June 5, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 47°F


Two IC students win award at physics research conference

Ithaca College junior Matthew Weil and senior Ted Mburu were awarded the Best Undergraduate Research Award after impressing professional physicists with their research in physics education and environmental physics at the American Physical Society March Meeting.  

The American Physical Society is an organization that promotes innovations in physics. Every March, the APS hosts a conference inviting students, physicists and anyone in the scientific field from across the world to indulge in five days of learning through presentations, receptions and workshops. This year, the conference took place in Las Vegas from March 5 to 10. 

Mburu and Weil participated in G00: Poster Session I, the poster presentation segment of the conference, and presented their findings from research in environmental physics, which was Weil’s topic, and physics education, Mburu’s topic. The poster session was for undergraduate students only. Weil started his research in summer 2022, while Mburu has been researching his topic since 2019, his first year at the college. 

Mburu said he focused on methods to improve how physics is taught in classrooms.

Mburu’s project, “Developing an Interactive Simulation for Non-Inertial Reference Frames,” is about making the concept of non-inertial reference frames easier for students to understand through a simulation, specifically for students taking the Classical Mechanics course. Mburu said any college can benefit from the simulation even though he said colleges have their own version of the course. 

Mburu said via email that a reference frame is used when determining the distance of an object based on a point of view. Mburu said that the simulation shows a ball that is moving in a straight line, while on top of a spinning table. Mburu said a reference frame is used when determining the distance of an object based on a point of view and a non-inertial reference frame, which is a frame that is accelerating. 

Additionally, Mburu said the simulation shows the ball in a side-by-side view from two reference frames: a stationary reference frame and an accelerating reference frame. Mburu said the simulation demonstrates that even though the paths in the simulation look different in the two reference frames, they are actually the same. 

“Trying to make classes more equitable and making sure everyone has the opportunity to succeed was important to me,” Mburu said. “And that’s why one of the big things with all the simulations we make is they can run on any device because different students have different devices available to them.”

Weil’s project, “Contributing to a Greener NY: Analysis of Methane Emissions in NYS,” discusses the research he and Eric Leibensperger, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, conducted on identifying the sources of methane emissions in upstate New York so that the sources can be reduced. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wants 85% of methane and other greenhouse gasses to be cut by 2050. 

Leibensperger is Weil’s adviser and said he started working with Weil in summer 2022 because Weil was a part of the Summer Scholars Program. 

Leibensperger said Weil was great to work with because he was not only dedicated to his project but was always willing to help Leibensperger in any way. 

“Matt really took ownership of the project,” Leibensperger said. “I was always able to count on Matt completing tasks at hand, even as I was away on paternity leave, Matt has also been my go-to person for flying and modifying drones for our research.”

Weil said he specifically looked at a mine — which he could not disclose the name of to The Ithacan because of confidentiality reasons — in upstate New York that was producing a large amount of methane and did not have to provide any information to New York state as a result of being run by a private company.  

Additionally, Weil said he was able to use a drone in his research by attaching a methane detector, which gathered information from an aerial perspective. 

“There’s a portion of research that incorporates putting a methane detector on a drone and getting an … aerial view of everything,” Weil said. “Instead of just a ground-based level as we do, we’re just driving around. So just the drone portion got me into that.”

Junior Mikolaj Konieczny, who also helped Weil with his research and was in attendance at the conference, said Weil and Mburu did a great job at synthesizing their work so that anyone can easily understand it.

“They worked on their projects and they were able to visualize it very well,” Konieczny said. “Not everybody has the time to read through all those posters, but it’s just about catching somebody’s attention and being able to sort of communicate to them after you’ve done stuff.”

Colleen Countryman, assistant professor for the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is Mburu’s adviser and said Mburu and Weil were chosen to represent the department because of the large amount of progress they made toward their research.

“It’s a huge honor to go and represent Ithaca College and specifically our department at one of these national conferences, where quite frankly, it’s pretty uncommon for undergraduates to attend,” Countryman said. “The department wanted to try to support them and Mikolaj to be able to attend and share some of what they’ve learned in their research with the world.”

Weil said he initially felt nervous about presenting at the conference because of the large number of attendees as well as them being some of the only few undergraduate groups at the conference.  

“I went to a much smaller conference earlier this year but didn’t present my research and that was like 1,000 people,” Weil said. “This conference in Las Vegas was 12,000 people. So there’s a certain number size … it was just very overwhelming because you had a bunch of graduate level students and then you have, like 1,000 undergrads … there’s a lot of smart people and it makes it feel like you have impostor syndrome sometimes.”

Mburu said he has seen the department shrink in size over the last four years and hopes that his and Weil’s accomplishments inspire more students to join the department in the future. 

“I was in a class of, like, 20 people as first years, but now we’ve gone down to three seniors,” Mburu said. “So just seeing the struggle that different people had … I just feel like if they had better resources they would have enjoyed it more, then some might still be here.”

Weil said he is grateful for having the opportunity to represent the department in a positive and impactful way.

“I think it’ll get the college physics department name out there and like the broader community,” Weil said. “I didn’t know what SPS [Society of Physics Students] or [the] American Physical Society was before coming into college and you don’t realize that there are 80,000 members nationwide who all enjoy doing the same thing you do.”

Leibensperger said he appreciates Weil and Mburu’s hard work toward their projects and the department as a whole.

“Both Ted and Matt are great researchers, but also great educators,” Leibensperger said. “Ted and Matt are both very active as learning assistants in our department, which includes helping both physics majors and non-majors through their physics and astronomy classes. I am sure that these skills helped them organize their presentations and speak effectively.”

Jadyn Davis can be reached at jdavis16@ithaca.edu