Physics at ECU

While much of the research conducted in the Department of Physics at ECU is focused on the physics associated with biological phenomena and medicine, other important fields are also represented, including statistical physics, bioacoustics, high energy physics, and physics education, as well as atomic, molecular, radiation, and optical physics.

Over the last three hundred years, biological cells have been studied on ever smaller scales. Much of biology and medicine became the domain of molecular physics with the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and proteins more than 50 years ago. The field of biophysics has consequently grown at a rapid pace. In this tradition, Nathan Hudson seeks to understand how mechanical forces affect the way biological molecules behave. One goal of his research is to discover how the action of proteins stops the bleeding of a wound. On a different biological front, John Kenney is using various imaging methods and spectroscopic techniques to determine how the molecular structure of spider silk—which has exceptional mechanical properties—could lead to novel engineering applications.

Merging biology, medicine, and optics, Xin-Hua Hu and Jun Lu in the Biomedical Laser Laboratory conduct multidisciplinary research in biomedical optics. Their efforts are focused on understanding how biological cells interact with light. One of the long term goals of their research, for example, is to develop a device that shines light on a cell and then “sees” whether the cell is cancerous or not. On a related front, Yongqing Li of the Biomedical Optics Laboratory traps cells, spores, or viruses in a laser beam with the goal of manipulating or examining them. The underlying aim of his research is to better identify and understand biological samples and processes at microscopic scales.

Juan Beltran-Huarac is devoted to understanding the interaction between nanomaterials and tumor microenvironments in exogenous magnetic fields with the goal of treating cancer more effectively in a non-invasive manner. He leads the Magnetic Formulations and Bionanotechnology Laboratory, where contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are developed. Overall, his research group aims to demonstrate the value of new technologies in magnetic cancer treatment.

Francis Manno uses MRI to examine three distinct interrelated fields: hearing loss, environmental enrichment, and Alzheimer’s disease. In hearing loss, the aim of his research is to ascertain covariates (variables that affect a response variable) which may reduce the severity of hearing loss across the lifespan. Some of these variables are linked to environmental enrichment. Lastly, Alzheimer’s disease is known to be confounded by hearing loss. His research group uses MRI-defined phenotypes to reveal features that can ameliorate disease.

Dr. Nathan Hudson’s research group works to develop novel fibrinogen proteins with altered mechanical properties to test hypotheses on the origins of blood clot elasticity.

In statistical physics, researchers seek to determine how atomic scale interactions lead to phenomena like boiling point, magnetism, or elasticity. The methods of statistical physics have been used to understand many biological systems, or complex systems in general. To this end, Martin Bier seeks to understand how, for example, a viral disease propagates through a population.

Merging biology and acoustics, Mark Sprague conducts research in the relatively new field of bioacoustics. His research group detects and interprets the sounds that various species of fish produce. Furthermore, his research investigates how noise pollution can initiate a fright response in animals, or how this pollution acts to overwhelm the sounds that these animals rely on to survive.

Dr. Mark Sprague and the ECU Wave Glider team recover Blackbeard, the acoustic Wave Glider, from deployment in Onslow Bay, where it made sound recordings and gathered other oceanographic data.

Steven Wolf conducts research in physics education, where he focuses on the development of student expertise in physics. In particular, he seeks to understand and build community in the physics classroom with the goal of creating successful learning experiences.

Atomic, molecular, radiation, and optical (AMRO) physics studies the interaction between radiation and matter at the molecular scale. Modern medicine is highly dependent on AMRO applications, as the many techniques to “photograph” the inside of a patient all derive from this type of research. Additionally, radiation therapy (radiotherapy) in the treatment of inoperable tumors, as well as laser surgery, are other prominent AMRO applications. The centerpiece of AMRO research at East Carolina University is the department’s Accelerator Laboratory.

Jefferson Shinpaugh and Michael Dingfelder study the effects of ionizing radiation on biological matter from experimental and theoretical points of view, respectively. Understanding how radiation damages DNA and cells in general is key to eventually determining the origins of many types of cancer.

Heavy ions can produce X-rays while undergoing collisions with, for instance, protons. The emission of these X-rays depends, among other things, on relative collision velocities. Gregory Lapicki in our department studies the underlying physics of this process.

Regina DeWitt frequently collaborates with geologists to study radiation damage in minerals. Such knowledge can be used, for example, to determine the age of an inorganic artifact based on how much light it emits under specific laboratory conditions. Furthermore, the techniques that the Optically Stimulated Luminescence Laboratory is developing can be used to monitor the potentially harmful radiation exposure of radiation workers and cancer patients. Her research group recently performed field work in Antarctica with the aim of determining the age of boulders along the coast line. Their results are important for building an understanding of coastline evolution and climate change.

Graduate students conduct research in radiation physics in the Accelerator Laboratory.

Dr. Regina DeWitt collects samples for luminescence dating in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica.

Joel DeWitt studies the space radiation shielding possibilities applicable to future spacecraft or planetary surface habitats. He is focused on novel and/or optimized materials that act to maximize the protection of space crews from ionizing radiation while minimizing the cost of their implementation. The study of space radiation shielding is important because of the known short- and long-term detrimental effects ionizing radiation can have on the human body.

In high energy physics, Zi-Wei Lin conducts research at the lowest possible scale: quarks and gluons. These particles, smaller than protons, are emitted when gold or lead nuclei collide at nearly the speed of light in big particle accelerators. Quarks and gluons are interesting because at about a microsecond after the Big Bang the entire universe was made up of them. As the universe next cooled, they fused and became normal matter like protons and neutrons, which eventually lead to the elements, to life, and to us.