Mining Their Own Business

October 04, 2010

Student Faculty Collaborative Scholarship

For the past two summers, you could say that physics major Ashley Cannaday '11 and Rollins alumna and high school teacher Sarah Zietlow '06 have been “mining” their own business. As part of the Rollins Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, they’ve been working with Professor of Physics Thomas Moore to study the use of lasers to detect buried landmines. Joining them in the lab were Aditya Mahara '12 and Brandon August '13, both physics majors.

The team uses a process invented at Rollins called “Speckle Subtraction Imaging”— an optical technique that can detect very slight motions in objects. Testing takes place in what’s called an anechoic chamber—an insulated room that’s about the size of a small walk-in closet. In the chamber, they measure vibrations of objects illuminated by laser light in order to optically “see” the landmine with the help of a loud noise provided by speakers. In the laboratory, a tuna fish can is used as a landmine substitute since it has similar acoustic properties but isn’t dangerous.

So far, progress has been promising—the undergraduate researchers have had a 100 percent success rate in the laboratory, finding the “mine” every time. A paper on their technique was published in the August edition of the Journal of the Optical Society of America, and the team is looking into patenting the process.

The project is especially important to Professor Moore, who served in the U.S. Army for 21 years. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, landmines continue to kill or maim more than 10,000 civilians a year in countries such as Afghanistan, Nicaragua and Colombia. “We’ve used our technique to study the vibrations of musical instruments in order to evaluate their sound quality,” said Moore, who has an extensive background in both optics and acoustics. “However, we wanted to apply this research to an application that may have a significant global impact.”

“Unfortunately, we still use the same unsophisticated techniques that we did 50 years ago to detect landmines—like prodding the ground with a stick and using search animals and metal detectors,” said Cannaday. “All of these methods are dangerous and highly unreliable.”

The National Science Foundation agrees with the importance of the research and supports it through a grant, which helps fund Zietlow’s participation. Currently a teacher at Hagerty High School, she was Cannaday’s physics teacher at Lake Howell High School, so the two share a special connection.

“Through this research process, we’ve become friends and co-scientists,” said Zietlow. “It’s gratifying to be a teacher and see how passionate your students are about the research process.”

This summer, the Rollins team is working on improving their system by testing to see if it can effectively detect landmines in different materials—from grass to sand to drywall.

“I have friends at larger universities, and there’s no way they’d be able to work on an in-depth research project like this one at an undergraduate level and publish an academic paper on it,” said Cannaday. “Rollins has afforded me the chance to complete graduate-level research. This opportunity has cemented my decision to pursue physics as a career.”

In Summer 2010, 45 students and 24 faculty members worked together on 30 unique research projects as part of Rollins’ Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program. See a list of this year's projects.  Since the launch of the program in 1999, nearly 350 students working in partnership with 77 different faculty representing 24 disciplines have participated in rigorous collaborative undergraduate research and scholarship.

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