Research is more than science; it is an experience

by Tyler Erjavec

In March 2014, I was shocked to receive an acceptance letter from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Haystack Observatory summer REU program. I had thought applying was a waste of time; how could I get an internship at an institution as prestigious as MIT? Unthinkable. I wasn’t expecting to have the opportunity to work at a school as renowned in physics and innovation. As I was reading the acceptance email, I was unnerved because the font – the font of all things- was intimidating. In the technical-prestigious kind of way. You know the font you think of when you think top secret cold war documents? Yeah. That font.

Three months later I was on a plane to Boston, and then in a taxi to a radio observatory 35 minutes outside of Boston. In the plane, I saw large geodesic domes poking out of the trees and wondered whether that would be my home for the next ten weeks. (Hint: It sure was.) Well, it was my office – the other interns and I didn’t live on observatory lands. We stayed at a little liberal arts college 20 minutes north of the observatory in Nashua, New Hampshire. Every day we piled into four cars that MIT rented for us and commuted down to the observatory.

Geodesic Dome

One of the geodesic domes.

MIT Haystack is situated on about a thousand acres of trails and unspoiled wilderness. It was built jointly by the US Air Force and Lincoln Labs (a MIT branch that does national defense research) in 1964 as a military tracking radar installation. At the time, the space race was in full swing, so tracking satellites was the main reason the observatory existed. Eventually, Haystack built other telescopes for atmospheric science and radio astronomy research. Sixty years later, most of the telescopes and radio dishes are still in use and are churning out groundbreaking science.

Image 4

The Millstone Incoherent Scatter Radar; one of the many radar installations on Haystack land.

One of these scientists was my mentor, Dr. Juha Vierinen. During my first three days at the observatory, he was in Brazil at a conference. I got to start learning about the electronic modeling program I would use, FEKO. What does it stand for? Well, say it in your best attempted German: Feldberechnung für Körper mit beliebiger Oberfläche! In English, it stands for “field calculations involving bodies of arbitrary shape” and is a joint CAD and electromagnetic simulation suite meant to model antenna design, performance, and wave propagation.

After a few days of repeating these words (and learning new techniques), Dr. Vierinen returned. My internet stalking yielded a remarkably accurate portrait of him: a blonde “hacker” from Finland. As a mentor, he is supportive and laid back; as a scientist he is extremely gifted in all things math and instrumentation. However, his methods would unnerve any engineer. I believe his motto is “Let’s try this, looks pretty simple.” Throughout the summer, he taught me the art of tapping into my inner MacGyver.

My task was to produce a prototype of a magnetic loop antenna for ionosonde applications. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so here’s a break-down. A magnetic loop antenna is a circular antenna that receives the magnetic portion of a radio wave. An ionosonde is an antenna that probes the ionosphere, a portion of the atmosphere 75-1000 km above the earth’s surface that gets ionized by UV light during the day. When the atmosphere is ionized, certain regions become opaque to specific radio frequencies. This means that radio waves can bounce off of the ionosphere and be reflected down towards Earth. The antennas let us look at the topography of the ionosphere, which is extremely useful to track geomagnetic storms (that can wreak havoc on GPS networks).

Image 1

Juha and our artfully constructed coupling loop.  Yes, it worked.

Unfortunately, most ionosondes are huge and expensive (1,000,000 m3 and over $100 k respectively). The goal of my project was to make a small and cheap antenna; with this innovation, dense networks of thousands of ionosondes could be created and improve the resolution of topographic ionosphere measurements.

Three weeks into the summer, I was sent by Haystack to Seattle for a 5-day atmospheric science conference called CEDAR with three other interns to get a feel for the current state of atmospheric science. I had never seen actual snow-capped mountains in person, so I about died when we landed and I saw Mt. Rainier out of the plane’s windows. I decided then and there that I would go to the mountain. I managed to convince my three fellow interns that it would be a great idea; we rented a car for one day and took a trip 80 miles south. We hiked along the Carbon River and explored. Waterfalls, rushing steel-gray glacier water. It was beautiful. Eventually, we came to a clearing in the river valley where the peak of snow-capped Rainier glared down. I went a little insane and started running around hooting and hollering. My dad is a geologist, and he bred into me a love of geologic curiosities. My fellow interns quickly grew to recognize my rock-lust – every time we went outside, they saw me picking up rocks looking for various mineral species.

Image 2

Mt. Rainier poking through the clouds.


A waterfall along the Carbon River in Mt. Rainier National Park.

