work to fulfill the field-based component of his Natural Resources Conservation Service internship and worked largely on his own with minimal guidance from Professor Anthony Garcia.

During summer 2011, earth science major David McEachern mapped landslides at the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge, and natural resource management major Alex Wright mapped river terraces at the refuge for the field components of their senior projects.

Students Meet Experts at DAMOP Conference

During summer 2011, students Grant Rayner, Dani May and Bert Copsey, and professors Katharina and Glen Gillen traveled to Atlanta, Ga., for the Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics (DAMOP) conference. Students had the opportunity to meet not only graduate students and their advisors but also top scientists from national labs as well as physicists conducting research for corporations. These conversations helped the students understand how other laboratories operate.

Read more about the DAMOP conference

Liquid Crystal Lab Research

professor and students in lab
Crosby Sperling, Professor Jon Fernsler, Lani Fuller,
Zach Sailer and Josh Fankhauser in the Liquid Crystal Lab.

During the summers of 2011 and 2012, nine physics and chemistry students researched the properties of liquid crystals, famous for their use in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) found in nearly all portable electronic devices with screens. A liquid crystal is a phase of matter that is fluid but has a more complex structure.

Read more about liquid crystal research.

Groundbreaking Graduate Publishes in Journal of Structural Geology

Niki Wintzer (B.S., 2003), an earth science graduate with a geology minor, recently published a paper in the highly respected Journal of Structural Geology. The paper is based on her master's thesis and is titled "Deformational Episodes Recorded in The Skagit Gneiss Complex, North Cascades, Washington, USA." Wintzer was one of the first students (possibly the first) to complete the geology minor. This publication is a huge accomplishment. Congratulations!

Cal Poly Student Eyes Optical Spatial Coherence

David Collins (B.S., Physics, 2010) worked with Professor John Sharpe to develop a demonstration showing how optical spatial coherence depends on the size of a light source. The details of the demonstration were published in the May 2011 issue of the American Journal of Physics.

Students Study Faraday Waves

Students Lisa Slaughter and Zech Thurman studied Faraday waves under the supervision of Dr. Nilgun Sungar during summer 2012. The experiment involves a container of fluid shaken vertically at varying frequencies and amplitudes to study pattern formation on the fluid surface. Faraday waves are studied to reveal universal behaviors in pattern-forming systems. Slaughter and Thurman assembled and calibrated the equipment and devised a way to obtain images and input complex oscillation patterns into the shaker. By the end of the summer, they had a working experimental set-up and obtained data using fluids with different viscosities. The study is ongoing, and Slaughter continues with data acquisition and analysis as her senior project.

back to top

Many Thanks to Our Generous Donors

We want to thank our generous donors for their continued and new gifts to the department. Private support from our alumni, parents and friends helps the Physics Department continue to provide an exceptional Learn by Doing education for today's students. Click on the link below to see the list of those who gave to the Physics Department for the fiscal years 2010-12.

See donors from July 2010 through June 2012

back to top

Alumni News

2012 College of Science and Mathematics Honored Alumnus is One of Our Own

Five students standing with James Woolaway in front of a projector screen showing an infrared image of themselves.
Physics students (left to right) Sara Monahan, Sanjay Khatri,
Matthew Murachver, Sam Meijer and Jacob Gamble with
James Woolaway

James T. Woolaway was named the 2012 College of Science and Mathematics Honored Alumnus. After earning his bachelor's degree in physics in 1981, Woolaway spent his career in the field of infrared technology and recently retired from FLIR Systems as vice president for IP and Technology. He is responsible for many inventions and numerous patents in the infrared imaging field. The major improvement he contributed to the field was the development of infrared detectors that operate at room temperature, without the need for cooling.

Read more about Woolaway

Alumnus Brings Science to the Airwaves

Brian Hackney claims he owes it all to KCPR. The physics and electrical engineering double major (B.S., 1986) got his first shot at broadcasting at Cal Poly's own radio station. Now he's a meteorologist, science reporter, and fill-in news anchor for CBS 5 in San Francisco. While a disc jockey on KCPR, Hackney caught the ear of the program director at KSBY, San Luis Obispo's NBC affiliate. A job offer followed, and Hackney spent his undergraduate years as a booth announcer — the mysterious person who asks viewers to "stay tuned for the next episode."

Following graduation and a short stint as an associate design engineer at Raytheon, Hackney entered journalism full time as a meteorologist at KSBY. His background in physics became even more valuable when he moved to KCST in San Diego, where he found his true passion: science reporting.

Read more about Hackney

Class Notes

Michael Lujan, class of 2007, is currently a graduate student at The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and has published a first author paper in Physical Review D, Vol. 86 (2012) titled "Mixed action parameter in the overlap on domain-wall mixed action." Congratulations, Michael!

