Ralph Prof. Rayf Shiell

Department of Physics & Astronomy,
Trent University, 1600 West Bank Drive,
Peterborough, ON, K9L 0G2, Canada

Tel: 1-705-748-1011 x7023/7025
Fax: 1-705-748-1652
Email: rayfshiell@trentu.ca
Directions to campus can be found here

(You may also see my name spelled ‘Ralph’ – some background here)

Welcome. My work is a mix of science research, education research, and teaching, and each provide much joy from what Oscar Wilde termed ‘playing gracefully with ideas.’ Science involves being curious, posing questions, considering hypotheses, making measurements, accepting uncertainties, then weighing evidence to explain observations and predict future events. This has enabled remarkable advances – from deep inside the human body to far beyond our solar system. Check out below for more about my work.

And, for interest, here is a podcast from 2018 where I was interviewed by Clayton Law, a student from one of my classes. We chat about science, rowing, and more. Clayton asked great questions!  


Research interests

Background information

Teaching - winter semester 2021

  • Thank you to all for adapting so well in the fall to the remote delivery of PHYS 1000H and 4240H. Sometimes challenging, sometimes (I hope...) fun.

  • For the upcoming semester I'm on sabbatical leave, working on research and co-writing a textbook for CUP. So keep learning, and see you next fall!

Research Interests

My science research is based in optics. I spent several years working in the field of atomic/molecular physics, exploring novel quantum systems and probing trace gases using high-power lasers and synchrotron light. I now explore the physics of the eye, developing devices targeted to ophthalmology. The field is fascinating – even seemingly-simple questions such as: ‘Why don't we notice blinking?’ and ‘How do people distinguish so many colours?’ open up an exciting and interdisciplinary world of exploration. My specific focus is the biomechanics of the cornea – an avascular yet living structure with unique strength and stability, and with remarkable transparency to incoming light. Research in my group involves an exciting mix of optics and electronics, and modelling and apparatus design, which constitutes an ideal preparation for a future career in science, whether in academic or industrial sectors.

My education research is focused on investigating and developing new student-centred approaches to learning, and is largely targeted towards techniques for assessment. Since early 2012 Prof. Aaron Slepkov and I have collaborated in the creation and deployment of a new assessment tool called an integrated testlet, which assesses and augments students' understanding of complex knowledge through a set of scaffolded multiple-choice items using an answer-until-correct format. Our research on this within different environments has demonstrated both its validity and its many benefits. We currently advise the educational publisher Nelson to assist them in delivering integrated testlets within their materials.

If you would like more information about these projects please email me here.

A list of my publications/patents can be found here.

Past and Present Research Group members:

Graduate students and postdocs:    
Yuchen Song (MSc student, Materials Science; thesis here)   Sep 2017 - May 2020
Lisa Ugray (MSc student, Materials Science; thesis here)   May 2011 - Sep 2013
Jeffrey Philippson (PhD student, Trent/Queen's Physics Program; thesis here)   Sep 2007 - Jan 2012
Matt Romerein (MSc student, Materials Science; thesis here)   Sep 2009 - Sep 2011
Jaclyn Semple (MSc student, Trent/Queen's Physics Program; thesis here)   May 2009 - Dec 2010
Bryan van der Ende (Postdoc)   Aug 2009 - June 2010
Rob Collister (MSc student, Trent/Queen's Physics Program; thesis here)   Sep 2006 - Nov 2009
Jeffrey Philippson (MSc student, Trent/Queen's Physics Program; thesis here)       Sep 2005 - Sep 2007

Project students:
Chris Peacock (2016-2017); Nolan Woodley (2012-2013); Matt Romerein, Eric Brown (2008-2009); Jaclyn Semple (2007-2008); Geron Bindseil (2006-2007); Hassan Kibirige, Lisa DiLorenzo, Brian Srivastava (2005-2006); Simon Meik (2004-2005)

Co-op students:
Amy Zhou (2009); Kevin Tuck (2008-2009); Ryan Zhou (2005-2006); Lisa Ugray (2004-2005)

Summer students:
Kaylee Sherk (2019); Chris Peacock, Yuchen Song (2017); James Godfrey - USRA (2015); James Godfrey - USRA, Steven Ufkes - USRA (2014); Aidan Bharath, Greg Hodgson (2012); Kevin Tuck, Stephen McMurtry (2010); Stephen McMurtry - USRA, Lisa Ugray (2009); Jaclyn Semple - USRA (2008); Lisa Ugray - USRA (2007); Julian Atfield - USRA, Ryan Zhou, Lisa Ugray (2006); Tom McCarthy - USRA (2005)

Prospective graduate students - if you are interested in studying and manipulating techniques for measurements of the human eye, or conducting research into different educational assessment tools, then please check out the Trent/Queen's Graduate Program (MSc or PhD), Trent/UOIT's Materials Science Graduate Program (MSc or PhD) and Trent's Applied Modelling and Quantitative Methods Graduate Program (MSc).

Prospective summer students - in addition to full-time graduate students, I often employ undergraduate summer students in my research group from May until September. Please email me for details.

Teaching Interests

I enjoy delivering a wide variety of courses, and find that one class can benefit from the knowledge and experiences from another. The courses below are those I have taught at Trent, with a range of subjects and levels. As mentioned above, curiosity is at the heart of scholarly activity, so in class I strive to bring alive an anecdote from renowned physicist I.I. Rabi, who said that as a child he was not so often asked by his parents, “What did you learn at school today?”, but instead, “Did you ask a good question today?”

PHYS 1000H: Foundations of Physics
PHYS 1001H: Introductory Physics I
PHYS 1002H: Introductory Physics II
PHYS 1510H: Introductory Astronomy I
PHYS 2250H: Electronics
PHYS 2610H: Introductory Quantum Physics
PHYS 2620H: Atomic, Molecular and Nuclear Physics
PHYS 2700H: Thermal Physics
PHYS 3200Y: Electricity and Magnetism
PHYS 4050H: Advanced Experimental Techniques
PHYS 4220H: Electromagnetic Theory
PHYS 4240H: Modern Optics
PHYS 4600Y: Quantum Physics
PHYS 461H: Advanced Laboratory
PHYS 5900H: Advanced Topics: Molecular Physics
AMOD 5010H/MTSC 6260H: Optics and Optical Properties of Materials
MTSC 6270H: Finite Element Method for Problems in Physics

I have been course coordinator for the following courses...
PHYS 4000Y: Course outline for PHYS 4000Y: Project Course
PHYS 4010H: Course outline for PHYS 4010H & one semester project course
PHYS 4000Y & 4010H: Application Form for these project courses

... and I'm always interested in the teaching labs:
Trent Physics Laboratory Instructions
(Parts of this document adapted from http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~durkin/phys617/labstart.pdf)

Some physics info

Here you can work through some tips, tricks and traps in mechanics - mostly at the 1st year undergraduate level.

Why study physics?

  • excitement of doing something intellectually stimulating... learning something new each day
  • accomplishment of solving problems... satisfaction from doing/building/understanding it
  • physics is an international subject... click here for links to some physics societies from around the world
  • every event is due to physical interactions... the fun bit is discovering what these are, how big an effect they have, and how to harness them in a beneficial way.

For employers - a physics graduate is typically someone who can:

  • understand complicated concepts
  • communicate procedures and scientific results to a wide audience
  • collect and analyse large data sets
  • use a variety of tools and never stops learning...
Here is some information from the Trent University Career Centre and the Canadian Association of Physicists about some paths a physics degree can lead to.
If you have any comments on these pages, please email me.

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