Along with the 10 college interns, MIT Haystack hosted a 7-week research program for seven Puerto Rican high school students, a mixture of young men and women. These kids were just plain awesome: they were outgoing and broke the ice among the reserved college interns. We organized sightseeing trips to Boston together, went to Hampton beach, and ate giant, basketball-sized sundaes. At least once a week, we’d go play soccer or volleyball. One time we all drove up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and perused the area’s collection of waterfalls. After they left Haystack, our group was quieter and we didn’t quite know what to do with ourselves. We still took trips, but it didn’t come as naturally as when they were with us.

That was probably for the best, because they left two weeks before our program ended. Those 14 days were extremely hectic and crazy, because we were all trying to get data and finish our projects. There were a couple of nights where Juha and I were outside at 11 pm, fending off porcupines and swarms of giant mosquitoes, setting up the antenna and transmitters for first light (the first observation a radar/telescope makes). The last week was extremely exhausting, but also rewarding. We finally used my antenna to get our first ionosphere traces; 11 pm the night before my final presentation – perfect timing. Yeah. Pulling it close like always. While our traces don’t like much, if we were to sweep through various frequencies, we would be able to get profiles similar to those as in this video made by Dr. Vierinen.

Image 3

The two greenish blips are reflections of our radio pulse off the ionosphere.  There are two blips because the radio wave reflected twice.

But at the end, we had to present our research to the entire Haystack staff – about 50 people or so. We had small focus groups with our mentors and a few colleagues the days before that allowed us to practice our talks and to iron out problems. It is always nerve-wracking to present, but in the end I was simply talking about what I had done. I don’t consider it so much presenting, as it is sharing.

Our presentations went off without a hitch and I had to say goodbye to all the faces I had become so acquainted with over the past ten weeks. It seemed as if I had known them for many years, but hardly three months had passed. But as I boarded the plane back, I recounted the summer’s activities and surmised that REUs not only reinforce scientific ability, but also act as a way to experience amazing things and meet amazing people.

Image 7

The end product.  The antenna’s various circuitry was located in a plastic tube, whose wires would run about 30 feet off-screen to a shed with the transmitter and other more sensitive electronics.

Image 6

Testing the antenna with various amplifiers right outside my office – where all of our equipment was located.


About Tyler Erjavec


I have always had a fascination with the physical sciences, much I owe to my geologist father. This eventually landed me in physics after I repaired an ancient telescope donated to me from a distant relative. Currently I am applying to graduate school with my wife, who also is a physics major. In my free time I enjoy playing with my three cockatiels, rigging an ever more complicated climate control system for my dart frogs, and maintaining an extensive indoor tropical garden.

In the Lab at OSU: Programming at the Particle Party

by Natalie Keyes

It’s a rare high school student who doesn’t feel awkward and unsure. In that respect, I felt distinctly ordinary as I walked into the soaring atrium of the Physics Research Building for the first time last June. Despite this, my overwhelming feeling was a mix of excitement and amazement. Excitement that I got in contact with a physics professor, Dr. Amy Connolly, after the ASPIRE summer physics workshop in 2014—amazement that she was willing to take me on as an intern in her own physics lab! I knew that I would be working on the ANITA neutrino research project in Dr. Connolly’s group, but I had only a vague understanding of what that entailed. It surprised me, though, how quickly my work came into focus. I was paid, incredibly, to program in Mathematica and think about physics for four hours a day. I went to meetings and even presented my work to ANITA project collaborators from around the country! For the first time in my life, the results of my work were tangible and mattered to a project bigger than myself. My experience impressed on me how real an impact I can have by pursuing my passion for the subjects I love.


Dr. Connolly’s physics lab.

On the first day, I marveled as Dr. Connolly showed me around the lab where I would be working—a desk and computer surrounded by genial grad students programming and soldering, two floors down from a lecture room where I would get to attend talks through the Center for Emergent Materials about everything from black hole thermodynamics to physics education. As I spent my first day reading about the ANITA collaboration’s research, I Googled term after term I didn’t know and realized how little I really knew in the grand scheme of physics. That sense of disorientation scared me at first, but it ultimately fueled my determination to learn and contribute in the days to follow. It took me a few days to adjust to my environment and become knowledgeable about my project and tools, but once I understood what was going on, I got to take on some substantive work.


And me!

