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Bailey College of Science and Mathematics

Enhancing lives through learning, discovery and innovation

Website Update

Physics Students Present at Prestigious Research Conference

May 23, 2013

Contact: Karl Saunders

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Not everyone gets invited to a Gordon Research Conference, especially not undergraduates. But that's what happened to Kara Zappitelli, a physics major, and Dana Hipolite, a math major, both working on liquid crystal research with Physics Professor Karl Saunders.

two female students in front of a white board with equations on it
Kara Zappitelli (left) and Dana Hipolite show off some of their calculations.

Gordon Research Conferences (GRC) are held in the biological, chemical and physical sciences, are small, and are open by application only — even for attendees. When the chair of the GRC on liquid crystals visited Cal Poly, he saw Zappitelli and Hipolite's senior project research and invited them to apply to give a poster presentation.

"They get to meet and talk to people and share their research at this high-level conference," Saunders said. "They get to see how grown-up science works."

The students are studying smectic liquid crystals, a different type of liquid crystal than is found in computer screens. Though smectics have the potential to improve the rendering speed of LCDs, they interact with the surfaces of the display in a way that reduces picture quality. Zappitelli and Hipolite are looking at theoretical models to determine how to reduce that effect and what materials might be good candidates for smectic liquid crystal displays.

"Research allows you to be significantly more inquisitive and independent. The questions that we ask ourselves don't always have correct or obvious answers, which leads to a much more challenging yet fulfilling analysis," Zappitelli said.

Both students have already given numerous talks on their research. "They're learning to become researchers and communicators," Saunders said. "That's almost as important as the research itself — to learn how to interact with experts and explain what you're doing."

"Communication is really important," Hipolite said. "Research is collaborative, and in order to get funded in the first place, you need to communicate why your research matters."

GRCs are designed to facilitate networking and the sharing of information. Limited to about 200 attendees, the schedule includes time every day for attendees to talk informally. "The networking could impact their future opportunities. It provides them a new horizon," Saunders said.

Both students intend to make the most of the real-world experience. "I'm really excited for the Gordon Conference mainly because it's an amazing opportunity, especially as an undergraduate. I feel very honored to have been invited," Zappitelli said. "It may be my first conference of this caliber, but hopefully it won't be my last."

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