Physics & Engineering

Physics & Engineering

Physics is the search for the fundamental physical laws of nature. PUC’s program gives students the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research with professors who work closely with them as they deepen their understanding of the physical universe.

Fast Facts


The department has a computer-operated telescope for students to use and has a computer-based physics laboratory.


Our on-campus observatory is used for astrophysics study as well as for the general-education astronomy class.


The program has a very favorable student to teacher ratio in the upper division. These advanced courses usually have from 3 to 5 students. This makes it very convenient for students and teacher to work closely together; the teacher knows the students very well and there is abundant opportunity for individual help and student teamwork.


Many of our students work for the physics department. The students are hired as tutors, readers, and lab assistants. This provides great experience as well as solidifying the knowledge gained in coursework.


A two-year degree in engineering can be combined with another major.


  • Medicine
  • Environmental science
  • Teaching
  • Civil engineering
  • Computer engineering
  • Electrical engineering
  • Mechanical engineering
  • Physics Research
  • Dentistry

Professor Vola Andrianarijaona: Advanced Science

“I chose to focus on these particles because no one else is doing them, because they’re too difficult.”

Vola Andrianarijaona

There’s cutting edge, and then there’s unheard of. In his current research into the particle physics subject of charge transfer, Vola Andrianarijaona, professor of physics, is definitely approaching the latter distinction.

Charge transfer is one type of interaction that occurs between molecules upon collision. Some elements of this subject have already been researched extensively, but Vola has taken an interest in a much more challenging area—the low energy charge transfer involving atomic hydrogen and its derivatives, some of the most important astroparticles.

“I chose to focus on these particles because no one else is doing them, because they’re too difficult,” Vola says. That’s no idle boast. The particles within the scope of Vola’s research—specifically atomic hydrogen and molecular ion hydrogen—simply do not exist in Earth’s normal environment, and only occur naturally in the near-vacuum of space and the extreme upper atmosphere. Currently only three research facilities in the world can simulate the conditions for these collisions, using a process called merged beam technique. That means the last few months have involved a lot of travel to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the U.S. government’s largest science and energy lab; and the Université catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium.

UCL in particular holds a special connection for Vola—he completed his doctoral studies there and served as an assistant professor. Furthermore, it was Vola himself who designed and built one of the advanced pieces of equipment at UCL that is now playing an integral part of this cutting edge research. It’s so advanced, in fact, that scientists have yet to name the device and the techniques for operating it. Vola himself describes it as “something like a portable 3-D image device.”

For all the travel involved, including travel for his student research assistants, Vola’s grant from the National Science Foundation is an essential component of his research. Securing this grant was no easy task—the NSF rejected his first application before agreeing to fund the research for up to three years, based upon annual reviews of his work.

The NSF grant has been vital in providing an important resource as Andrianarijaona performs his experiments: the assistance of excellent student researchers. PUC physics majors Christian Guillén, Shalyn Romano, and April Vassantachart accompanied the physicist on his most recent trip to Oak Ridge. "Other scientists literally came up to me and said, 'Vola, I didn't expect that your students would be that good,'" he says.

Given the obscure nature of Vola’s subject, one might be tempted to wonder what’s the point. Why study a set of particles that hardly even exist within our sphere?

According to Vola, the study of astroparticle charge transfer could yield important information in four different areas. First, as the most basic element in the universe, new insight into the behaviors of hydrogen has the potential to reshape our understandings of fundamental physics. Second, the reactions under observation mimic the conditions of our universe’s earliest moments, meaning that Vola’s findings could shed new light on the scientific assumptions as to how—and when—those moments occurred. The implications of charge transfer also touch two areas a little closer to everyday life: the cooling of nuclear reactions and health science—including the evaluation of current methods of cancer treatment.

Quite a broad range of applications—which is why Vola has been in demand at those advanced research facilities in recent months. He has already published portions of his findings in several peer-reviewed astrophysics journals, and has received several invitations to speak at notable scientific conferences around the country and the world.