Because of my interest in computer science, Dr. Connolly assigned me to program a simulation for the next-generation ANITA 4 neutrino probe. At the first group meeting I attended, the researchers and grad students scribbled out on the board their idea for improving the probe’s capability to block out extraneous radio signals. ANITA’s mission is to detect faint radio emissions from neutrino interactions in the Antarctic ice, so the probe has to be impervious to disruptive radio noise from scientific stations nearby. In order to ignore these unwanted signals, the probe has to ‘deaden’ specific sectors of its instrument while in flight. They asked me to prototype a program that could use the probe’s heading data, which indicated the direction it faced, to predictively block specific sectors of the probe. I felt extremely grateful and excited that Dr. Connolly and her team gave me this opportunity to contribute something significant to the group!


My workstation in the lab.

Before this summer I had programmed for myself only, but now that I was developing code for others to use later, I had to learn a whole new approach to programming. Over the past few years, I’ve taught myself to code in HTML, JavaScript, and Java through various online resources, but this self-directed learning didn’t have the rigor and form I needed to write neat, consistent code for a group. Instead of testing over and over until my program worked, I planned the exact structure of my code before I wrote it. When the model fit function gave erroneous results, I had to refer to the Mathematica documentation to work through exactly how my code misused it. When my ‘for’ loop ran infinitely and crashed my entire program, I had to trace the erroneous line back to a completely different section of code I had written two weeks before. On some days, I stared at the same five lines of code for three hours and went home with a furrowed brow, but the elation of finally solving the problem the next day was worth it. In the end, I conquered the intricacies of Mathematica and created a working final product.


Two pages from my lab notebook: planning and early code for a noise-reduction method in my Mathematica program …


… and notes on the Askaryan effect from group meeting.










I was surprised and a little nervous when Dr. Connolly asked me to create a PowerPoint presentation and prepare a talk on my work to give at a weekly ANITA teleconference with collaborators from around the country. Although my PowerPoint skills are decent at best, and my speaking style can be frenetic at times, I presented a coherent description (see for yourself below!) of how I had tackled the problem of predicting the ANITA probe’s heading given past data. Sitting in front of the phone during the conference, fielding the questions thrown at me by professors from other universities, was certainly nerve-wracking. However, the professors and researchers on the phone with me at OSU supported me at every turn and helped answer more complicated questions. It was extremely rewarding to know that I had contributed something to the work the ANITA group did.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Improving my physics, programming, and presentation skills were valuable benefits of my time in the lab. But one of the most important things I got out of this summer was a real concept of what it’s like to be a physicist in a university environment. Interacting with professors, researchers, and college students gave me role models in science to look up to as well as peers to connect with. The grad students in my lab welcomed me with open arms, offering guidance and science jokes and even organizing a group lunch at Chipotle on my last day. I got to engage in complex discussions about physics concepts from total internal reflection to electromagnetic phase to Snell’s Law with deeply knowledgeable and experienced researchers and professors. Most importantly, I am extremely grateful to Dr. Amy Connolly for her confidence in me and her support throughout my endeavors. Her confidence and capability in science enabled me to picture my own future in research. My time in the lab at OSU showed me how amazing a field physics truly is, as well as the vast opportunities open to me in it.


About Natalie Keyes

Bio_pictureI am a junior in high school at Columbus School for Girls and am the current high school editor for A Day in the Life! My interests include physics, math, computer science, and music, and I tend to code, read, and play cello in my free time. I’m also on my school’s robotics team, FRC Team 677, where I enthusiastically apply my love of building and programming to the “real world”. My dream career would be in the field of quantum computing, which combines my dual obsessions with particle physics and computer science in a fascinating way. At this point I am pretty certain that my interest in physics and computers will guide my life endeavors, and I can’t wait to see what kinds of adventures in STEM my future holds.

Everyday Physics – Why do veins look blue?

by Patrick Poole

Veins aren’t blue, but why do they look that way?

Research life can be a lot of things—brainstorming experimental ideas, fixing broken equipment, crunching through complex theories. Sometimes you lift your head out of a textbook and realize you’ve stumbled across the underlying physics behind some simple everyday phenomenon, but you wouldn’t have seen it without trudging through the equations. Since at the end of the day many of us are driven by a desire to understand the way the universe works and to share that with others, I’ve made a blog, Everyday Physics, to explain events you see every day through the fundamental physics at their foundation.

A common misconception about blood is that it looks blue when depleted of oxygen, explaining why lighter-skinned people see blue veins in their arms. Here I’ll talk about how deoxygenated blood isn’t blue at all, and that the real reason for the color shows off some interesting aspects of how light interacts with matter.

1. An object’s color comes from how its atoms and molecules interact with light

Unlike water waves, light waves are able to travel in the absence of a medium—they come from stars to our eyes through empty space just fine. Light waves can also travel through materials as well, which often has some noticeable effect on the wave. Specifically, light is composed of oscillating electric and magnetic fields, and these fields will interact with and respond to atoms they encounter.