Sarah Cowan, class of 2005, earned her doctorate in materials science and engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara, last year, studying recombination mechanisms, device engineering and device physics in organic solar cells with Professor Alan Heeger. She is currently an EERE SunShot postdoctoral research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., designing functional contacts for organic multijunction solar cells.

Read more alumni news

Alumni Registration

Let us know where you are and what you're up to. Update your alumni information by sending us an email at

Find Us on Facebook

Are you on Facebook? The Physics Department now has its own Facebook page. Visit and Like the page to keep up with department news.

Visit the Facebook page

back to top

Faculty & Staff Updates

Portrait of Randy outside in front of a tan wall and smiling

Randy Knight Retires

After 23 years at Cal Poly, Randy Knight has decided to retire from full-time teaching. He will, however, continue working on his successful introductory physics textbooks. Randy came to Cal Poly in 1989 from a tenured position at The Ohio State University, where his research interests were atomic and laser physics. Wanting a position that focused on teaching, he moved to Cal Poly, where he taught a wide range of courses. He made many substantial contributions to our curriculum and was extremely diligent providing feedback to students. Those of you lucky enough to have had him in Quantum Lab will remember his infamous red pen. Randy was also a voice of reason in the department, and his opinions were often sought and always listened to. In retirement he will be living near Atascadero in his straw-bale house with his wife, Sally, and their innumerable cats.

A New Generation of Physikers

We have had several beautiful new additions to the families of physics faculty over the past couple of years.

See photos of the new generation

back to top

In Memorium

Ralph A. Peters

Close up photo of doctor peters, older, with thinning gray hair and glasses.

Professor Emeritus Ralph Peters passed away on Nov. 21, 2012. He was born in May 1924 in Chicago, Ill. After earning his doctorate from Fordham University, Peters took a position at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, where he taught molecular physics for two years. In 1969, he came to the Cal Poly Physics Department as an assistant professor and retired as a full professor in 2004.

When asked by his son Gregg how he would spend his time in retirement, Peters responded, “I think I will study the areas of physics I did not have time to focus on while I was teaching.” He loved listening to classical music, watching his beloved Notre Dame football team on Saturday afternoons, and playing bridge. After retirement, Ralph continued his dream of remodeling his home in the historical area surrounding Mission San Luis Obispo.

Peters is remembered by his longtime colleagues in the department as a true gentleman with old-school habits. They recall how he amazed his students with his mastery of spinning a top, which he used to demonstrate rotational mechanics. He will be missed.

back to top

Physics Student News

2011-12 Graduates

See the list of 2011-12 graduates

Physics Spring Banquets and Department Award Recipients

The 2012 annual Physics Department Spring Banquet was held on May 12 at the Dairy Creek Golf Course. Guests enjoyed delightful company and a delicious dinner, and two of our most deserving students received awards of excellence. Graduating senior Rebecca Rosen received the Outstanding Student award, and senior Zachary Sailer was awarded the Art Rosen Memorial Scholarship. In addition, Bob Echols received the Outstanding Faculty award. Congratulations to each of these winners for epitomizing excellence and dedication in all they do!

The 2011 Spring Banquet was held at Fairways at Dairy Creek. Students, especially the soon-to-be graduates, and faculty members were recognized for their accomplishments. Awards for Outstanding Academic Achievement were given to Aaron Jahoda and Jeffrey Power. The Art Rosen scholarship was awarded to Robert Campbell, and the students recognized Robert Hotzapple as the Outstanding Faculty member for the year. Congratulations to all of our outstanding physikers!

Cal Poly Astronomical Society Hosts Venus Transit Viewing Event

Solar eclipse viewing telescope showih the crescent-shaped image of the eclipsed sun on a white board beneath the telescope.

On June 5, 2012, Venus transited the sun for the last time until 2117. To enjoy this historic event, students from the Cal Poly Astronomical Society (CPAS) set up three telescopes near the library and invited the public to a viewing. Physics Professors Vardha Bennert, John Keller and David Mitchell coordinated the event.

Read more Astronomical Society news

Society of Physics Students 2012-13

The new Society of Physics Students (SPS) senate is working relentlessly to make this one of the most successful years in SPS history. We have set high goals for the year and are going to have a great time bringing together department students and faculty.

Read more about the Society of Physics Students

back to top


The department office staff wishes to thank the following faculty and staff members for their many contributions to this newsletter:

Vardha Bennert, Contributor
Jodi Christiansen, Contributor
Jon Fernsler, Contributor
Tony Garcia, Contributor
Katharina Gillen, Contributor
Roger Grismore, Contributor
Tom Gutierrez, Contributor
Teresa Hendrix, Contributor
Rachel Henry, Editor
Spencer Herrick, Contributor
Kathy Lanigir, Editor
Dani May, Contributor
David Mitchell, Contributor
Matt Moelter, Contributor
Karl Saunders, Contributor
John Sharpe, Contributor
Peter Schwartz, Contributor
Nilgun Sungar, Contributor and Department Chair

back to top


Related Content