Physics Graduate Student Research at the University of Michigan

I recently gave part of a weekly public lecture called Saturday Morning Physics at the University of Michigan, where I’m currently a Ph.D. student. These talks are normally given by professors, but this time it was shared by three Physics Ph.D. students, all National Science Foundation Graduate Student Research Fellows. We each took 20-25min to describe our research for a general audience.

I’ve included our bios and more detailed summaries of our talks below. Each of us spoke for 20-25 min if you would like to skip ahead for a particular talk, but I recommend watching the whole thing!

*Note: For some reason, the settings on YouTube make the video start around 25 minutes, which is already in the middle of my talk. Next to each of our names below, I’ve listed the time our talk starts so you can skip around easier.

Benjamin Lawson

Starts at 00:25


Materials can be categorized and described in many different ways – a familiar example is whether they are conductors (can carry electricity) or insulators (cannot carry electricity). Ben will discuss the search for novel materials that do not fit into either of these categories and talk about the properties of some completely new types of matter.

Bio (beware the puns):

Ben received his Bachelors of Science in Physics from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. In his first two years at Texas, Ben worked on neutrino experiments at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory with Professor Sacha Kopp. His work there had a changing flavor of programming and hardware, but he decided that there was no reason to charge forward in neutrino experiments and leapt on from particle physics that, though was charming, was also a little strange. For his last two years of undergrad, he did laser scattering experiments on hydrogen and methane with Professor Greg Sitz. He got very stoked about this work and, when he shed light on new properties, his whole group would get excited. Ben is now in the Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan and is doing work in Condensed Matter Physics with Professor Lu Li. Though his future is not crystal clear, his new group has velocity. Ben spends most of his time taking data, but he periodically must bloch out time to band together with his colleagues and chern out actual numbers to publish. As far as Ben is concerned, Lu Li’s lab is the coolest place at the University of Michigan.

Jenna Walrath


Starts at 23:02


Thermoelectric materials directly convert heat to electricity without any moving parts, offering a way to reliably recover waste heat in systems ranging from power plants to cars. Jenna will explain thermoelectric generators and describe her work studying thermoelectric materials on a nanometer scale with the goal of better understanding methods for increasing efficiency.


Jenna received her Bachelors of Science in Physics from Purdue University in 2011, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. During her time at Purdue, she worked in particle physics for Professor Daniela Bortoletto on both the CDF experiment at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and CMS at the Large Hadron Collider. Taking advantage of the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates, she also spent two summers working in gravitational wave physics, building optical motion detectors for the LISA project at the University of Washington and then for LIGO at Caltech. Jenna is now a third year Ph.D. student at the University of Michigan working with Professor Rachel Goldman in condensed matter physics, studying nanostructured thermoelectric materials.

Timothy Olson


Starts at 43:40


The fundamental forces and laws of physics can be thought of as arising from special symmetries of nature. Tim will present a new way of describing some of those symmetries geometrically using volumes of higher-dimensional shapes.


Tim graduated from Valparaiso University summa cum laude in 2011 with a Bachelors of Science degree in Physics and Mathematics. While a student at Valpo, Tim’s research covered many aspects of fundamental physics. He spent one year designing and testing components of an experiment to measure the neutron electric dipole moment at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Maryland.  Tim was also involved in two high-energy collider experiments. The first was with the STAR collaboration at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Then in 2010, Tim traveled to CERN where he developed software used by the ATLAS experiment to monitor detector systems in the Large Hadron Collider. He is now a third year Ph.D. student working with Professor Henriette Elvang at the University of Michigan. Tim is actively engaged in theoretical particle physics research on aspects of gauge theories, renormalization group flows, and scattering amplitudes.

Ben, Tim, and Jenna are currently supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program. These highly competitive fellowships are awarded to graduate students in STEM fields and provide three years of research funding as well as access to additional NSF resources.