2. Certain colors of light will be absorbed in certain materials, so you won’t see those colors when you look at the object

The details of exactly how light responds to a material reveal a lot of interesting physics. Visible light incident on a material tends to give its energy up to electrons, increasing their energy via a process known as excitation. Excited electrons will eventually give off this energy, and can do so in a number of different ways—fluorescence, as is seen in neon shirt coloring, is one phenomenon that stems from one sort of de-excitation, but that’s another post. Often de-excitation occurs simply by the re-emission of the same frequency light that initially interacted with the electron, or by that excited electron knocking into an adjacent atom and transferring the energy away as heat.

The structure of an atom governs which energies will tend to excite electrons, or in the case of light, which frequencies will be absorbed into exciting an electron. Regardless of how that energy eventually leaves the electron, that frequency (or color) of light will be missing from the spectrum of light that originally hit the object. In this way a banana looks yellow because its structure is absorbing all frequencies of visible light except for yellow.

3. Light can also scatter within a material, which can remove some colors from the spectrum you see

Another effect that prevents light from going further into a material is scattering, where light gets deviated from its original path because of something in the way.

The details of scattering lie at the heart of a lot of everyday physics—things like why the sky is blue, or why beer foam is white—but that’s another post. It turns out that the size of the scattering particle relative to the wavelength of the incoming light determines the nature of the scattering—just like a ping-pong ball thrown at a beach ball will recoil differently than if it’s thrown at a marble.

The little density changes in skin and fat tissue are such that blue light tends to be scattered more than red. This means blue light won’t reach as deep in your skin before it gets knocked off course. You can test this by holding a bright flashlight on one side of the thin skin between your thumb and fingers—it’s red-tinted because those red frequencies are the most able to make it all the way through your skin.


More blue light gets absorbed and scattered on its way through your skin than red light because of the structure of skin and fat tissue. Once light reaches a vessel, which contains red blood whether its an artery or a vein, more blue light gets absorbed than red light, which is why blood looks red on its own.

4. More blue than red light is lost within your skin, but your brain is watching the ratio of blue to red light

Let’s focus now on two areas of your arm: one area where there is a big vein underneath skin (the vein region) and an area right beside that with no vein (the no-vein region). Skin with less melanin will be lighter, which means most incoming light gets reflected—so it appears white. Now, the blood inside the (mostly translucent) vein instead mostly absorbs light of all frequencies, but reflects a little bit in the red area of the spectrum—that’s why blood looks red.

Veins will look blue because the ratio of red light to blue light returning from a vein is a bit smaller than the ratio of red to blue light returning from nearby skin. This is because less blue light made it down to the vein to be absorbed there. In both areas more red light comes back than blue—so then why do the veins appear blue?

Veins will look blue because the ratio of red light to blue light returning from a vein is a bit smaller than the ratio of red to blue light returning from nearby skin. This is because less blue light made it down to the vein to be absorbed there. In both areas more red light comes back than blue—so then why do the veins appear blue?

(By the way, it really is red regardless of oxygen content: oxygenated blood in arteries is cherry red, and de-oxygenated blood in veins is dark red, but neither is blue! The slight color difference here comes because the iron-oxygen bond in hemoglobin absorbs less red of the red frequencies than non-bonded iron will.)

Let’s recap what we know so far:

  • Both red and blue light get partially absorbed on the way to the vein.
  • More blue light gets scattered on its way down to the vein.
  • Blue light gets absorbed more than red once it reaches the vein.

In fact, there is more red light than blue light seen from the vein region of skin and from the no-vein region. So then what makes the veins appear blue?

Believe it or not, the blue bars are the same color here, but look different if they are more surrounded by white or red. Your brain perceives the color of an object partly based on the surrounding colors, and the same thing is going on when you look at a vein beneath your skin.

Believe it or not, the blue bars are the same color here, but look different if they are more surrounded by white or red. Your brain perceives the color of an object partly based on the surrounding colors, and the same thing is going on when you look at a vein beneath your skin.

Your brain can be fooled sometimes when it observes colors and patterns—this is the basis for most optical illusions—and there is a similar thing going on here. Even though both regions of skin reflect more red light than blue light, the no-vein region reflects a greater ratio of red to blue light than the vein region. This is because less blue light made it down to the vein and is absorbed strongly there. Your brain interprets the vein area as a little bit bluer by comparison to the surrounding skin. The same thing happens when you look at the figure above: the blue rectangles are the same color everywhere, but look a bit darker on the right where they are more surrounded by the darker red instead of the lighter white.


