Christopher Culbreath

Physicist · Programmer · Photographer · Machinist


San Luis Obispo, CA


(805) 234–0847


Physicists are trained to think critically and to think deeply. Physicists solve complex, difficult problems that demand a deep understanding and creative, innovative solutions. Pushing at the edges of science requires persistence, long-term project management and acute awareness of subtle details. I am a physicist looking to use the powerful tools and techniques of physics beyond the laboratory— I seek to apply my skills, innovation and drive in collaboration with a team of motivated colleagues. I am eager to solve difficult problems, work on exciting products and to get things done right and on time, working at a thriving, customer-focused organization.

As a student, the appeal of physics was its breadth— a vast knowlege of how the universe works, and how to solve problems. I am a life long learner, and my broad skillset extends beyond the often one-dimensional stereotype of a physicist. Beyond my work in academia, I have worked as a professional photographer, computer technician, and print professional. I'm an enthusiastic adopter of the maker's philosophy and have apprenticed and trained as a machinist. I value and thrive on efficiency, and have been a trusted and effective team leader in the lab and at work. To aid in my efforts, I have developed tailored software solutions to streamline and improve productivity, in the classroom, in the lab and at home.



Materials Physics

I am an experimental and computational physicist with a research focus on active materials including liquid crystals and shape memory alloys. My research approach is to build custom automated instrumentation to make novel measurements and observations. In addition, I have developed molecular dynamics, optical transmission and director relaxation simulations. My recent work has focused on mentoring undergraduate physics students with accessible, multi-disciplinary projects that augment Cal Poly's famous "learn by doing" pedagogy.


Data Analysis

Data analysis is a core skill of an experimental physicist. Through my education and experimental work I have developed robust analysis skills. I utilize a variety of computational and automation tools to expedite processing and identify trends. I have a deep knowledge of data collection, normalization, error analysis and visualization. I know how to develop a mathematical model and how test a dataset's agreement with the model. My mathematical background is extensive, with an advanced understanding of statistics, linear algebra, and differential equations.


Communication and Leadership

Teaching physics requires accurate, clear communication and the ability to present complex and abstract ideas in a systematic and understandable way. At both Chico State and Cal Poly, I have been a popular and effective instructor, earning positive reviews from students and colleagues alike. Further, I have been a proven leader in both formal and informal roles. At Kinko's, I led our print production team to new levels of efficiency and accuracy. At the Liquid Crystal Institute, I advised new lab members, managed equipment acquisition, kept supplies stocked and supervised a significant expansion of our machine shop facilities. I also served as the official graduate student liaison at faculty meetings. My communication and leadership skills fueled my success as a professional wedding photographer, where I exhibited excellent group management, time management, and communication skills in an infamously high-pressure environment.


Web Development

My knowledge of web development has grown out of the desire to develop specific tools to solve specific problems. I have a life-long love of intuitive, well-designed software. I am conversant in PHP, Javascript (and Jquery), CSS and HTML. As an instructor, I developed a custom course-management CMS and gradebook, a flashcard web-app for memorizing student names, and a mobile-optimized real-time in-class response system. At home, what started as a solution to supervise my kids' chores, developed into Chore Cloud—a chore and money management site that is loved by other families too.


Photography and Print

I am an award winning portrait photographer and professional wedding photographer. My photography is marked by a documentary style and a bit of whimsy. I developed a technical mastery of photography both behind the camera and in the lab, where I designed optical systems for experimental observation. I am also a print-production expert, with experience in offset press operation, pre-press processing, page layout and graphic design.


Machine Shop

Motivated to bring my ideas to life, I learned the trade of machining. I apprenticed with a precision machinist, and honed the trade. I can carry an idea from design to a finished part. I have experience with both conventional machining techniques and 3D CAD, CNC programming and automated fabrication. The shop teaches attention to detail, project management and how to see a project through to the end in a way that only a tangible hold-in-your-hand product can.






2016 – present

Cal Poly

Lecturer, Physics Department

San Luis Obispo, California

As a core member of the teaching staff, I teach 70-120 undergraduate engineers and scientists each quarter in various courses covering mechanics, waves, optics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism. I also expanded my research program, establishing an active materials lab and supervising Frost Summer Scholar students.

2017 – present

Elastium Technologies

Materials Science and Automation Consultant

San Leandro, California

Elastium technologies hired me to development an automation control scheme for a their a newly developed industrial furnace. In addition, Elastium has relied on my consultation to refine their novel technique for producing single-crystal shape memory wire.

