Physics student's journey takes winding path through Scotland and beyond
Story by KIM HILL
Though he began as a music education major at IWU, Patrick Dahl ’12 says he’s not
surprised he eventually found himself in Professor Gabriel Spalding’s physics lab.
“My grandfather was a nuclear physicist and worked at Argonne National Laboratory,”
says Dahl. “I found that work interesting at a very early age and then didn’t really
think about it for long time, but it kind of came back in the end and pushed me in
As a junior, Dahl’s lab research involved taking lasers into microscopic samples and
compensating for scattering that distorts the laser’s signal. Three days after finishing
the all-consuming “Experimental Physics” May Term course, the new graduate found himself
with Spalding on a plane bound for Scotland to work on research at the Institute for
Medical Science & Technology (IMSaT).
“His background being so broad, it allows him to have flexibility to step into very
new technologies,” says Spalding. “And when I took him to Scotland he was immediately
engaged. Within the first week, he was spending an all-nighter on his research, and
people took notice right away that he was somebody who is just taking off like a rocket.”
While at IMSaT for the summer, Dahl worked on integrating the shaping of ultrasonic
and bio-photonic beams for imaging and surgical purposes. The goal was to develop
an all-in-one surgical suite with different kinds of imaging and image-guided surgery.
The work requires not only a background in physics, but also experience in software,
electronics, mechanics and biology. Dahl credits his success to the broad knowledge
provided by a liberal arts background. He didn’t major or minor in computer science
at IWU, but did complete the first two introductory courses.
“The rest of what I know about computer science I basically learned because of some
need that arose when doing some other physics project,” says Dahl. “I was always curious
about learning things in different areas and different disciplines. At IWU, that fostered
for me that I could learn about all sorts of things.”
Impressed by his interdisciplinary talents, the IMSaT team encouraged Dahl to apply
for an Early Stage Researcher/Marie Curie Research Fellowship. This award, which he
received in the fall of 2012, allowed him to continue his work on development of new
surgical techniques and to travel to research and imaging sites throughout Europe.
The Scottish experiences led to his work this past year as an applications engineer
for the manufacturer Sonoscan in the Chicago area. “It was a pretty good match because
I already knew something about scanning acoustic microscopes,” Dahl says. “That’s
not exactly a topic that everyone knows about, or even knows exists.”
This fall Dahl entered the highly regarded master’s program in scientific computing
at New York University. He may move on to a Ph.D. program, but he’s letting his academic
journey lead him for the moment.
“Curiosity takes us along crooked paths,” observes Spalding. “Following our interests
rarely leads us in a straight line. Patrick is someone who is engaged and will take
his interests in interesting directions.”
In a return visit to campus last year, Dahl met with Spalding in his physics lab as
the two discussed possible future collaborations. With a nod to Star Trek’s Scotty, Spalding noted that he and Dahl can’t change the laws of physics, but they
do hope to change the world.
“That’s always the goal,” Dahl agreed with a smile. “Whether or not that happens,
that’s what you work for.”