Here’s a picture of my arm for proof—notice how the red value is higher in both regions, but the ratio of red to blue is just a bit higher in the no-vein area (bottom part of the figure).

It turns out this blue vein effect only happens for bigger blood vessels that are a certain depth under your skin. It’s easier to see veins than arteries because they are typically larger when they are near your skin surface, like in your wrists and forearms. If you happen to have a vessel with even less skin covering than this, it will appear its natural red—take for example the vessels in your eyes, or on your retina.

This is a picture of someone’s retina, along with the arteries and veins that supply it blood. The vessels of the retina are some of the least covered in the body—here there isn’t enough tissue covering to create the blue vein effect.

This is a picture of someone’s retina, along with the arteries and veins that supply it blood. The vessels of the retina are some of the least covered in the body—here there isn’t enough tissue covering to create the blue vein effect.

Bonus physics – Non-red blood

Human blood (and that of many other animals) uses the molecule hemoglobin, where oxygen is bound to iron atoms. It’s this iron content that gives blood its red color, which the presence of oxygen makes a bit brighter. Creatures that don’t use iron to bind oxygen can have different color blood. For example, copper is the main oxygen receptor in hemocyanin, which is present in the blood of lobsters, snails, and spiders—as a result, their blood looks blue. It’s copper carbonate that makes copper statues turn green (like the Statue of Liberty), so perhaps this is involved in the famously green blood of Vulcans.


Perhaps Vulcan blood is green for the same reason statues are.

Thanks to Elcobbola (Wikipedia) for the Statue of Liberty picture and Memory Alpha for the Spock picture.


About Patrick Poole

patrick pictureI grew up on farms in Valdosta, Georgia, and did my undergraduate work at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Currently I just defended my PhD, which focuses on creating star-like temperatures and pressures using the ultra-intense Scarlet laser here at OSU. In my spare time I write on my science blog,, and perfect my mean racquetball serve.

Finding My Stride at a Summer Research Experience

by Casey Berger

The summer after my first year as a physics major, I hadn’t considered a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), thinking that I needed more research experience before I would be accepted to a summer research program. I know now that was unnecessary. Since returning to school to study physics, I had felt like an outsider in physics. My background was in communications: I had majored in philosophy and film production the first time I went to college, and then I had worked for two years at a desk job in Hollywood. I didn’t disassemble radios in my spare time to see how they worked. I didn’t build websites or design phone apps for fun. All those stereotypically “science” and “tech” activities were relatively new to me, although the interest in the subject matter had been there from the start. So I assumed that any program I went to would expect me to be proficient in building and repairing electronics and working with code. The thing I had not realized was that REUs are designed to be learning experiences, taking students at whatever level they may be at and helping them build a variety of skills needed for research.

After spending a summer working in a lab on OSU’s campus, I decided I should try to branch out for my following summer, and I looked up summer research programs for undergraduates on the National Science Foundation (NSF) website, and applied to the ones that sounded the most interesting to me. I was admitted to the Computational Astronomy and Physics Research Experience for Undergraduates (CAP REU) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). I spent ten weeks at UNC, one of eleven physics majors from schools across the country participating in the REU.

The REU focused on computational projects in physics, writing code and utilizing computers to make advances on specific projects across a wide range of physics topics. Computing skills are extremely valuable to physics, allowing physicists to simulate situations that are too complex to solve by just writing down a few equations. I didn’t see myself as a very strong coder, and I was anxious that I would fall behind, but I was surprised to discover that many of the students in my group hadn’t done much research or coding before, and each specific project was tailored to the individual’s level. Coding was not something I had seen myself doing when I started my physics major: I assumed most of the work I did would be with pencil and paper, but after I took my required programming class, I was hooked! Along with our computational projects, the REU included weekly seminars by professors at UNC where we could learn valuable computing skills, and there was no previous experience required.

Picture 1

My advisor, Dr. Joaquín Drut.

The eleven of us shared a classroom as our office, and we came in each weekday to work on our projects. Each of us was paired with a mentor – a professor who would be overseeing the project. I was working with Joaquín Drut, a theoretical physicist whose research applies computational methods to solve the “many-body” problem. When you have small particles interacting, they all exert an influence on each other. If you just have two particles, you can solve the problem with pen and paper and find out how they are interacting, but as you start to work with more and more particles, it becomes very difficult, and computational methods are necessary.

