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Sullivan Bailey-Darland in front of an urban backdrop.

A ‘limitless degree’: Physics senior pushes the boundaries of his field

By Elana Roldan

How does DNA move? How do cells communicate with each other? When it comes to these questions, it’s easy to think of molecular biologists behind the words. But as physics and mathematics senior Sullivan “Sully” Bailey-Darland knows, there are many more voices asking.

“My biggest worry for physics was that I would just be doing stuff about energy and electrons, and those are interesting, but they’ve been studied so much and involve a lot of the research I wasn’t as interested in,” he said. “My lab advisor has made me aware that physics is not a limiting degree. From what I can tell, it’s the most limitless degree.”

Bailey-Darland has found a full range of research opportunities from his time pursuing physics, mathematics and even chemistry at Oregon State. A future of discovery and experimentation has already begun for him as he forges ahead to graduate school at Cornell University.

Expanding the possibilities

During his first year, Bailey-Darland took part in the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, & the Arts (URSA) Engage program. URSA Engage gives research opportunities to first- and second-years, as well as transfer students. As part of the program, students choose a faculty mentor to work with on their research projects. While searching through faculty mentor summaries for a project that interested him, Bailey-Darland saw a familiar name — Assistant Professor Kevin Brown.

Bailey-Darland had previously attended several seminars within the department of physics and recalled seeing Brown give a distinct presentation at one on linguistics, an uncommon topic for the field.

“He gave a seminar on modeling a language network and comparing it to different types of gases, and I thought that was really crazy,” Bailey-Darland said. Intrigued by Brown’s research, he decided to seek him out and landed a position doing computational programming in his laboratory group.

What he didn’t expect from the experience was a broader perspective of his major. Brown, who holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from Cornell University, studied biological systems for his Ph.D. His work as a physicist shattered the predetermined niche of the field Bailey-Darland had painted in his mind.

“Working at Oregon State made me want to do more interdisciplinary things…It made me aware that if you learn tools or skills from physics or math, you don’t have to necessarily be stuck only applying them to that field. And that’s exactly what biophysics is.”

“Dr. Brown made me aware of the possibilities for physics,” he said. “He introduced me to the idea that the field can be for any interesting problem, not just a physics problem.”

Biophysics, the field Brown based his doctorate on, appealed to Bailey-Darland through its interdisciplinary nature, a quality he values highly ever since beginning his research career.

“Working at Oregon State made me want to do more interdisciplinary things,” he said. “It made me aware that if you learn tools or skills from physics or math, you don’t have to necessarily be stuck only applying them to that field. And that’s exactly what biophysics is.”

Bailey-Darland plays the oboe during an orchestra performance.

Bailey-Darland plays the oboe in a Portland Youth Philharmonic ensemble concert.

Biophysics remains a relatively new branch that tries approaching biology through a less traditional lens. As Bailey-Darland puts it, there is an innate difficulty to the study of biology because of its complexity. Even the most basic level of life, a cell, bursts with intricate processes and structures. Because of this, applying the methods of physics to biology can help dissect it into more palatable pieces.

“Most of physics is looking at a really simple system and understanding it completely, like seeing what happens if a block slides down a ramp, and building on that to more complicated things,” he explained. “So to me, it seems like biophysics is trying to start saying, ‘How can we look at simplified systems in biology and understand them?’”

In addition to his passion for physics, Bailey-Darland would discover another field that held his interest. In fact, he found two.

Simple and elegant

Deciding on a major is a notoriously daunting task, but deciding on a second major may be even more so.

This was the challenge Bailey-Darland found himself faced with. Having skipped general chemistry thanks to credits he earned in high school, he began the organic chemistry sequence in his first year. This set him on an accelerated path toward getting all of the chemistry credits he needed, and he realized he would be able to have an additional major in chemistry if he took a few more courses. Already enjoying the subject, he went through with it and became a double-major.

Yet, a different topic called to him more.

