Ella sits on a bench on campus

Ella Carlander ’22, Physics

September 28, 2020

Ella Carlander '22, a physics major from Austin, Texas, says she's always loved math and science. "I think my brain is just geared toward numbers and patterns," she says. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

It sounds like one of those childhood riddles. What acts like a solid when you stand on it, can be poured like a liquid and behaves like a gas when you throw it into the air?

It's sand. But even though it fills our beaches and 50-pound bags at the hardware store, sand — and other types of granular media — remains something of a physics mystery.

Ella Carlander '22, a physics major from Austin, Texas, is part of a team trying to chip away at that mystery. Working alongside physics Professors Katharina Vollmayr-Lee and Brian Utter, Carlander is completing grant-funded research into granular media and the strange ways it behaves.

Imagine filling a container with sand and placing a steel ball on top. The sand will act as a solid and support the ball's weight. But if you wiggle that container just a little, the ball will begin to sink as if the sand had suddenly become liquid.

"That transition from acting as a solid to a liquid just from a slight movement of the container that it's in — it's interesting," Carlander says. "It's not what is expected." 

The opportunity to ask questions for which there's no expected answer is what drew Carlander to Bucknell in the first place. 

"The idea of being able to do research as an undergraduate was definitely something that motivated my decision," she says. "I do have that curiosity, and I will ask questions when I'm curious about something." 

One of those questions came during her first year at Bucknell: Can I change my major? 

The answer was yes. Carlander entered Bucknell as an engineering major but switched to physics after taking an introductory course that rekindled a passion first ignited in high school.

"I've always liked science and math. I think my brain is just geared toward numbers and patterns," she says. "Physics gained my interest because you can see it in the real world around you every day. You can explain why something in your life works the way it does."

While she may not pursue a career researching granular media, Carlander has added tools to her arsenal that will help in any field.

"I'm learning a lot about granular media — and it's super interesting and I'm loving it," she says. "But what I'll really take from this experience is the skills of conducting research in a way that's organized and being able to work and communicate with team members."


Ella wears a mask and stands on campus

Ella Carlander '22 is studying the mysteries of granular media — material like sand, soil and gravel — that can have characteristics like solids, liquids and gases. Photo by Emily Paine, communications

Communication was critical during summer 2020 as Carlander completed her grant-funded project amid physical distancing restrictions. While Utter completed granular media experiments in his lab, Vollmayr-Lee, Carlander, Michael Bolish '23 and two professors from Swarthmore University built computer simulations of those same experiments from their homes.

Each day began with a Zoom call where the team discussed their recent findings and brainstormed creative ways to add new variables to the next round of research.

"We would see where we're at and decide where to look next," Carlander says. "There's no clear goal — just getting a simulation to understand how granular media interact with each other."

When she's not in the lab — simulated or otherwise — Carlander enjoys exploring passions that have little to do with studying the properties of matter. She enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee, hanging out with other Presidential Fellows and painting — building on an interest first uncovered in a high school art class.

The freedom to be more than one thing — to exist, like sand, in whichever forms suit her best — is another reason Carlander chose Bucknell. 

"In high school, I was really interested in the visual arts and took a lot of painting and drawing classes," she says. "At Bucknell, I'm able to take classes that aren't just my major. I really love that."


Follow your curiosity wherever it leads