2015 – 2016

Chico State University

Physics Lecturer

Chico, California

At Chico State, I was a valued member of a small faculty. I taught introductory calculus-based mechanics and their no-calculus version of electricity and magnetism to classes of 48-120 students.

2011 – 2015

Iconic Photography

Owner · Photographer

Kent, Ohio

While in Kent, Ohio, I owned and operated Iconic Photography in collaboration with Nik Glazar. Our work was marked by exceptional quality and customer service, earning excellent reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations.

2005 – 2008


Senior Technician

San Luis Obispo, California

At the MacSuperstore, I was relied upon throughout the sales and service team as an expert in both hardware and software. I was quickly promoted to senior technician and received my Apple Certification in Desktop Repair, Portable Repair, and Mac OS X Support (2006-2009).



Cal Poly

B.S. Physics

San Luis Obispo, California


I am a materials physicist with a focus on custom instrumentation. I have built one-of-a-kind novel instruments for making measurement and improving precision. I have pursued investigations in liquid crystalline material properties and applications of single-crystal shape memory alloys, and commercial fabrication of single-crystal SMA wires.

My approach to research is focused on building versatile one-of-a-kind instruments for studying liquid crystal systems. There are significant benefits to developing and building one's own instruments from scratch: the machine is perfectly suited to the task and costs far less than a commercial tool. My approach is to guide students through the design, fabrication and automation of custom laboratory instruments. It is exactly this type of collaboration and instruction Cal Poly's student-focused approach enables. When the tasks of in-house instrument design, instrument fabrication, and instrument refinement are added to the conventional research components of measurement and analysis, a research project can be readily broken into senior-project sized pieces. By taking this approach, teamwork is required and meaningful collaboration thrives.

In this era of open-source code and inexpensive micro-controllers, physics students can build robots, automate their lives, and harvest piles of data from the world around them. When these projects are designed to demonstrate or test a physical idea, a student is given an opportunity to make something real, right out of her imagination. Not only do these trials and efforts drive a profound academic growth, but students love making things. And everyone loves it when physics is fun!

Liquid Crystals

My research has focused on the material properties and electro-optic applications of liquid crystals. Liquid crystals are best imagined as molecular rods. In the simplest liquid crystalline phase, called the nematic phase, these rod-shaped molecules prefer to remain aligned with one another, and the phase is distinguished by orientational, but not positional, order. Liquid crystals flow like ordinary liquids, yet they demonstrate macroscopic anisotropy associated with their average alignment direction. While liquid crystals prefer to be aligned with one another, the direction of their alignment is arbitrary, so boundary forces play an essential role in determining the orientational behavior of the bulk phase. The bulk orientation is anchored in a preferred direction by the preparation alignment surface.

Few details are known about the anchoring interaction that determines the LC alignment direction, which makes surface properties of photoalignment an interesting area of active research. Mechanical confinement of liquid crystals is a simple concept, yet it has been the focus of only a few experimental efforts. Yet, mechanical confinement is a great tool for investigating photoalignment anchoring and the generation of novel defect structures on photo-aligned substrates. Further, I have investigated in-situ photoalignment to produce a well-defined orientation between an incident light source and the liquid crystal director as a means to improve standard liquid crystal material characterizations.

Specific topics: Nematic Anchoring Strength · Pancharatnam Phase Devices · Photo Alignment · Defect Loops · Interference Metrology · Director Simulation · Surface Defect Stuctures
Shape Memory Alloys

Automatic fire-suppression sprinklers prevent property damage and save lives, but their widespread adoption comes with a significant unintended consequence: Industry-standard, glass-bulb sprinklers are delicate and prone to breaking due to accidents and sabatoge. On average, there are more than 120 non-fire sprinkler activations in the United States every day, causing millions of dollars in property damage and lost business. Our novel SMA-based sprinkler promises to deliver the required durability, performance and price point to become the new industry standard.

“Shape-memory” describes the ability of some materials to recover from a plastic deformation. Shape memory alloys (SMAs) are a class of active-materials that undergo a diffusionless solid-to-solid lattice distorting structural phase transformation that dramatically changes the mechanical characteristics of the material including its shape. The salient feature of this phase transition is a direct mapping of the constituent atoms from one crystalline phase—there isn't a random diffusion of the atomic constituents from one phase to another, but a correlated shift from one configuration to the next.


