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2014 Spring Issue 1 (April 11, 2014)

Physics Professor Baylor Makes Waves, Wins Award

April 12, 2014

Refractometers are useful devices in many areas, including medicine, the food industry and even the classification of gemstones.

They operate on the fundamental principle that when light enters a target material the light refracts, or bends, a specific amount depending on the composition of material. By measuring how much the light bends, one can learn important information about the chemical composition of the target material.

Martha-Elizabeth “Marty” Baylor, assistant professor of physics, Carleton College, has received a prestigious award from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) to improve optofluidic refractometers.

They work by putting refracted light into a thin strand of fiber-optic cable—termed a “waveguide” because it guides the light waves along its length—perpendicular to a small channel where a tiny amount of fluid is made to flow. By analyzing the light after it has interacted with the fluid, this device can determine certain qualities of the fluid.

“This is a particularly useful technique for measuring sugar concentrations of liquids such as wine and fruit juice,” Baylor notes.

Unfortunately, optical fiber is fragile and difficult to work with when creating small optofluidic refractometers.

Thus Baylor and her students propose to work with a special light-sensitive polymer—plastic—material that will make fabrication of these devices easier. Their new polymer uses ultraviolet light and masks to create perfectly aligned tiny channels for light and fluid to interact with simple techniques and minimal cost.

Baylor and her students will use their award to study the chemical and material properties of their polymer for possible application to other optofluidic device applications.

Baylor received her award under RCSA’s Cottrell College Science program. It was created in the early 1970s to promote basic research as a vital component of undergraduate education at the nation’s public and private small colleges and universities.

During the past 15 years, the Cottrell College Science Awards, which are carefully reviewed by a panel of top scientists, have supported the research work of more than 1,300 early career scientists in 400 institutions.

“These grants provide funds and encouragement for young professors to pursue their research, while at the same time encouraging them to bring their students into the lab to assist in real-world research projects,” said RCSA President Robert Shelton. “It is a highly effective way to help young scientists just starting out, as well as to encourage the next generation of students to enter America’s scientific workforce.”

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