An Undergraduate Joins the Big Leagues of Research
Amid piles of papers, computer cords and 3-D molecule diagrams, Shane Stahlheber is absorbed in his summer research project. Using his laptop and a dual screen setup, the fourth-year physics student is simultaneously running advanced computer programs, analyzing molecule locations and writing complex code for his research abstract. If this workload isn’t heavy enough already, Stahlheber relies on the science of super resolution: making nanometer-sized structures crystal clear.
It’s all in a day’s work.
“I first heard about super resolution microscopy in a physics course with Alex Small,” Stahlheber says. His mentor had explained to the class that computers could process microscope images of things smaller than the wavelength of light.
“I viewed the research as an interesting combination of my two favorite topics: physics and computer science,” Stahlheber says.
Super resolution techniques are relatively new to the scientific world, with some of the first research articles published in the early 1990s. These techniques enable high-resolution imaging of cells, using fluorescent molecules to light up the cell structure.
Stahlheber received a $3,000 undergraduate research scholarship this year from the Microscopy Association of America. According to Ralph Albrecht, the scholarship information contact for MSA, only three applications this year were funded. “The reviews for Shane’s project were very positive, and one of the reviewers mentioned that they didn’t know undergraduates were doing this level of advanced research,” Albrecht says.
Stahlheber’s research began last summer when Small, an associate professor of physics, was seeking undergraduates to join his research group. Stahlheber jumped at the chance. His role was to develop software from algorithms conceived by Small. The software, named M2LE, can easily find the specific molecules in an image that are needed to create clearer pictures.
Working on a complex programming project was no small task for an undergraduate student. M2LE can be accessed by scientists and researchers worldwide for a variety of applications, but especially for biomedical research. In fact, any scientist looking at objects smaller than a wavelength of light could use the program in their research, according to Stahlheber.
The Yucaipa native who transferred from Fullerton College came to Cal Poly Pomona with computers on his brain. It didn’t take long for Stahlheber to discover the larger world of physics.
“I always thought about going into computer science,” he says, “but my interests gradually shifted after taking a high school physics class.”
Small expects Stahlheber to accomplish great things.
“He is just a natural problem solver who is great at writing code to address physics problems,” Small says.
Stahlheber plans to graduate in June and study computational physics on the graduate level, perhaps at Oregon State, USC or UC Santa Barbara.