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Blue Waters Graduate Fellow: Erin Teich

The Blue Waters Graduate Fellowship was awarded to ten outstanding Ph.D. students in computational science. In this series we’re featuring brief introductions to who they are and what they’re trying to accomplish. This program serves to prepare the next generation of science researchers to solve the world’s problems. Follow along as we highlight these young researchers. Read more profiles here.

Tell me a little bit about yourself—where are you studying now, where did you do your undergrad, what was your major, etc.

Currently, I’m in the Applied Physics Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan. Our lab does computational nanoscience, so we perform simulations of systems that are relevant for biological applications and material science applications. I did my undergrad at Brown University. I majored in physics, and completed my bachelor’s degree in 2011.

Tell me about your research—what are you trying/hoping to accomplish? What made you want to pursue this topic?

Very generally, what we study in our labs is a process called self-assembly. And this is relevant for a lot of different processes, but it turns out that material on a variety of scales basically self-organizes. This allows for the creation of materials by basically harnessing the urge that things have on certain temperature and energy scales in order to self-organize. They do that because they want to minimize their free energy.

For the Blue Waters Fellowship, I’ll be looking at disordered materials via simulation. There are materials called glasses, which is just like everyday glass, and amazingly enough, they are still not well understood. Physicists have been studying glass for decades and decades, and really centuries if you think about it, and physical properties of glasses still aren’t well understood; like how glasses form, and whether or not that’s a phase transition. So with the Blue Waters Fellowship, I’ll be simulating glass formation in colloidal systems on the microscale, and trying to uncover, if possible, some of the reasons why glass formation happens in those types of systems.

So what was your process like getting involved with Blue Waters? What made you want to apply for this fellowship?

My experience didn’t seem to match the experiences of other fellows when I talked to them. My advisor heavily encouraged about five member of my lab to apply for the fellowship. We all had projects that could benefit from supercomputing resources, as all of our projects are very computationally intensive. So that was basically how I found out about it; I was encouraged to apply by my advisor, and then I applied.

How will the ability to use Blue Waters impact your research?

I haven’t actually started any simulations on Blue Waters yet, but I’m excited for when I do start! I think it’s a great opportunity to run some really big simulations that I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to run otherwise, or would’ve been really hard for me to try figure out how to run them otherwise. So this fellowship and the computational resources associated with this fellowship are going to be incredibly useful. Blue Waters will absolutely enhance the quality of the work that I’m going to be able to produce, because our project basically has two branches to it. One is the actual simulation of the material, which requires enormous computational resources. The second part is the analysis of data that has already been produced by other people in our lab. So the thing that I’m focusing on right now is just the analysis, and that doesn’t take a lot of computational resources because that data already exists. But what the fellowship is going to allow me to do in the coming year is to actually reproduce the data, and produce it more carefully, now that we know certain things that we want to look out for when we do the simulations.

What is the overall impact that your research will have on the science community and the world at large?

I think that the research that we do is a little bit more fundamental than I first thought would be doing when I got out of college. When I left college, I was really naïve and idealistic, and I thought that all science that I do should have an immediate impact to help people. Since then, I think that I have gotten a perspective that’s just a little bit different. The science that we’re doing right now is more on the theoretical side, the more fundamental side, and that has dividends that hopefully will pay off years from now in a variety of fields. If we understand the fundamentals of how glass works, applications will be figured out in years to come.

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