My project was to test code that implemented a new method for understand properties of interacting fermions in a potential trap. This is the kind of system that occurs when experimentalists cool certain kinds of particles (like electrons or certain kinds of atoms for example) to extremely low temperatures. This may not sound like a very practical setup, but it’s actually a very important system. The things we can learn from studying this system can tell us a lot about how quantum mechanics works with larger numbers of particles, like the number of particles in the nucleus of an atom, which is actually very difficult to do. This can help us make special materials like superconductors, or understand how to manage quantum information and build a much faster computer.

My code was able to show a number of important properties. For example, as the temperature got lower, we saw the energy approach a specific value, called the ground state. We also were able to make density profiles, which are graphs of the average position of the particles. You can see from these plots where the particles are most likely to be, which is helpful for a lot of other methods that previously just had to estimate or guess where the particles would be.



Density profiles for 2 (top) and 8 (bottom) pairs of particles. You can see that for 2 pairs, there are 2 peaks, and for 8 pairs, there are 8 peaks where the particles are most likely to be.

Outside of the work, the REU also builds relationships between future scientists. The eleven of us stayed in the on-campus student apartments that were provided, and there were group activities set up by the program, like an afternoon at a theme park and a Fourth of July barbecue. The other students and I also planned a lot of fun outings by ourselves, like hiking at Hanging Rock State Park and arranging a tour of the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) particle collider at Duke University. Everyone was working on different projects often in different fields of physics, but we helped each other with our presentation skills and with coding questions. We all keep in touch through a Facebook group, and I am looking forward to seeing them at conferences and perhaps even collaborating on future projects.

Picture 4

The REU students and organizers after our final presentations on our summer research projects.

Picture 5

A few of the students hiking in Hanging Rock State Park.

We also got to give outreach talks at the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center. These talks were both challenging and fun: condensing our research into a 3-minute talk intended for a non-science audience is no easy task. Instead of focusing on the details that consumed my day to day work, I had to find the big picture. I talked about quantum computing and how it could revolutionize our world, and I explained that my research would help give us insight into important properties that we need to understand if we want to use this technology. The audience was mostly elementary school children and their parents, and we got some really great questions. But in the end, it was great to see people get excited about science and ask lots of questions!

In just ten weeks, I learned so much about what it is like to conduct research at a university. I discovered how it feels to encounter a problem for which there is no solution manual, and then I found out how rewarding it is to discover those solutions for myself. I learned how to manage my time on a project when my day was not structured around classes. I found, much to my relief, that I loved it! This is good news for me, since I want to become a research scientist, but even if I had learned the opposite, it would have still been a valuable experience. You have to try something at least once before you know if you will truly like it or not. I actually liked my project so much that I am continuing to work on it even now that I’m back at OSU. I would encourage anyone who wants to go into research to consider doing at least one REU. The experience was amazing, and I learned more in one summer of research than I have in any of my classes on campus. There is just no other experience like it.


About Casey Berger

Profile picThree years ago, I returned to my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, after a few years working in Los Angeles, California, to go back to school at The Ohio State University. An eternal student, I am pursuing my love of knowledge all the way to a PhD. I hope to use my experience in the media and my education in the sciences to bridge the gap between science and pop culture.

Time to put on your big kid pants — life after earning a Ph.D.

by Andrea Albert

After I earned my Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, I took 6 weeks off to play video games, learn how to drive a motorcycle, and pack up the apartment. The last week of June in 2013 my husband and I drove across most of the country to Los Altos, California.


My husband Dylan and I stopped at Meteor Crater! on our way to California.

I had accepted a “postdoc” position at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory as a Research Associate. As stated in my offer letter, my job is “to be actively involved in the physics studies with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.” No more classes, just research. While my job gives me the freedom to study whatever I want, not being told what to do or having a specific task list from a supervisor is daunting.

My first day was pretty typical: took some basic training, got a badge, gave human resources all my info so they could pay me, and started settling into my new office. In the first few weeks, I had some work left over from a project I started at Ohio State to keep me busy while I thought about what else I wanted to start researching. I knew I wanted to continue looking for dark matter signals hiding in the gamma rays produced in our Milky Way Galaxy. Even though I technically have a supervisor, he is there to give me advice, not tell me what to do. Unlike in graduate school, the professors and senior scientists are now my colleagues, not my superiors.

My advisers at Ohio State, Brian Winer and Richard Hughes, helped make this transition pretty easy. I remember when I started out as a first year graduate student, I was clueless and needed them to tell me what to do. I quickly started getting my own ideas of things to investigate. In my last year of graduate school, Brian would walk in on Monday mornings and ask me “What great things are you planning to do this week superstar?” I felt, and still feel, like their colleague in addition to their student.

