Welcome to Part 2 of Engineers in the Summer! Today, we look at my interview with Harper Hopkins, a rising junior doing research in computational physics. Harper Hopkins is originally from Maine and studies computer science in the Tufts School of Engineering. She's involved with Women in Computer Science, two theater groups (Bare Bodkin & 3Ps), the trans support group, the queer support group, and Avian, a social organization with a focus on education and community engagement.
Hi Harper! Could you please tell me a bit about your research?
I'm doing research in computational physics with Professor Tim Atherton in the Physics Department. We're looking at modeling social networks using a statistical physics approach, based on concepts of graph theory and cellular automata.
Hold up. You're going to need to break this down. You're a comp sci major, right?
Yes, I am a comp sci major! But computational physics looks at using existing computer science methods and applying them to physics problems. The research we are doing is a mix of sociology, physics, and computer science. We're taking a statistical approach to sociology, looking at the formation and evolution of social networks—how language or opinions spread through populations, for example.
Okay. So how exactly do you model a social network?
I'm modeling the social network using simulation of particles moving randomly on the surface of a sphere, drawing the analogy that particles are people. If they come close enough together, they form a connection. In real life, this could be like if you take a class together or bump into someone at a party, for example. We're looking at how long they stay connected and how they form or break connections. For example, if the particles drift apart and go outside the distance threshold, the connection will break. In real life, this could be like you finished that class and never talk to that person so you unfriend them on Facebook two years later.
Fascinating! How did you end up in a physics lab as a Summer Scholar?
I took Physics 12 with Professor Atherton, and I loved his teaching style. Weekly, he hosts a soft matter theory research group where he gets together with students to discuss theories and work on code. One day he said, "Hey, you look pretty interested in this stuff. Do you want to take a stab at this project?" I was already going to ask him for opportunities, but he beat me to it!
Aw, cool! I love it when things like that work out. So, I like to ask current students, why did you choose Tufts and how did you find it?
I actually have a great story! The summer before senior year, I had no intention of applying to Tufts whatsoever. I'm from a very small town in eastern Maine, where we have exactly one coffee shop—well, two if you consider the bakery. One day, I was there and three tired, dirt-covered men walked into the shop. Two professors and a student. I couldn't help but eavesdrop and found out they were geologists. They needed help looking for maps, and for some reason I knew exactly where in the library the maps they were looking for were located. Turns out they were from Tufts and looking for materials for a student's thesis. After I helped them, they thanked me and said, "You should apply to Tufts!" I thought it was kind of great that they let a random high-schooler help them. A couple weeks later, I visited Tufts, and after five minutes I knew this was the place I had to go. I got in ED and never looked back!