Summer Research Internships

Each summer, Houghton University sponsors the Shannon Summer Research Institute. The institute allows students to work with Houghton faculty on faculty-led collaborative research in physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics and computer science. This program gives students the opportunity to see what it is like to be involved in professional research. Students are paid for their work and can receive academic credit hours. The research is funded by grants, external research funding and the Shannon Summer Research Institute endowment.

Summer research in physics, which also continues during the academic year in the Physics Project Lab sequence, allows Houghton students and faculty to collaborate with and use facilities at other laboratories such as:

The summer research experience is one of the ways we emphasize hands-on research in our physics curriculum. In addition, students write undergraduate theses and make presentations at scientific meetings on their research work.


In today's world of nanotechnology, the properties of extremely small materials have become extremely important. It turns out that, as the size (or thickness) of a material becomes small, the properties change dramatically. A thin (~10-1000nm) film deposited onto a larger substrate, for example, supports several times the stress of the "normal" size material! For this reason, a whole field in science is dedicated to the study of thin films.

Houghton professor Dr. Brandon Hoffman collaborates with Dr. Shefford Baker at Cornell University. Each summer, students study the properties of thin metal films at the Cornell Center for Materials Research. The films are deposited and characterized by X-ray diffraction (XRD), Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM), Electron Backscattered Diffraction (EBSD), and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM). Each student is placed in charge of one area of the project and performs both the background research and experimental work. This gives the students a sense of ownership and expertise in the project.

Houghton student Maggie Kirkland working with machine that studies thin sliver films at Cornell Center for Materials Research.
At the Cornell Center for Materials Research, Houghton student Maggie Kirkland works with Prof. Brandon Hoffman studying thin sliver films.

Low Temperature Detectors for Nuclear Safeguards and Metrology

Ensuring globally that all nuclear material remains in peaceful activities is a multidisciplinary problem that requires constant innovation. Houghton professor Dr. Katrina Koehler works to develop analysis algorithms and data simulations in collaboration with researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Using ultra high energy resolution low temperature detectors, the composition of radioactive material can be determined more accurately, which would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to determine whether a material is as declared. Additional work in metrology—the science of measurement—with these low temperature detectors is done to explore whether these detectors can be used as the basis for identifying and quantifying the massic activity (Bq/g) in the modern metric system. This is done by using simulations of energy transport within the detector to analyze the spectra. The basic question unifying these themes of research is: how much stuff is there and what’s it made of? Students spend time at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where they get to answer this question by simulating sources and detector response and creating simulation and analysis tools. If you can simulate it accurately, you understand it.

Image: Houghton student Tim Ockrin visited Bandelier National Monument while working at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Houghton students standing with LLE staff in the Laboratory for Laser Energetics.

Inertial Confinement Fusion

The nuclear processes that would occur in the core of a star or in the big bang are very hard to study – for obvious reasons! One way to learn about them is to create our own tiny star, using a process called inertial confinement fusion (ICF). The resulting nuclear reactions can be measured by trapping the reaction products and detecting their radioactive decays.

Physics Professor Mark Yuly and Houghton students collaborate with researchers from the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, the second largest laser lab in the US, and SUNY Geneseo to design experiments to capture the expanding radioactive gas cloud after the ICF laser shot. Once the gas is trapped, the resulting radioactive decays can be detected and used to calculate the likelihood, or cross section, of the nuclear reaction. Houghton students, who have worked on every aspect of this project from designing, building and testing vacuum systems and detectors to collecting and analyzing data, have won numerous awards for their research and research presentations.

Image: Houghton students and LLE staff setting up an experiment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics.

Artificial Intelligence

The capabilities of Artificial Intelligence (AI) have been treated as nothing more than theories. Yet there has been a shift in technology the past few years that has started to prove these theories can be brought to life. Dr. Jie Zhao, a Computer and Data Science professor at Houghton, is helping her students take the first steps towards developing successful self-driving cars.

Over the last year, Dr. Zhao has been guiding her students through the process of building and creating embedded image recognition from scratch. AI computer vision code has been developed to recognize specific faces and objects that will be essential in self-driving cars. Using 3D printing technology in Houghton’s labs, students have been able to bring their embedded image recognition models to life using Jetson Nano single-board computers for training and testing.

Dr. Zhao and her students have been able demonstrate true AI implementations in their Paine Center for Science laboratory. Step-by-step, beginning with embedded image recognition, Houghton students are getting closer to developing the technology needed for revolutionary and world-changing self-driving cars.

Image: Computer science students work with Dr. Jie Zhao to develop AI vision software to track a moving basketball.