Vola hopes to have his latest findings from Belgium and Oak Ridge published this spring. In the meantime, his research continues—and with it, the very horizons of physics for tomorrow’s scientific community.

Alum Leads the Way in Sustainable Architecture

One of his passions is finding ways to not only make the buildings he designs more efficient, but to actually make the building process itself more efficient, in a revolutionary concept called lean construction.

Jarrod Denton

When PUC’s Dining Commons and Campus Center renovations began in 2010, there was no better choice for the project’s design than alumnus Jarrod Denton, ’96. A local architect in St. Helena, Denton is an expert at creating the Napa Valley style that the project required. Denton brought many influences from his work in the Napa Valley into his involvement in the renovation project. “Napa Valley uses a lot of stone, and wood floors instead of carpet,” he says. “The trellises [that now hang in the Dining Commons] are a feature that’s commonly found in a lot of the agricultural architecture in the Napa Valley.”

In addition to grounding the project in the setting of the local area, another side of Denton’s mission was to enhance the dining experience, elevating the facility beyond the level of a mere cafeteria. “The design concept was to try and create more unique spaces rather than just one open, large room,” he says. “We’re trying to create multiple opportunities for students... whether it be looking out over the church and connecting with the outdoor landscape, or rejuvenating the back corner and creating more of an intimate space.”

But while Denton was working on the project at PUC, he was also involved with another high-profile renovation—a retrofit of a house that might now be California’s most energy efficient residence.

The O’Neill home in Sonoma, Calif., for which Denton served as lead architect, was certified this summer to Passive House standards. This set of building specifications calls for an innovative blend of ancient and cutting edge construction techniques to reduce the energy requirements for heating and cooling to near zero.

The O’Neill home is the first certified Passive House in California and the first such retrofit in North America, and public excitement surrounding the completion of the project has been high. At an unveiling event in October, the mayor of Sonoma issued a proclamation praising the project, and the house has been featured in a variety of media including the San Francisco Chronicle, the L.A. Times, and USA Today. 

Denton is one of only a handful of architects in the U.S. to have been trained in Passive House standards. As the O’Neill project geared up last year, Denton and project contractor Rick Milburn headed to Germany to train at the birthplace of the Passive House (or Passivhaus as it’s called there) movement. He was struck by the lack of American participation. “There were 1,000 people from around the world, and I think I was probably one of three or four architects from the U.S. represented,” he says.

Denton’s unconventional approach to architecture began after he graduated from PUC with a B.S. in engineering technology and drafting design. While most aspiring architects head into architect school, Denton took a different route. Having fallen in love with the Napa Valley and with his future wife still finishing her degree at PUC, Denton took an apprenticeship with a local design firm. California is one of the few states that still allow apprenticeships in lieu of school credits as a prerequisite to the professional exam.

This unusual route into the career may have been a factor in giving him an outside perspective on the possibilities of his craft. “The construction field really hasn’t changed in several, several decades,” he says “The majority of architects have always had these principles, and they’ve used them. It’s easy to replicate the things that we’ve done for years and years.”

But replication of old techniques is not enough for Denton. One of his passions is finding ways to not only make the buildings he designs more efficient, but to actually make the building process itself more efficient, in a revolutionary concept called lean construction. “The building industry, actually putting buildings together, has a huge impact on the environment,” he says. “People are starting to take a fresh look at how buildings are put together and how we should build more efficiently and use less waste with materials. We’re also starting to look at where we’re extracting the materials from, trying to get everyone to purchase materials from within a 500 mile radius so it’s less trucking, less gas, less impact on the environment.”

A further challenge is to ensure that the environmental concerns don’t overwhelm the design of the house. “It’s a balance. You still want to maintain the aesthetic appeal and build beautiful structures,” he says.

It’s a challenge he has welcomed and one he is building his name on. Denton’s innovative perspective on design has earned him a great reputation in the Napa Valley, where he has had a hand in beautiful and environmentally responsible projects from private homes to vineyard facilities. Denton anticipates that these landmark projects will be a part of a larger trend toward better energy efficiency in building. “It’s been a lot of fun—things are happening, and momentum is starting to build on that,” he says. “We’re looking forward to a lot of other opportunities.”

