October 07, 2005

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LEWISBURG, Pa. — Bucknell University 2005 graduate Matthew Paoletti has been awarded the 2005 LeRoy Apker Award for excellence in undergraduate research at an undergraduate institution.

The highly distinguished honor is given by the American Physical Society to "recognize outstanding achievements in physics by undergraduate students," and "provide encouragement to young physicists who have demonstrated great potential for future scientific accomplishment."

"This is the highest national honor that any undergraduate physics student can receive," said David Schoepf, Bucknell associate professor of physics and department chair. "This is an immense honor for Matt as well as our physics department, as only two awards are given annually. One award is given to an undergraduate from a Ph.D. institution and the other is given to a student from a predominately undergraduate institution."

Paoletti, who is a physics graduate student at the University of Maryland - College Park, will receive the award at the March meeting of the American Physical Society, where he will give an invited talk as part of the award.

Paoletti worked with Tom Solomon, associate professor of physics at Bucknell. As an undergraduate, he presented his research at the American Physical Society, Division of Fluid Dynamics, Meeting in Seattle in November.

The research studied how chaotic fluid mixing affects the motion of "flame-like" chemical reactions. This research can aid in understanding how disease spreads through populations and can be applied to the medical field in the development of microfluidic devices, which are miniaturized devices used mainly for testing things like blood samples.

"The overarching idea of our studies is how reacting systems are affected by mixing," said Paoletti. "All previous work in this area has focused only on motionless systems. However, most real systems, such as the spread of a flame from a fire or the spread of diseases in a population, are mobile and are constantly being mixed. This mixing is expected to greatly affect the behavior of the system but this area had not been experimentally investigated before our studies," Paoletti said.

Solomon and Paoletti conducted some of the first experiments to consider the importance of fluid mixing on pattern formation and front propagation in reacting fluid systems. Solomon said, "Imagine pouring gasoline on the floor and letting it spread out. Then drop a match. The region where the match hits will burst into flames. The flames will move — propagate — across the floor, consuming the gas as it goes.

"Then imagine that the gasoline is being stirred in small whirlpools. The stirring dramatically changes the way in which the flame moves across the system; in fact, the motion `locks' in a controllable way.

"This can be applied to research about pattern formation and front propagation in interacting systems, including chemical reactions, biological ecosystems (the spread of diseases) and systems undergoing phase transitions, e.g. liquid to solid or liquid to gas," he said.

Solomon spoke highly of Paoletti's dedication, saying, "Matt took an idea I'd had on my `to-do' list and devised a reaction to test the theory then spent a tremendous amount of time in the lab collecting and analyzing the data. He spent the week after finals and the week after graduation getting the experiments finished.

"This award is very much justified. Not only has Matt done the best research by an undergraduate anywhere in the country, but the work that he did as an undergraduate here (taking a full load of courses) compares favorably with that of some of the best graduate students in the country," he said.

Paoletti's research experience isn't unique. The physics department at Bucknell routinely sponsors undergraduate research, both during the academic year and as part of a summer "Research Experiences for Undergraduates" program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Undergraduates doing research in the physics department at Bucknell participate in all aspects of the research, including preliminary discussions about the goals and approaches, designing and testing of the apparatus, collection and analysis of the data, computer modeling of the results, presentation of the work at international meetings, and writing of the research for publication.

In the past four years, students have given or been included as co-authors in 28 presentations at national and international conferences. Recent and current undergraduate students also appear as co-authors on 13 papers that either published or accepted for publication, and three more have been submitted.

Paoletti's research has resulted in three publications for which he is first author: "Experimental studies of front propagation and mode-locking in an advection-reaction-diffusion system," appeared in Europhysics Letters in March.

Another article, "Front propagation and mode-locking in an advection-reaction-diffusion system," has been submitted to Physical Review E and will be published later this year.

Paoletti and Solomon, who have two papers in print from this work, also have submitted a manuscript, written with Bucknell senior Carrie Nugent as a co-author, to Physical Review Letters. Paoletti will speak about this work at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Chicago in November.



Paoletti's talk may be accessed at http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/physics/matt_apker.htm


An abstract for the Europhysics Letters article may be viewed at http://www.edpsciences.org/articles/epl/abs/2005/05/epl8626/epl8626.html.


The Bucknell physics department web page lists recent papers at http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/physics/reu/reuauth.html


Other research papers may be found at http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~tsolomon/papers.html


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