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Researcher of the Month

August 2019

Matthew MurphyMatthew Murphy

Physics & Astronomy majors, Honors College, Class of 2020

Research Mentor:  Dr. Philip Armitage, Physics & Astronomy; Center for Computational Astrophysics-Flatiron Institute


For URECA Summer Researcher Matthew Murphy, doing research “feels like solving puzzles.” He explains: “ I’ve always loved doing that. I’ve loved looking at things unconventionally. Every day when I sit at my computer, or start to code, it feels like I’m solving something new, a new puzzle no one has ever done before which is really exciting to me.”

A senior in the Honors College majoring in Physics and Astronomy/Planetary Sciences, Matt has been enjoying the chance to do full-time summer research under the mentorship of Dr. Philip Armitage (Department of Physics & Astronomy) on “ Planetary Formation; investigating the threshold between the circular orbit limit and secular chaos within which secular and resonant effects both contribute to the instability of a planetary system. ” Matthew began working with Dr. Armitage in the beginning of the year, after contacting him in the fall semester to discuss his work on planet formation. Doing research has provided Matt an opportunity to hone his expertise in high performance computing, as well as make significant progress on his honors college senior thesis. In addition, Matthew is also in the process of drafting a publication with Dr. Surajit Sen of SUNY Buffalo on the dynamics of granular matter – a continuation of an ongoing research project he started in Summer 2017. Matt’s long term goals are to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics, and to continue to investigate planetary formation and evolution.

At Stony Brook, Matt has served as a Teaching assistant for Calculus IV. He is a graduate of West Seneca East Senior HS in Buffalo, NY and is a first generation college student. He is the recipient of a United Food & Commercial Workers Union Scholarship. Matt's hobbies include kayaking and backpacking. Below are excerpts from his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.


The Interview:

Karen. Tell me about your research.  
Matthew. I’m working with Dr. Phil Armitage. We are studying planetary formation and system stability close-in to solar-like stars. There are a lot of different factors and conditions that can drive a system to either be stable or unstable. So using the python package REBOUND, we’re studying the threshold between two of these factors: secular chaos; and the limit of circular orbits where resonance effects are important. We’ve also done some preliminary work on habitability zones -- working to create a model that could predict the regions around a star of certain mass where it could host a planet that’s potentially habitable for life. Through that process and trying to formulate our results….our project focus has shifted somewhat to where we are now.

Are you happy with the current direction of your research / senior honors thesis project?
I love it! Certainly.

How did you get initially involved in this research?
The astronomy department held a town hall for us to get information about different opportunities for students, and about general progress through the major. I heard that Dr. Armitage had been recently hired at Stony Brook, and was doing work in planets. I looked into it some more, and knew his research was something I wanted to get involved in. So a week or two after that, I went and saw him in his office and it just went from there. He gave me a paper to read to get started.

As of right now, it’s just me and him working together and it’s been really great. I’ve learned so much from him. I’ll come in with all kinds of questions that I’m approaching for the first time…different things I don’t understand, and we have great meetings based off of these questions.

Did you have prior experience?
Not in this field. I did some work at U Buffalo, close to my home, in a different field of physics – that relates to macroscopic filtration, jamming, and the mass flow of granular particles. I’m actually still involved in the project, and we’re designing an educational experiment that could be done with accessible and inexpensive materials.

What is your long-term goal?
I’m hoping to pursue a PhD pursing planetary science/formation.

Do you feel prepared for grad school?
I believe so. Research is one of the most important tools that has prepared me for the next step.  In some ways, there’s no better way to prepare than through research, because what I’m doing now is more or less along the same lines of what I am hoping to be doing in the future.

What do you enjoy about the research you do?
Honestly what I enjoy most about research is that it feels like solving puzzles. I’ve always loved doing that. I’ve loved looking at things unconventionally. Every day when I sit at my computer, or start to code, it feels like I’m solving something new, a new puzzle no one has ever done before which is really exciting to me. Up to recently we really haven’t had the technology, in terms of telescopes or imaging algorithms, to directly observe or measure the properties of systems of planets around other stars. But now, almost every day, we have new measurements coming in…and most of the time, they lead to questions that prior we didn’t know to ask. We’re constantly being given new inquiries and new problems to solve which I find really enticing.

What advice would you give regarding research?
Number one is:  don’t get discouraged. I’ve been through the process of asking professor after professor and being turned down for one reason or another. Eventually you will find the right person. You just have to stay positive until you find someone who can give you that opportunity.

Also another thing is: don’t neglect your peers. Let them teach you about their work, and you teach them about your work. It can be surprising how you can benefit one another. .. A friend of mine studies Atmospheric Science. I turned to him for help in understanding different climate models, when I was doing work on habitability zones…and we had great conversations. Through talking to your peers, you can help each other grow and become better in your respective fields.

How has research enhanced your educational experience overall?
I’ve been appreciative that I’ve been able to get involved with research. In class you really just learn the fundamentals and basic concepts and techniques. Most of the time you’re using very old text books, solving problems that have been solved by thousands of students thousands of times. There’s really nothing new going on. Whereas with research, you’re at the forefront of things. And you learn how to look at things from new perspectives and solve problems unconventionally. And that really helps you apply the things you learn in class in new ways, which gives you a deeper understanding of what’s really going on.  

Also through research, I learned to program in Python, and to use Matlab software. These aren’t things I would have learned necessarily through coursework, but they’ve become my go-to tools for homework problems.  I’m very happy that I was able to get into research. I sometimes regret not getting involved earlier on –but at the same time, I’m certainly happy the way things turned out.

Did you know when you came to Stony Brook that you would pursue research in planetary sciences?
I‘d always been interested in planets and planetary systems ever since I was a little kid. My parents bought me a telescope – and I would look at the the moon, Mars, and all the planets, watch all these documentaries…so I always had this passing interest. 
I started out as a physics major though at SB. In spring semester of my freshman year, I took my first astronomy course with Prof. Zingale—and that made me realize how much I was interested in the field – so I added Astronomy/Planetary Sciences as a second major. During my sophomore year, I took a course on planetary sciences with Prof. Lanzetta where I really learned the fundamentals of it and learned more about current research in that area, and that course really made it clear to me that it was something that I wanted to pursue as a career.  I definitely feel like I had the foundation early on though. There’s a lot that I learned and taught myself through my own curiosity that were beneficial to me, later on in college.