Research Fields

Getting involved in research can be challenging if you are unfamiliar with what field of research aligns best with your interests. Here, we discuss some sub-disciplines within physics to introduce a better understanding of the differences between these fields, as well as highlight some particular strengths of Rice faculty members and opportunities you can take advantage of while here. 

Astronomy: Origins of Stars and Planets:

The origins of stars and planets research at Rice focuses on stellar and planetary origins, interactions of exoplanets with their host stars, and the habitability of exoplanets. Faculty members at Rice lead observations of newborn stars with the Hubble Space Telescope in earth’s orbit, are team members of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile, and are team members of the Giant Magellan Telescope Near Infrared Spectrograph.  

Atomic, Molecular and Optical:

Atomic, molecular, and optical research at Rice focuses on atoms and molecules at extremely low temperatures – as low as a few billionths of a degree Kelvin above absolute zero. When laser-cooled and trapped at such low temperatures, quantum mechanics dominates the behavior of the system in often bizarre and counter-intuitive ways. We are renowned for creation of the coldest plasmas and the largest atoms on earth, and for our leadership in the use of ultracold gases to uncover exotic new phases of matter and unravel mysteries about the properties of complex materials. 

Biophysics:

Biophysics research at Rice studies life’s processes at the molecular scale where biological systems are extremely complex and consist of interactions between many constituent molecular bodies. At Rice there is an emphasis on biomembrane structure, protein folding, biopolymer networks, and protein interactions at the single-molecule limit. Experimental approaches include exploiting optically-active nanoparticles, X-ray diffraction, neutron diffraction, and advanced microscopies such as atomic force microscopy. Theoretical approaches include energy landscaping for protein folding and modeling, much of which is done in close collaboration with The Center for Theoretical Biological Physics. 

Condensed Matter:

Condensed matter research at Rice focuses on quantum materials in bulk and nanostructured form. Quantum materials are those materials where the laws of quantum mechanics give rise to unusual electronic, magnetic, and optical properties. These effects can be harnessed for applications in superconductivity, quantum information processing, and many more. Experimental capabilities span materials synthesis; neutron, x-ray, and optical spectroscopy; and characterization through thermodynamic and electronic means. Theoretical approaches include field theoretic and analytical methods as well as sophisticated computational techniques.

Nuclear and Particle Physics:

Nuclear and particle physics research at Rice studies the fundamental constituents of the universe, how they interact, and the role they play in the origin of the universe. Rice faculty members work at the energy frontier of particle physics on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN, on heavy ion physics on the CMS experiment and on the STAR relativistic heavy ion collider experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory, and on dark matter detection with the XENON dark matter detector in the world’s largest underground research center located in Italy. There is also medical physics research studying proton therapy for cancer treatment.

Relativistic Astrophysics and Cosmology:

Relativistic Astrophysics and Cosmology research at Rice involves the study of: compact objects, which are stars near the end of their stellar evolution (such as black holes, neutron stars, magnetars, pulsars); high-energy-density laser-driven laboratory plasmas, which create microscopic representations of astrophysical phenomena; and dark matter detection. 

Space Plasma Physics:

Space plasma physics at Rice focuses on near-Earth and planetary plasmas and solar plasma phenomena. These research topics are explored with a variety of computational and theoretical tools as well as via leading roles in several space-based and ground-based observatories. Computational plasma physics is a particular strength of the department.