Amidst his several chemistry lectures and laboratories, he felt that he was being pulled away from the mathematics classes he loved. Part of his initial reasoning in getting a chemistry major was that he would still have time outside of it to dedicate to mathematics. When that was no longer the case, he switched his second major for one in the subject he was more passionate about.

“Much of math, at least to me, can be simple and elegant in a lot of ways.”

“Math is another framework to look at different ideas,” he said. “Much of math, at least to me, can be simple and elegant in a lot of ways. There’s a lot of aspects of it that are translatable to other things, and it’s a way to make talking about certain ideas very rigorous and logical.”

The chemistry classes he took were not in vain, however. He continued to get a minor in the subject and even found a new opportunity through his courses. While in physical chemistry his sophomore year he met Professor Chong Fang, whose ultrafast spectroscopy laboratory not only adds to the field of chemistry but also those of physics, biology and bioengineering, among others. Fang discussed his research briefly in the class, and Bailey-Darland decided to approach him about it during his office hours.

As a physics major in need of an advisor for his required thesis, Bailey-Darland also took the opportunity to ask the professor to help guide him through his project. With that, he became not only a double-major but also a member of two separate research groups pursuing science as an interdisciplinary researcher. What he couldn’t have expected from any of these experiences would be a senior year spent programming.

The tools for the job

Bailey-Darland never took a programming class in high school. The extent of his experience came from free tutorials online, ones where he would compute mathematics problems with large datasets using relatively simple programming. So it became ironic that the culminating thesis for his physics major relied entirely on the skill.

Moving back and forth between his two research groups, he realized that they both encountered a similar problem in different contexts called “sloppy models.” In a lab, models can be used to illustrate data gathered throughout an experiment. Fitting the models allows researchers to analyze and predict data, and the better the fit, the more accurate the analysis. But with sloppy models, the data can become considerably harder to study.

“Basically you can move around the parameters of your model and still get a good fit,” Bailey-Darland explained. “That’s an inherent problem in this type of model compared to fitting a line, where it’s a lot easier to figure out the slope or the y-intercept.” In short, the flexibility of these models made them more inaccurate predictors of data and resulted in less concrete conclusions.

Bailey-Darland running in a half-marathon during an overcast day.

Bailey-Darland participating in a half-marathon, which he completes once a year in Portland, OR during the winter.

After deciding he would make fixing the problem his thesis, he came across a new challenge he hadn’t experienced before. “When you initially do research you’re given a project and don’t really have to think about whether it’s valid or not. If someone asks why you’re doing it, your advisor usually steps in and explains why it’s important,” he said. “But my thesis was the first time where I was the one who had to explain the importance to both of my advisors. That was a really good opportunity to grow.”

He had planned on using an already created Python library, a programming language, in order to conduct his work, but found that it wouldn’t function the way he needed it to. Not wanting to give up, he resolved to do something he had no intention of at the start of the project: create entirely new programming tools.

“I originally planned to not make anything new,” he said. “I started by assuming I’d use someone else’s work, but at a point I realized I could just make it myself. That ended up happening for all of the stages of this process.”

The work wound up being so significant that, despite again not planning for it, Bailey-Darland received the sole Physics Undergraduate Thesis award for his research.

“I wasn’t aiming for the award, but I definitely put a lot of work into it,” he said. The experience illustrated a vital idea for him. “Some of the most fun research projects I’ve worked on have been when I had an idea and wasn’t sure if it was good or not. If you’re interested in it, it’s worth pursuing.”

“That’s kind of how it was with OSU — there are lots of opportunities to do interesting things if you’re looking for them. I’m hoping to do that again; show up and do stuff that seems interesting to me.”

Now at the end of his time at Oregon State, he will continue doing interdisciplinary work with a biophysics research group at Cornell University, much like his advisor Kevin Brown. While he may not have specific goals laid out for himself, he enjoys having room to grow. “That’s kind of how it was with OSU — there are lots of opportunities to do interesting things if you’re looking for them. I’m hoping to do that again; show up and do stuff that seems interesting to me.”

To read more about being a physics major, visit their department website here.