Physics Student Salynn Romano Takes Top Physics Award

PUC physics student Shalynn Romano received the top student presenter award for outstanding research at the International Conference on the Application of Accelerators in Research and Industry (CAARI. The conference included professional research physicists, and Romano’s award was in a category typically reserved for graduate students.

“To be recognized for research at a professional level while being an undergrad student was a great accomplishment,” says Romano. “It made me feel like anything was possible with hard work and confidence.”

Romano conducted her award-winning research at her summer internship at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, one of the premiere experimental research facilities in the world. The subject was the energy exchange of charged particles. Although her research team included several other students and physicists from educational and scientific institutions around the world, Romano was named first author on the presentation of their findings due to her extensive work and commitment in the lab.

“She is very motivated and focused, which has helped her as a researcher,” says PUC physics professor Vola Andrianarijaona, one of Romano’s collaborators on the project. “This is very important, because in research you are the teacher of yourself.”

Although CAARI was only Romano’s second experience presenting research findings at a scientific conference, she impressed many professional researchers with both her enthusiasm and the breadth of her knowledge.

“The conference opened doors for more future opportunities and professions,” she says. “It will provide more opportunities in the future to demonstrate my ability to achieve things at a professional level.”

Q&A: Josh Tobar’s Summer Internship

“I chose to focus on these particles because no one else is doing them, because they’re too difficult.”

Josh Tobar is a pre-engineering/pre-medical student at PUC. He answered some questions about his summer internship at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Who are you interning with and what is your job title?

This summer I did an internship at Vanderbilt University. I was a part of their Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, which is a collaboration with Fisk University. I am not too sure of my official title, but I would say it would be lab assistant. I was working on a research project attempting to produce a crystal that is both a semiconductor and a neutron detector.

What did an average day at your internship consist of?

Because I did not work on the Vanderbilt campus, I started taking the bus to work. Eventually I started running and biking there in order to get my exercise. I worked under a several scientists and a graduate student who showed me all the details that I needed to know. Once at the lab, we would check on the crystals being grown. We had to make sure that there had been no interruptions, such as power failures, overnight; if there had been, the process would have to be reset. The process was approximately two weeks long! After the crystals had been checked, we proceeded to different preparation tasks. On one day, we might prepare the vessels to grow the crystals. Another day, we might synthesize the materials. Yet another day, we might assemble the Bridgman Furnace setup needed to grow the crystals. Periodically, the graduate student would explain to me the concepts behind our processes and why we did experiments a certain way rather than other similar ways. At the end of the day I would run back the 2.3 miles to my apartment and go out to eat dinner with the other interns.

What makes this internship fun or interesting?

Material science showed me how fields blend together using the best of each field to produce a magnificent result. I was able to work with chemistry and apply concepts from physics to our theories. Everything that I learned in chemistry class was explained with physics or vice versa, such as ‘why are some materials semiconductors and others insulators.’

What's the most challenging part of this internship?

The most challenging part of the summer was taking in all the information given and understanding it. A lot of new concepts and ideas were served to me and I was expected to devour them. However, I took up the challenge and I was comforted and supported by the fact that I was not the only one struggling. The other interns were also struggling together with all the information given to them in their projects. We were in it together.

What knowledge and skills are you learning from the internship?

The biggest asset I gained from the internship was confidence. I started off the internship scared that I would not be able to perform as adequately as others, but once there I gave it all my effort and I surprised myself. I now have confidence in knowing that I can do research and be successful in it. Other than confidence I also learned concepts in material science and learned firsthand how to prepare an experiment and grow crystals. I also learned how to improve the crystal growing process to produce better results.

How did you hear about the internship?

I was able to get in contact with the founder of the program. He provided me with information about his colleague's project and provided me with a position under his colleague.

How does the internship relate to your career goals?

My main objective in engineering is to be able to design and create new machines and tools. Material science provides me with knowledge about the materials that my machines will consist of and may also give me the essential element for a future project.