Physics Spotlight

December 2017
Physics Spotlight

Lee Walsh

Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst

Lee Walsh was nominated by his advisor, Professor Narayanan Menon for his many contributions to our UMass Amherst campus, as well as, his efforts with being both GEO and GSO for Student Life. Lee is presently working on his dissertation as he recently presented his defense and passed. The Physics Department is very excited to see another student graduate and embark on their life's journey. Congratulations Lee!

Who is your faculty advisor and what research are you presently working on?

My Ph.D. research advisor is Narayanan Menon. Menon’s group conducts research in the field of soft matter. My research combines granular matter (think of sand or similar materials of hard granulated particles) and active matter (now imagine each component moves under its own propulsion). In these materials, I study the collective patterns and dynamics that spontaneously form.

What do you feel is your research strength? Method? Theory?

The kind of physics that interests me often rewards a breadth of skills rather than deep expertise in certain techniques. The research is often exploratory: looking for new phenomena in simple systems or finding a complex system that has an elegant explanation. In many ways, it is much easier than trying to nail down the details of a known problem (like detecting a gravitational wave or producing a Higgs boson). It may not require very advanced theoretical understanding or highly developed experimental skills, but in some ways, it is quite difficult. The systems are complex and messy, and the problems are vague and diverse—so just identifying the question and making a plan of attack can be half the battle!

This is part of why the soft matter field brings together physicists, biologists, chemical engineers, and more! There are interesting physics questions in all the stuff of everyday life, and understanding them requires a broad perspective and wide interests.

Is this your first postdoctoral position or have you held others? If this is not your first, where have you studied in the past?

I just passed my Ph.D. defense in November, and in January will start my first postdoctoral position at Wesleyan University. I’ll be working with Prof. Greg Voth on a bit of a mixture of granular matter with fluid mechanics. I’ll be measuring the dynamics in a turbulent fluid filled with particles that are a small enough to follow the flow but too large, oddly shaped or to be tracer particles. Because of this, they affect the flow of the liquid and of each other. This will allow me to use some of my experimental skills (especially in image tracking and data analysis) and continues the themes from my Ph.D. of alignment and patterns amongst granular particles.

What degrees do you hold?

A.B. Physics, University of Chicago

Ph.D. Physics, University of Massachusetts

Do you have any publications?

Yes, my first article on my graduate work on the ordering of square grains is in the Journal of Statistical Mechanics, and my work on the dynamics of self-propelled grains was just published this month in Soft Matter. I’m starting work on another, but it will not be submitted until after my dissertation is complete! Some results from my undergraduate research on patterns in elastic sheets have also been published.

Have you done any networking in the field and if so, what do you find to be the best method? Conferences? Workshops?

Yes! Going to conferences and workshops to give talks about your work is in some ways more important than publishing articles. They might not look as good on a c.v., but are a great opportunity for sharing your work, getting feedback on your ideas, and meeting people in your research community.

Conferences come in many shapes and sizes, and all have their advantages. Each year, APS hosts the two enormous (and cleverly named) March Meeting and April Meeting with ten thousand attendees and several dozen talks to choose from at any given moment. It’s crazy and hectic but an awesome gathering of researchers all in one huge building. I have gotten to know a smaller community better through more topical conferences such as Gordon Conferences, which are a full week on a single topic (I attend the one on Granular Matter) with no overlapping talks and lots of networking time built into the schedule. Day-long regional workshops are great to keep in touch with neighbors and have a smaller lower pressure environment to share your work. I always attend the Northeast Granular Workshop and sometimes the New England Complex Fluids Workshop.

My most memorable experience was attending the Boulder School on Soft Matter, where I was able to meet many other grad students as well as faculty in my field from all over the world.

Do you have a lot of interaction with other postdocs students around campus?

I work with several undergraduate students who do research in Menon’s lab, and have mentored a few of them over the years (one was a coauthor on my most recent paper!). Earlier in my graduate career, I interacted with undergraduate students through teaching the introductory labs and tutoring.

The graduate student community at UMass is very strong—students from across the University support each other very well. The main venues for this in my experience are GEO, the Graduate Employee Organization, and GSS, the Graduate Student Senate. For several years I served as the liaison, or “steward,” between the Physics department to GEO, which provided the opportunity to interact with a number of students from disciplines all across campus.