Physics Spotlight

July 2018
Physics Spotlight

Sarah Zuraw

Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst

Sarah Zuraw was nominated by the Physics Department due to her work in the Dinsmore lab as well as for her many contributions to the Department. She is always willing to help other students and has assisted with potential undergraduate students who are interested in Physics by answering questions they had while touring the school and telling them about her experience here at UMass. Presently, Sarah is an RA and is also a Mentor Coordinator for the Physics Graduate Student Origination (PCO).

What brought you to the University of Massachusetts to continue your studies?

I was born and raised in Western Massachusetts. Both of my parents are UMass Alumni, in fact, that is where they met. To me, family and community are important. I have deep roots here in the Valley and consider it a great privilege to be a part of this vibrant community while also pursuing a world-class physics education.


Where did you do your undergrad? What is your degree in?

I attended UMass as an undergraduate and dual majored in physics and mathematics. I’ve had the unique experience of a strong continuity between my undergraduate and graduate studies and have been a student at UMass since 2010. In that time I’ve seen the campus change and grow, gotten to know the faculty and students, and built a strong network of colleagues and friends.


Who is your faculty advisor and why did you pick them?

My advisor is Professor Anthony Dinsmore. He is an excellent advisor in every sense of the word. He is knowledgeable, well spoken, he has fostered a strong team atmosphere in the lab, and most of all, is very kind. As an undergraduate, I worked with Professor Laura Cadonati, who is now at Georgia Tech. Going in to graduate school I was making a big transition. After having worked with the LIGO collaboration for five years, I transitioned from astrophysics to soft matter physics. Asking around my questions were simple. Who was a nice person to work with? Who was doing exciting research and whose lab had a good dynamic? Over and over from other graduate students and faculty members, I heard strong endorsements for Tony’s group. They were all true. I’m so grateful to be a part of the Dinsmore Lab, it really is an incredible team.


What has been your favorite Graduate level course?

Electrodynamics. Prof Jun Yan did an excellent job teaching the course. There are many interesting topics to learn about in physics but what makes a class is the skill and care with which the Professor present the material. Prof Jun Yan truly cared about the course and made sure the students learned the material. He was always working to improve his teaching and it showed.


What are some of your research interests?

My current research is in exploring particle induced membrane deformation, in the pursuit of soft reconfigurable membrane-based materials. Inspired by biological systems we combine lipid vesicles with oppositely charged nanoparticles. Our experiments act as a model system meant to elucidate the interactions of proteins with cells. The results of our research provide a detailed physical understanding of design principles in membrane morphologies. This has relevance in biomedical and material science as a stimuli-responsive, high surface area, reconfigurable material.


Has any of your research resulted in a published article?

I have a number of papers from my time with the LIGO Collaboration. In particular, I’m one of the authors on the discovery paper for the first ever gravitational wave detection! Moving forward in my new thrust of soft matter physics, I’m an author on a paper that was just submitted for publication a few weeks ago. A follow-up paper is in the works wherein I will be the lead author.


What are your future plans?

My hope is to complete my degree and find a research position in industry. Having been in two seemingly very different fields I’ve discovered that at the core of it all it’s still just physics. Exploring interesting questions and problem-solving is what I enjoy. Applying the fundamentals of physics to problems no matter the topic is exciting. There is something so delightfully overwhelming about exploring something that’s completely new only to find out that those things you learned before still apply.


Is there an area in your field you would like to study more?

I’ve always loved geometry. Being a physicist working with systems that look suspiciously biological and then describing them as geometric surfaces is just delightful. There are many working diligently in the field to understand more and more about membranes as physical systems in order to describe them accurately as a continuous elastic sheet. I’d love to understand more deeply the theory behind membranes described in this way.


Do you have a favorite experiment that you have worked on thus far?

I’m quite fond of my experiments with rod-shaped nanoparticles on lipid vesicles. For such a simple shape they exhibit such a rich range of morphological behaviors when imposed on lipid membranes.


Is there a course, seminar or program that you would like to see here on campus?

I can’t think of what course I would want to add but I can think of many that I would recommend. To physics undergraduates, take as many math classes as you can get your hands on. Also, there’s a delightful honors seminar on Honey Bees, which I would recommend to anyone, especially physicists as they are a great example of active matter!


What advice would you give to undergraduates considering Graduate programs?

Study hard, your grades matter. Graduate school is tough but in many ways, undergrad is harder. Getting into graduate programs can be competitive so do your best to not let your grades get in your way. Also, get involved in undergraduate research! Immediately! Check the website, email a professor and ask them if you can work with them. They will almost certainly say yes or recommended you to someone else they think will be a good fit. Working in a Lab will get your research experience, letters of recommendation and networking opportunities. All things you will need going into graduate school. Your research advisor will guide you every step of the way so don’t waste any time, don’t wait till your a senior. The sooner you start the more you will learn about that topic, the more substantive your work will be. You might even get a paper! Don’t be afraid, don’t hesitate. The physics professors here are very nice and the grad students will help you too.


How would you describe your experience at UMass?

My experience here at UMass has been one highlighted by a kind, respectful and accepting community. In the world that we live in that is not always the case. It can be difficult for people to remain kind on certain topics. I consider myself to be a person of faith. I attend church regularly and hold my beliefs dearly. I’m also the only Latina graduate student in the physics department currently. That in mind, in all my time at UMass never has anyone treated me poorly due to my gender, race or religious beliefs. I know that’s not true for everyone. Nothing is perfect. UMass as a whole though is a community of people all pushing toward learning, growing and accepting. I’m proud to be a part of that.