  • Angelo, J., C. Culbreath, and H. Yokoyama. “Breaking Planar Liquid Crystal Anchoring to Form Controllable Twist Disclination Loops.” Molecular Crystals and Liquid Crystals 646.1 (2017)
  • N.Glazar, C. Culbreath, Y. Li, H. Yokoyama: “Switchable liquid crystal phase shift mask for super-resolution photolithography based on Pancharatnam-Berry phase” Appl. Phys. Express. 8 116501 (2015)
  • Culbreath, Christopher. “Artificial Microscopic Structures in Nematic Liquid Crystals Created by Patterned Photoalignment and Controlled Confinement: Instrumentation, Fabrication and Characterization.” Kent State University. Print Dissertation. (2015)
  • C. Culbreath, N. Glazar and H. Yokoyama. “Automated maskless micro-multidomain photoalignment” Rev. Sci. Instrum. 82, 126107 (2011).


The most important aspect to teaching a successful course is a strong foundation. The foundational elements are blackboard lecture, homework and office hours. I write lectures to concisely introduce topics and I work examples from beginning to end. It is most important to have a thorough preparation that develops a sound, sequential narrative, anticipates student misconceptions and is easy to understand. My lecture notes are detailed and understandable, and I design them to be useful to students who are forced to miss class. I assign homework problems that directly reinforce the skills demonstrated in lecture as well as problems that require an extension of the ideas presented.

My courses are elevated through enthusiasm, demonstrations and creativity. I strive to deliver an enthusiastic and engaging presentation of physics. In their evaluations, students consistently mention my passion, excitement and enthusiasm. I guess I can't help myself: I really do love physics! When students see my appreciation for the subject, it makes the material more relevant, interesting and engaging. And while students may not share my interest, at the very least it raises curiosity on a personal level—why does this guy like physics so much?

Academic Success

I build my courses as a whole package, with beautiful documents, well-tailored assignments, hand-prepared solutions, engaging lecture slides, online video tutorials, and comprehensive exams. Students review my courses as challenging, yet their satisfaction remains high. My 2018 Cal Poly Personnel Action File, provides a comprehensive overview of my teaching philosophy, course materials, and accomplishments.


In order to visualize dynamic phenomena and to engage students outside of the classroom, I produce rich multimedia content to enhance my courses. For my introductory courses I have produced two types of online videos: homework-style example videos, showing every step of the problem with commentary, and tutorial videos for extra instruction beyond the time constraints of in-class lecture. In addition, I have produced vector animations to illustrate time-dependent and three dimensional ideas that cannot be adequately communicated from the chalkboard.

Visit my YouTube channel, and check out my animation gallery to see more.

Student Comments

Dr. Culbreath is amazing. Definitely one of the top 2 or 3 professors I've had at Cal Poly. His enthusiasm for the material and desire to teach really shows. On certain topics I learned more from his brief lab demos or examples than from lecture or the text. You should seriously give Dr. Culbreath a raise.
I love his lectures.
Culbreath has a very strong understanding of the course material and conveys this to his students.
He was very thorough with information that he taught and having him for lab really helped me to be more engaged in what we learned during lecture. Great Guy!
He’s funny and goes through many examples.
Very good teacher…explains topics thoroughly and well.
He’s passionate about physics and makes it interesting.
He was really passionate about physics and it definitely carried over to us students. He knew a ton of material both in this course and well beyond.
He has a lot of energy and understands how hard physics is for non-physics loving people.
His teaching methods are simple but effective. I understand almost anything in the class. His tone of voice during lecture is fantastic and makes me see his passion for physics.
He was excited about the topic and was ALWAYS available for help with questions.
In every lecture he's interactive and excited to teach. He is by far one of the more remarkable professors I have had in capturing and maintaining my attention.
Professor Culbreath is a great professor. He is young and understands the minds of the youth with respect to how they attain information, thus caters his labs to the benefit of maximizing the absorption of information for his students.He has the most passion about what he knows than any professor I have had at Cal Poly, which definitely there need to be more of. I love being in classes where the professor is passionate about what they are teaching, because if they are, the students are thus passionate about the material, which breeds unfathomable benefits for the student...
Professor Culbreath is a fantastic teacher. He makes the content understandable, reinforces his teachings with well-rounded homework and classroom examples, very non-intimidating yet educational lab quizzes and ultimately devotes himself to allow every student to make sense of the material. The tests he provides are notoriously hard, but he is fair with his grading curve. He is organized, passionate, approachable and generally enjoyable as a professor. I would recommend him to any one of my peers.
I liked how upbeat Culbreath was during every lecture and lab. He was helpful in providing the necessary equations and examples in class. His slides that are sometimes used during lecture are very helpful. I also liked how on some days there would be mini demonstrations in order to view the concept we were learning.
Overall, loved it. Great class, great professor, great time. Dr. Culbreath was great in interacting with the class and communicating the material. His passionate moments about the subject were contagious, so keep that up. He was a very fair grader, and actually broke that down to a science.
Professor Culbreath was great. I wouldn't recommend any changes to his performance. His lab quizzes were useful and taught us a lot. His lectures were coherent and concise. Any supplemental content he provided was put together very well. His tests are infamously complicated, but his curve is fair.
Instructor has passion for subject that clearly shows in lecture. I especially enjoyed the in class demonstrations in which a scientific principle is demonstrated, and a calculation follows to corroborate the demo. I do not have any improvements to suggest at this time.
Pretty dope dude, 10/10
Dr. Culbreath is fantastic. His lectures are engaging and thorough, and he's incredibly approachable.
In lab Dr. Culbreath was consistently helpful, and the somewhat laid back, do the procedure at your group's pace feel helped a lot.
Dr. Culbreath was always willing to help clarify problem concepts or issues mid lab too, which helped immensely.
Fair, honest, and focused. No problems of any kind.
Lecture content was phenomenal. The in-class conceptual situations and calculation examples were very effective.
Professor Culbreath was a fantastic teacher. He is great at keeping people engaged even during an 8 am lecture, and always goes out of his way to ensure clarity.
Hands down, best professor I have had at cal poly in any support/GE class. He is so caring about his students and enthusiastic with his teaching. I could ask him questions about his family or college experiences and he was so helpful and talkative, it's great.
Prof. Culbreath was a very good professor. He was passionate and explained the materials well. His demonstrations helped to give some meaning to the ideas that we were learning.
Very helpful to the students. He went out of his way to make extra videos for us to watch online.

