Thoughts on Theses: Max Hoffman

Max Hoffman is a chemistry major. His thesis looks at the computational modeling of excited nanocrystals. His thesis advisor is Professor of Chemistry Jacob Olshansky.

Q: Can you give a brief overview of your thesis?

A: [For my thesis] I wrote a computer program that models the excited state of quantum dots, which are semiconducting nanocrystals that have several applications ranging from solar energy to artificial photosynthesis. By taking basic properties of semiconductors, and assuming that the quantum dot behaves like a particle in a box, I can model a lot of the different electronic and optical properties of the quantum dot.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: In regards to computational chemistry, I got into it back when I was a freshman. I was in CHEM-151 [‘Introductory Chemistry’] and COSC-111 [Introduction to Computer Science I] and really enjoyed both classes. I thought that mixing the ideas from both classes would be really fun.

In regards to this specific project, I applied to SURF [Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellowship] in the summer of my sophomore year. During that semester, we all got sent home and the world started to fall apart. When I got the acceptance email, it said that there would be a virtual SURF and that I would be working with Professor [of Chemistry Jacob] Olshansky, who was a new professor. I was really excited because all the other labs that I was looking into before didn’t completely match what I wanted to do. Over the summer, I started working on this project with Professor Olshansky and it was basically what I imagined myself doing in my freshman year.

I was at home throughout the pandemic, so I kept on working on this remote project and discovered that I really enjoyed computational chemistry. When I came here over the summer, I had the chance to go into the lab, but I decided to keep working on my model and do everything computationally.

Q: What have been your favorite and least favorite parts of the research process so far?

A: My thesis research has been primarily split up into two different parts — the first part is figuring out new math to apply, and the second part is figuring out why [aspects of the project] don’t work.

My favorite parts are when I get to write new code and do new math. My least favorite part is when things don’t work, [because] I have to go back and figure out what’s not working and debug code. But even when I’m doing [that], I still enjoy the process — it’s just that it moves a lot slower than actually figuring out the math I need. Another part that frustrates me is when I have to go through literature and find certain values that were calculated experimentally, because it can be really hard to find them. In the past, I have spent weeks trying to find one value, and it doesn’t end up doing anything for my model at all.

Q: Have you run into any difficulties? If so, how have you worked to overcome them?

A: Professor Olshansky is really good at thinking ahead about what we’re going to do next. Whenever I’ve gotten stuck, there was always another direction I could take, especially because I’m doing computational research and not working in a lab. I can leave something alone for a little bit and work on something else and come back to it with a fresh mind.

There definitely are times when I can’t explain what I see experimentally with the model, and sometimes it takes weeks to come to a realization. But when I finally do, it feels very refreshing.

Q: Have you reached any conclusions in your research?

A: We originally set out to determine how many different properties of quantum dots we can model using a simple, effective model with basic assumptions. I think we’ve answered that we can model quite a few different properties using this simple model, which I really enjoy.

Q: How has your thesis advisor supported you throughout this process?

A: Professor Olshansky has done a really good job. He is more of an experimental chemist and my project focuses more on what we can do virtually, but he still has done a great job in helping me think through problems and supporting me. We definitely have a lot of banter in the lab [where he jokes]  I’m not doing “real” chemistry research, but it’s all fun and games. Given that this project is not in his primary realm of research, he’s doing a great job in supporting me.

Q: How does your thesis relate to your future career plans?

A: I want to get a Ph.D. in computational chemistry, so I see it as a stepping stone and a first experience in doing that type of research. When I get to graduate school, I’m going to be working with way more complicated systems, but I still see this as an experience where I get to think critically for a very long time on one particular problem.

Q: What is the most important thing that you have learned while writing your thesis?

A: I have learned that I really do enjoy doing this type of research. It has helped shape my career aspirations and be[come] aware of what I want to do, which takes away a lot of the stress of what I’m going to do after college. I actually feel like I know what I want to do, so now I just have to get my applications for graduate school done.

Q: What advice would you give to students who want to write a chemistry thesis?

A: Apply for SURF as soon as possible, and talk to your professors and advisor about what you think is interesting! Talk to your favorite professor from your favorite class, see what they’re doing, and ask them what other people in the department are doing to get a better idea of what is being done at Amherst. Also talk to your professors to see if you’d be a good fit for working with them in their research and talk to the students in their lab.

If you want to do a thesis, make sure to find a group that is good for you, as much as a group that you’re going to be good for — this has been critical to my time at this lab. I love the people that I am working with in the lab, and I really enjoy working with Professor Olshansky on my thesis.