As a postdoc, you are only employed for a few years (typically 2-3, but sometimes up to 5). You are expected to demonstrate your capability as an independent researcher. My typical day involves downloading some data, asking a question like “I wonder how variable Y changes as I increase variable X?”, making a plot, studying it and then getting a new understanding that leads to another question “hmm, if variable Y increases then I’d expect variable Z to decrease”, and so on until I’ve developed a complete new understanding that can be published in an academic paper. I also attend meetings with my colleagues working on similar projects where we show each other our plots and talk about what questions they raise that we can study next. Some of these meetings are with people just at SLAC, but others are phone meetings with colleagues from all over the world. Its a lot like crime shows like CSI; you find clues (plots), those lead to more questions and leads (follow up plots), you discuss your theories and conclusions with colleagues (meetings) and get new clues from them. Then once you have a strong enough conclusion you can make an arrest (write a paper).

AA_FermiSymp 2

Here I am presenting my research at the 5th International Fermi Symposium in Nagoya, Japan. The plot shows the size of false signals in my dark matter search. I first introduced this kind of plot in Figure 3 of this paper.

I love research and plan to stay in academia. My goal is to become a professor at a research university, but those jobs are tough to get. There are simply not enough professor jobs for every interested qualified person. Landing a tenure-track job is a gamble for anyone, no matter how good you are. You have to apply for the right job, at the right place, at the right time and sometimes the stars just don’t align. I’ve had plenty of rejections to things like undergraduate summer research jobs or graduate schools, but if it’s something you are truly passionate about you have to keep trying!

As I look ahead, I realize there is still a lot I will learn as I transition to becoming a more senior postdoc and hopefully a professor. I have already taken on more leadership roles in my research projects. I just got tapped to be the new coordinator of the Dark Matter and New Physics group in the Fermi-LAT Collaboration (or the “Dark Queen” as my dad likes to say). Its my job to coordinate our group of ~50 dark matter hunters from all over the world (my co-coordinator is in Stockholm, Sweden). I organize and run our biweekly meetings, read and approve all paper drafts and conference talks from the group, and coordinate the internal peer review process within our group.

I put together a couple faculty applications this season. This kind of application is different from college and graduate school applications. Sure I needed reference letters, but they didn’t require a transcript and I had to outline my research and teaching plan for the next 5-10 years. I had to start thinking about what my vision would be as the leader of my own research group for the first time. Thinking about myself in this kind of a role just a little over a year after getting my Ph.D. was scary, but my fellow postdoc Regina Caputo (UC Santa Cruz) said “Its time to put on our big kid pants!” I’m already starting to feel a little bit like an adult (I say typing in my Rainbow Dash robe) since I’m no longer in school and have a job that pays a decent salary. Also, I have colleagues asking me for my opinion on the direction of our group at SLAC since I’m the Dark Queen and I actually have good input to give!


Hard at work in my apartment in Los Altos, CA.

Taking on a lot of new responsibility without a road map is super scary, but I just dive in and do my best. Actually, not having a specific plan just means I can’t fail at that plan. In the words of Project Runway’s Tim Gunn, my plan is to “make it work”. I always say, when confronted with a mountain, don’t look up at the whole thing…that’s scary. Just take it one step at a time and take a moment to look back at how far you’ve come every once in awhile. I have brought along a safety rope, though, and have some backup plans in case academia doesn’t work out. As a physicist, you learn leadership, research, communication, and teamwork skills that definitely translate outside of academia. Hey, only 6.5% of physics majors are unemployed!


About Andrea Albert

andrea_ben_martyI am a Research Associate at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.  I study gamma rays produced through the most extreme, energetic processes in the Universe. I am hunting for a small gamma ray signal from dark matter interactions. In my spare time I enjoy Jazzercise, playing video games with my husband Dylan Zanow, traveling, and sharing my love of physics. Learn more about me at and follow me on Twitter @PhysicsAndrea.

Adventures of an Aspiring Particle Physicist (Before She Decided to Become a Particle Physicist)

by Khalida Hendricks

I was born in Los Alamos, NM, where everyone’s parents work at “the Lab” (Los Alamos National Laboratory) …or you lie and say they do to fit in. Every child from Los Alamos is expected to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist, and in general this is what happens. These options were presented as the only respectable paths. Either I would grow up and become a doctor, lawyer, or scientist, or I was doomed to become a miserable failure.