See more at


Throughout my career as a physicist, I have maintained a parallel focus on both experimental and computational physics. My programming skills were initially developed and honed in all corners of my experimental work, including the development of sophisticated data analysis algorithms, coding novel simulations and building fully-automated experimental instruments.

Areas of Experience

Data Analysis
Machine Vision Optical Interference Measurement
In the course of my research I developed software implementing machine vision to optically measure the thickness of my liquid crystal sample. Without user intervention, the final code was able to reliably identify the center of bullseye interference pattern produced in my experiment. Further, the radial intensity of the resulting pattern was then sampled and averaged, the extrema automatically detected. By combining data from many interference patterns, we made a dynamic measurement of the of the evolving bullseye patterns. The resulting points were then fit to a calculated model, such that the thickness of the optical medium could be reliably extracted. The result was a novel mechanism for measuring in-situ sample thickness.
Liquid Crystal Defect Image Analysis
My investigation of topological defects in nematic liquid crystals led to the development of a machine-vision application for detecting and measuring defect loops. Using the software, I measured the evolution of defect loop's area and perimeter from high definition video clips captured during experimental observation.
Adaptive 3D Director Simulation
I took a novel approach to developing a finite-difference numeric simulation for determining three dimensional liquid crystal director configurations. While the director relaxation is calculated by a program written in C, I exploited the symbolic manipulation of Mathematica to generate arbitrarily complicated C-syntax update equations. Using Mathematica, simulation parameters, including the core free-energy expression, can be inputted in familiar human-readable mathematical notation. My Mathematica code also allowed for external forces, periodic, weak or strong boundary conditions, irregular computational meshes (curved boundaries), and arbitrary coordinate systems and natural variables. By using Mathematica to generate the update equations for the C mother-code, the conditions of the simulation can be easily and drastically changed without the need for lengthy hand calculations or the tedious transcription of update equations character-by-character into lines of C-code. Further, the computationally-intensive relaxation mother-code was optimized for performance leveraging the speed advantages of C, free from the computational overhead of Mathematica at runtime.
Simulation: Other Areas of Experience
  • Monte Carlo molecular dynamics and phase behavior
  • Numerics in C
    • Solving ODEs
    • Dataset manipulation and curve fitting
  • FTDT electrodynamics
  • 4x4 Matrix-based optical simulation in anisotropic materials
  • Sytem Modeling using Matlab and Modelica-based Wolfram System Modeler
    • Circuit Analysis
    • Motor Characterization
    • Electro-optical characterization of liquid crystal displays
    • Multibody dynamics
Maskless Polarizing Photolithography System
I was a key member of a research team that designed and implemented a fully automated maskless polarized UV exposure system, for creating multi-domain photo-aligned liquid crystal substrates. The system is equipped with a DMD photo-modulator, multiple motorized translation stages, a motorized polarizer, and a confocal autofocus mechanism. The entire maskless system is automated through a custom developed LabView control application. The LabView code uses dozens of VIs and relies on an event-queue structure to manage the automation of several tasks including: DMD image display, focus motor control, polarization motor control, UV shutter timing, focus peak acquisition and peak detection, and motorized translation of the lower stage substrate.
Dynamic Cell System
In the course of my research, I designed and fabricated a liquid crystal observation system that can dynamically change the twist angle, thickness and temperature of a liquid crystal sample. The twist angle is varied through a mechanical rotation of the cell’s bottom substrate. A stepper motor, piezo actuator and capacitance sensor provide precise closed loop positioning of the upper substrate relative to the bottom substrate. The temperature is regulated by circulating water through a custom thermal chamber which encloses the liquid crystal sample. A schematic diagram of the entire system is shown below. An integrated polarizing microscope, illumination system and camera allow in-situ observation. The system is operated and automated using LabView. The software can vary the thickness, twist, take time lapse photographs, monitor the distance sensor as well as automate these processes for extended data collection. The underlying LabView control was designed with an event-based state-machine architecture to decouple user interaction from data acquisition and processing.
Automation: Other Areas of Experience
  • Arduino data capture, motor control, and system interfacing
  • Labview-based data collection for introductory physics undergraduate laboratory exercises
  • Extensive G-Code programming, automated code generation and fabrication workflow development for computer-controlled milling machines

