The beauty of physics is in the simplicity of the ingredients, and in the broad range and depth of the results.

Professor Ben Vollmayr-Lee knows he's had a positive impact on his former students when they return for alumni panels hosted by the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Alumni in a variety of industries share with students the importance of learning the basic principles of physics and how those skills help with career success. Recently one alum, who became a successful patent lawyer, explained how her physics background made the process of reviewing science-based patents much more efficient.  

"It is so rewarding to hear alumni who are five or 10 years down the road saying it was really great to learn physics," says Vollmayr-Lee. "It is encouraging to learn that we, as educators, are making a difference. Not all of our students go on to graduate school. We have physics majors who have gone in many different directions. You only need a handful of tools, and if you use those tools well, you can answer a wide range of questions in many industries."

Vollmayr-Lee's research focuses on theoretical biophysics and statistical physics, which is the study of cooperative effects in systems with many particles. He investigates the behavior of so-called active matter in biological processes, the coarsening dynamics of metal alloys and polymer blends, and diffusion-limited chemical reactions.

"Statistical physics has applications in chemistry, biology, economics and ecology," he says. "We are not asking about the most fundamental particles and their interactions – such as how an electron interacts with a proton. Rather, when you have a large number of particles, what kind of collective behaviors can you predict? As a theorist, I build a model and attempt to calculate what the model predicts. Then an experimentalist will test the theory's accuracy," he says.

Advancements in technology continue to expand Vollmayr-Lee's playground. For example, DNA strands can now be grabbed and stretched by optical tweezers. His senior thesis student is calculating how much work is necessary to stretch the strands certain distances.

"What's interesting about that question is you can do exactly the same experiment multiple times and get different answers depending on whether there were more favorable or unfavorable kicks from the surrounding molecules," he says. "It seems like a hopeless problem, but amazingly, we are able to work on it. New technology makes new experiments possible, which raises new questions requiring new theoretical models. The beauty of physics is in the simplicity of the ingredients, and in the broad range and depth of the results."

Posted Oct. 16, 2014