Mike Robitaille '09, Physics

Mike Robitaille completed his undergraduate degree at Clark with a major in physics.

How did you become interested in physics?

Michael: I wanted to know how to describe everything around me. They say chemistry is the central science, but I think physics is really it, because it does just that: explains everything around you. Originally, I became interested in physics by reading a very cool book, The Elegant Universe, by Brain Green. It's about string theory, and that is what essentially got me hooked on physics.

What’s your specific interest in physics?

Michael: If I had to pick, I would probably say quantum mechanics or optics. But the way the introductory physics sequence is put together, you get a taste of each major field and then the many subfields within those fields. So it's hard in this point in my career to pick out which area is my favorite.

How does the intro physics sequence works?

Michael: Typically, you would start with physics 120 and physics 121, which are introductory mechanics and introductory electricity and magnets. Sophomore year you take optics and waves and quantum mechanics. And after that you get to the more upper level courses, which touch upon all the topics of the intro level but using more advanced math to describe the systems and phenomena you are studying. Right now I am studying upper-level undergraduate classic mechanics. And next semester I'll be taking a more advanced electricity and magnetism, another quantum mechanics, and then statistical mechanics. And after that, the sequence is typically finished and topped off with a capstone research project.

So the physics department here is small.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing do you think?

Michael: A good thing, I think. The good part is there is a very small close-knit community. Everyone knows each other and you get a lot of personal attention from professors.

Are you doing any research or working in a lab?

Michael: Yeah, I'm working in Arshad Kudrolli's lab. I started there the summer after my sophomore year. I got a fellowship to work with him, so I was getting paid to do research here. I don't think I would have had that kind opportunity at many other places as an undergrad. I worked/am currently working on two projects in this lab. One was with a post-doctorate researcher here. That one was working with a 2 dimensional bi-disperse system of particles. We were looking at how to characterize the channel formation and erosion of the system. The second project I did, I was working on independently. I was looking at the dynamics of tumbling paper, which is really interesting because nothing in nature flies with ridged, out stretched wings like a plane does. Instead, all mammals and insects fly by flapping flexible wings. The first step for this project I looked at how the different aspect ratio's of a thin strip of paper affected its shape and frequency, and this took a good chunk of the summer to accomplish. The next step is to visualize how the air is moving around the strip. Hopefully, the end of this project will shed some light on this complicated, natural flight.

One thing I really think is positive about the research I'm doing and research in general at Clark, is that the undergrad research here builds up your intuition on how to think critically, and be independent basically. It's not like looking in a book and working from examples, your thinking must go beyond that.

How was it working with an advanced grad student?

Michael:I'm really happy with the relationships with graduate students I've had in the physics department here. It's really nice to have a mentor to show you what it's like going on after your bachelor's degree in physics.

One other thing I learned from my experience in the lab working with the grad students is that the average Ph.D. in physics takes about six years. Having an experience like the one I am having in the lab really lets me know if I want to pursue physics for another six years to do what I was doing this summer in the lab. That's a really important insight that I now have. I think that would have been really hard to get that at another university--especially if it was a larger one, where undergraduates can easily get lost in the crowd.

You are thinking about doing the fifth-year program here at Clark?

Michael: I think the fifth-year program is a very good opportunity that Clark offers. The fifth year here is an accelerated masters program. Basically, if you meet the required GPA of 3.25 by your junior year you can start taking graduate course your senior year. So by the time you get your bachelors you have already taken some of the grad courses you will need for your masters. Then you finish up the grad courses plus your master's thesis in one year. And I'ts free if you get that 3.25 average and you hold on to it through your senior year. I'm in the beginning of my junior year now and my GPA is looking fine, so hopefully I'll continue with my masters. You should take this gracious offer that Clark has put is front of you.