Do-It-Yourself Instruments Enable Top-Flight Research by Undergrads

Research equipment does not come cheap. Consider the powerful multiphoton microscope developed for biological and medical research. A $500K price tag puts it out of reach for many colleges that aspire to equip student researchers with state-of-the-art instruments. But not all research frontiers require deep pockets.

This encouraging word comes from physics professors at Greenville College, where undergraduates use advanced instruments to practice good science and cutting-edge research “on a dime.” Well, more than a dime, but far less than the well-funded universities that monopolize research. Five practices define the thrifty approach taken by GC’s Dr. Hyung Choi and Dr. Dongxue Zaho.

Cutting Edge Research “On a Dime”

1. Follow the Path of Low Cost Options

Today, small-scale, table-top experiments can provide students with a window into physics that was once reserved for scientists with access to massive, high energy accelerators. The Quantum Information Lab at Greenville (QUILAG), now in its second year of operation, features a table-top workspace where students explore the fundamentals of quantum mechanics. They conduct cutting edge experiments with quantum entanglement and develop quantum cryptography techniques— all sophisticated explorations for undergrads.

2. Build Rather Than Buy

Choi and his team put together the lab from the ground up. They built interfaces, salvaged parts from old equipment and chose simple electronic components over more expensive parts.  “One can build ‘no-frills’ equipment without sacrificing scientific quality,” explains Choi. Just down the hall, Choi’s colleague Zhao is currently building a nanotech lab. As for the microscope with the $500K price tag –“It can be built at the cost of $30-40K,” says Choi. With this end in mind, Zhao has already applied to participate in a “build it yourself” workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

3. Engage Students in Building

The benefits of building rather than buying go beyond cost savings when the builders include students. The students who helped Choi construct the lab learned the science behind the equipment and later presented their work at a conference of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). They enhanced their résumés both with hands-on experience and presentation.

4. Reassess Cast-offs

Choi and Zhao know never to discount the value of “old” instruments. Zhao recently restored a “scanning tunneling” microscope that enables students to view atomic level structures. Purchasing the microscope new costs $15-20K. The cost of restoration? $150.

5. Seek Inspiring Examples

Creative problem-solvers inspire creativity in others. Choi credits Dr. Hugh Siefken, professor of physics at GC for more than 30 years, for paving the way with a can-do approach. In the 1970s, Siefken oversaw the construction on campus of what would become the only ion accelerator in Illinois south of the Champaign-Urbana area, home to University of Illinois.

The accelerator took 15 years to build. Students used it to investigate solids and simulate solar effects on materials. Visiting professors and students from other institutions also used the facility. “Particle accelerators, because they are so expensive, are known to be exclusive playgrounds for extremely well-funded research universities and national labs,” says Choi. “But we have our own accelerator. It is priceless, because it was built with the labor of love for science and for educating our students.”

The Science of Rising to the Top

The College’s newest “playground,” the quantum information lab, holds special meaning for student-researcher Shuto Osawa, who helped build it. He knew little about quantum information science prior to his sophomore year. Then a course in quantum mechanics ignited his imagination. A succession of hands-on research opportunities, coupled with construction of the lab, fueled the fire. Osawa never looked back.

Last summer, he traveled to Vienna, Austria, to intern with the Zeilinger Group, the world’s foremost research group in quantum information science. He set about the exacting but familiar Photo by Greenville College continued work of precisely aligning optical devices, mirrors, crystals and lasers in preparation to study tiny particles of light called photons.

Photons hold the promise of faster data transfer and more secure communications. “I told the researchers that we had just built a quantum information lab,” Osawa recalls. “They made sure that I would be able to continue the work in my lab back in Greenville.” The prospect of seamlessly continuing his research upon return to school in the fall appealed to Osawa. He dug in deep to learn all he could at the Institute. Upon his return to Greenville, he implemented improvements to the College’s lab that enabled even more sophisticated study.

Prior to graduation last May, Osawa defended his honors thesis. He confidently traded ideas with physicists in the audience and eloquently shared his wonder over photons so inextricably “entangled” that they interact with one another even when separated by great distances. Osawa explained that he had generated entangled photons in the lab in Vienna and then repeated the process in the lab just down the hall.

Among those listening were Elle Shaw and Xiaotong “Toni” Zheng, co-builders of the College’s lab. Osawa, Shaw and Zheng received a combined total of 12 offers from leading PhD programs nationwide. They will commence studies this fall in electrical engineering, condensed matter and astrophysics respectively, with full tuition waivers and annual stipends of up to $35,000. While their success testifies to excellent scholarship, it also speaks to the value of the “do-it-yourself” experience.

About the Author
Carla Morris is the Managing Editor of Advancement Publications at Greenville College. She can be reached at