Optics in the City of Light: Physics Major Conducts NSF-Funded Research in Paris

Physics major Sean Maddock, pictured in the Swanson Science Center, received an NSF grant to research optics in Paris last summer.

Sean Maddock '11 first knew something was wrong when riot officers escorted him off the train and through a raucous crowd in the street.

However, it was not until the next morning when riding from his apartment in Paris to his internship at École Polytechnique, that the Washington & Jefferson College soccer player discovered what he had encountered the previous night.

According to the newspapers, the riots were in response to Algeria's 1-0 loss to the U.S. in the 2010 FIFA World Cup series, a much-anticipated event for the French, who were hoping to reclaim their place in the finals. After the French team suffered an early loss, Maddock was a witness to the ensuing upset in the city.

"Since France did so terribly, reading the daily papers destroying the team every morning on the train was entertaining," said Maddock, who watched games on a large television set near the Eiffel Tower. "The atmosphere of being there during the World Cup was cool, because soccer for them is like football for us, except 10 times more intense."

This was not an ordinary summer for Maddock, who traveled to Paris after being granted a nine-week internship at the Institute of Optics Graduate School at École Polytechnique.  He was one of eight students selected from a pool of 200 applicants to participate in the National Science Foundation program, "Optics in the City of Light."

Before accepting the internship, the standout physics major had no previous experience with optics research. "The subject area was something I'd never covered before, so I figured this was the best way to see if it was an area I'd like to go into," said Maddock, who welcomed the opportunity to work with ultrafast lasers in one of the top research facilities in the world.

Maddock described his research as focusing on the operation of wave guides. Specifically, his task was to characterize and optimize the method of growing films on certain pieces of glass with wave guides in which light travels through in optical circuits. These circuits would then be used to send information, much like fiber optics in telecommunications, to control electrical circuits.

His task was only one of many in the process of developing the wave guides, but it was one without any guidelines. "What they were doing was completely new so they had to get a feel for how well it worked," Maddock said.

While the undergraduate lab did not offer much freedom to embark on full-fledged independent research, it did give Maddock the chance to be fully immersed in the project. "I ended up being more of a lab technician than an actual researcher," he explained. "I did a lot of hands-on stuff, but it was more of my adviser telling me what to do, accomplishing it, reporting results, and then going on to the next task."

Maddock's minor in French served as another incentive to participate in the competitive program.  A dual citizen in the U.S. and France, thanks to his mother's citizenship, he concedes that his ultimate goal is to become fluent in the language, though he admits it's still a work in progress. "For my mom's sake, I think she would be a little disappointed if I didn't become fluent," he added.

While six years of studying the language helped Maddock, he still experienced communication barriers at times. "At supermarkets, people sometimes would get a little annoyed if I didn't know how to say certain things or if I held up the line, because I couldn't think of what to say," Maddock said. "For the most part, the French were very nice if you tried to speak the language.  If they notice you are trying to make an attempt, they're helpful."

It was not unique experience for Maddock, who is accustomed to adapting to new surroundings. Born in Connecticut, but raised in Olathe, Kan., he grew up a mere 115 miles from Kansas State University in Manhattan and an even more reasonable 30 miles from Kansas University in Lawrence. But Maddock didn't want to, in his words, "go to high school all over again."

"I kind of wanted to branch out," he said. "I wanted to go somewhere far away from high school where I could meet new people and open up because I was pretty shy."

He wanted to return to the East coast, so he searched online for a small school with a strong pre-health program and found Washington & Jefferson College.  He liked it and before he knew it, he was traveling 834 miles to Washington, Pa., for his freshman year.

Four years later, Maddock is a summa cum laude graduate of W&J with a full resume of academic and athletic honors. An Alpha scholar and member of Phi Beta Kappa, the soccer star became the 27th CoSIDA Academic All-American in school history and the fourth President in the past five years to earn a prestigious postgraduate scholarship from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. 

Boasting these kinds of achievements, Maddock had his pick of medical schools. After applying to a number of programs on the East coast, Maddock settled on the New York College of Medicine, where he will be pursuing a dual MD/Ph.D. degree. The program will require eight more years of school, but for the aspiring surgeon, the hard work will pay off down the road.

"It'd be nice to have both degrees if I want to teach, do research, or if I want to become a doctor," Maddock said. "It gives me a lot of freedom."