Web Development

Physics Cloud

Feeling frustrated by the limitations and mobile-unfriendliness of standard university web systems like Blackboard and PolyLearn, I began writing  in the Fall of 2014. Physics Cloud is an online gradebook and course management system, custom built to serve the needs of my courses. Physics cloud is a mobile-friendly PHP/MySQL/JavaScript Web 2.0 application built on the high-performance Yii Application Framework. I designed Physics Cloud to be a versatile platform for both the existing and future online course elements. As a first application, I wrote a gradebook application which provides rich student views detailing their scores and grade calculation, as shown below. I have also implemented class polling, student preferences, class-meeting scheduler and access-limited grader functionality. Physics cloud is under active development. I plan to use physics cloud as the platform to provide many other online course features including online assignment submission, interactive simulations and student collaboration.

A meaningful demonstration of Physics Cloud requires authentication and access to sensitive student information, but the key features are highlighted in the screenshots below.


Instructor Gradebook Interface
Student access grade summary
Student access assignment summary
Instructor letter grade configuration
Full class meeting scheduler

Currently Under Development

In-class realtime response system: Student View
In-class realtime response system: Instructor View I
In-class realtime response system: Instructor View II

Chore Cloud

Chore Cloud is an mobile-friendly, online chore checklist and piggy bank designed to make sure your kids know what chores to complete and helps make sure they get them done.

Main features:

  • Schedule daily AM and PM chores
  • Assign a daily allowance paid when a kid completes all chores
  • Assess a penalty if any chores are incomplete or unexcused
  • Sends automatic text message notifications


Chore Cloud is free to use and includes documentation for getting started. Text notifications are $6 per year.


Physics Cloud Flashcards

Physics Cloud Flashcards little web-app that imports the “Enrolled Student Photos” roster PDF available to faculty on the Cal Poly portal into a phone-friendly flashcard game.

The flashcard game uses a Leitner-system algorithm to help with memorization. After attempting to guess the student’s name when presented with only their photo, the name is revealed. Photos which you mark as correct are repeated less frequently, while photos you mark as incorrect are shown more frequently. By creating an account and logging in at you can save your flashcards and your progress.

Physics Cloud Bubbles

Under active development

Faced with rising departmental costs of maintaining an antiquated Scantron machine, I set to work developing Physics Cloud Bubbles. Bubbles has two core components, a versatile answer sheet generator for producing PDF bubble sheets and a robust machine-learning based scoring module.

Key Features:
  • Student name information encoded with hand-filled bubbles or imported from a Cal Poly roster and stored in a QR-code
  • Answer sheets with an arbitrary number of problems, answer choices, or solution forms
  • Direct import into the Physics Cloud gradebook
  • Robust machine-learning scoring algorithm to guard against mis-scoring due to erasures, stray marks or partially filled bubbles
Physics Cloud Bubbles is under active development and will be deployed for beta testing in Spring 2018.