"There's nothing quite like witnessing a student having a 'Eureka!' moment to know I've really made a difference."

Katharina Vollmayr-Lee

Physics runs in Katharina Vollmayr-Lee's family. "My brother went to school for physics, and he would come home and tell me about all the interesting things he did. That was what led me to my career," she says.

Vollmayr-Lee studies structural glasses and granular media. There is a huge variety of glasses: window, reading and drinking glass, volcanic glass, and metallic glasses used to make golf clubs. Glass, she says, is a product that forms when the molecules are prohibited from forming a crystal. "Whereas most of the time molecules are stuck at their site, there are rare events when molecules 'jump' out of their cage of neighbors," says Vollmayr-Lee. "I want to explore these jumps."

When a glass is formed by taking a liquid and suddenly exposing the system to a cold temperature bath, then the motion of the molecules changes over time. "I try to 'see' those changes in the motion by looking at the microscopic level, like a child watching a movie of the jumping molecules. Does the nature of these jumps change over time?"

Her recent focus is on granular media, which are, for example, sand on the beach, grains in a silo or M&Ms in a glass jar. To better understand the dynamics of granular media, Vollmayr-Lee, in collaboration with A. Zippelius in Germany, execute computer-simulations of billiard balls in a box, and compare the computer simulation results with theoretical predictions. Her objective is to look for the minimal amount of information necessary to describe and understand the dynamics of a given granular system. "We love to boil down the dynamics of a system into a one-liner," she says.

Because the nature of her research is fairly solitary, Vollmayr-Lee sought a career at a liberal arts college instead of a research institution. "You tend to be alone with your own thoughts in physics," she says, "and I wanted access to an array of academic challenges. Here, I don't just have to do the research, I have to think about how to present my research too."

Collaboration with students allows her to draw them into an intellectual task. "Students get a sense of personal accomplishment through hard work that most of them, if they've had that feeling, have only gotten from sports. That can happen with your brain as well. There's nothing quite like witnessing a student having a 'Eureka!' moment to know I've really made a difference."

Posted October 2012