Winter 2015

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Fencer Julia Abelsky. Photo by Sean Su.

Advancing Invisibility

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Award-winning undergraduate researcher Julia Abelsky applies the principles she’s learned as a fencer to her work in the lab.

Fencer Julia Abelsky loves the quickness and strategy required for her weapon, saber.

“It’s the only weapon with which you can slash [hit with any part of the blade] rather than only poke with the tip of the blade,” says Abelsky, who placed 10th at the NCAA Regionals in 2014–15. “You have to think fast on your feet and be ready for anything.

“In fencing,” she adds, “those who are most successful are those who are the most strategic, commit fully to their ideas and move quickly.”

The junior mathematics and statistics double major from Atlanta says her preparation for fencing has equipped her well for research. She has dedicated much of her time to creating a diblock copolymer that mimics the unusual refractive properties of the mineral calcite. Through much trial and error, Abelsky — a lifelong Harry Potter fan who has won more than 40 awards for her research — developed a nanoscale cloak of invisibility.

“Here’s the premise in simple terms,” Abelsky explains. “If there’s a boulder in a river, intuitively we all know that water would go around the boulder, not through it. I tried to mimic that natural principle with light. The reason we see any object is because light particles hit the object and bounce back and hit our eye. That’s the premise of cloaking, that the photons don’t bounce off of the object, but rather go around it, and therefore they don’t refract toward the viewer’s eye.”

Beyond the obvious benefits of invisibility for, say, the Department of Defense, the discovery also has applications for radar, deep-sea sensors and super lenses. That application has the most promise for Abelsky, who wants to use the copolymer to maximize refraction to increase the power of optical lenses. The high-powered glasses could help those who are currently considered too blind to see.