I didn’t want to be a scientist. My high school physics teacher loved cars and related every lesson to cars. There was no better way to make me hate physics and science in general. If you had told my high school senior self that I would ultimately dream of getting a PhD in physics, she would have laughed at you.

As a senior I had no idea what to do with myself. Everything I had ever shown interest in was dismissed by well-meaning adults. Still, the first time the recruiter called I hung up on him. A Los Alamos kid joining the Army? Are you kidding? But the recruiter was persistent, and eventually he found the magic word: linguist. I’ve loved languages all my life, but adults told me that language majors have few, if any, career options. My recruiter argued otherwise – if I became a military linguist, I could travel the world using my language skills, while also serving my country. The more I thought about it, the better it sounded.

That's me in uniform!

So I joined the military.

I scored well on the language aptitude test and was given a choice of four challenging languages: Arabic, Chinese, Korean, or Russian. As a New Mexican, I like deserts so I picked Arabic. This was before 9/11, so I had no idea that Arabic language skills would become a valuable commodity. I simply picked Arabic because I like deserts. Yes. Seriously.

Army Arabic school is 15 months long, but Arabic came easily for me so I had plenty of free time. I had the luxury of being an eighteen year old with a well-paying job living in Monterey, California. I sampled everything I could: skydiving, scuba diving, mountain climbing, dancing, acting, and anything else that I could find. I got an associate degree in Arabic. I took classes in random subjects simply because I knew nothing about them. I would walk down a random aisle at the library to find anything new and interesting, or just surf the internet following link after link.

That is how I stumbled upon a website called “The Particle Adventure.” It’s changed a lot since then, but it is still around! I was enthralled. Why hadn’t they taught about particles in high school? I was fascinated by leptons and quarks and force carriers and interactions. After resisting my hometown mold for 18 years, the great irony was that I suddenly wanted to become a particle physicist…except that I still had a contract with the Army.

My first assignment was to Germany. While there, I taught myself Albanian, the native language of Kosovo, so that I could deploy to Kosovo. I was assigned to a Human Intelligence Team and got to drive around Kosovo just talking to people, drinking coffee with them, going to weddings and parties. For some reason the Army then decided to send me to Korea, where I was stuck on a tiny post just south of the Demilitarized Zone. To make life a little less tedious, I tried out for the 2nd Infantry Division Tae Kwon Do Team, and I got to travel around Korea doing Tae Kwon Do demonstrations. My feature trick was running up my teammate’s chest, launching off of his crossed arms, doing a backflip, and breaking a board mid-flip before landing. I also did a choreographed fight where I beat up the three biggest guys with fancy Hollywood style moves. This was a crowd-pleaser.

After a year in Korea, I received a mysterious letter informing me that I met the requirements for an unspecified position in US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). Next thing I knew, I was at Ft. Bragg, in North Carolina, engaged in a rigorous training program. The job was just too cool to pass up, so upon graduating from the program, I re-enlisted and spent four incredible years at USASOC. I had the chance to try all sorts of things, from ice-climbing and dog-sledding to offensive driving and survival school. My nickname was “Spock” because I was always lugging books along on these trips. I read about particle physics as much as I could, but I knew that I couldn’t understand the stuff I really wanted to know without a more formal physics education.

Dog Sledding

Dog sledding in Colorado as part of USASOC winter training.

In 2006 I was invited to try out for the United States Army Parachute Team, aka the Golden Knights. This was another one-of-a-kind life experience, so I re-enlisted a third time, swearing that it would be my last. I spent two years doing parachute demonstrations all over the country, and one year competing in parachute accuracy.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In December of 2009 I left active duty and joined the Reserves, which allowed me to study physics full time at North Carolina State University without giving up my Army retirement. The Reserves proved difficult to juggle with school. I fielded calls from my commander between classes. I fought to schedule my two weeks of annual training between the regular school year and summer internships and spent a full weekend every month playing Army instead of studying or getting homework done. Hopefully it will pay off but it has not been easy.

I also still have a habit of jumping out of airplanes. Before leaving active duty I placed fifth in parachute accuracy at the US Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships, earning a spot on the United States Skydiving Team. I skipped the first three weeks of my sophomore year to travel to Nicsik, Montenegro, and compete at the 31st Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Style and Accuracy Parachuting Championships. I didn’t get an individual medal, but my team earned second place. I never really got caught up that semester but I think the experience was worth it.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I managed to do some physics along the way, too! I did internships at Fermilab and Jefferson Lab, as well as some undergraduate research at NC State. I’ve tried computational and experimental particle physics, theoretical nuclear physics, and astrophysics. Given my history of casting a broad net, it is going to be really tough for me to settle down to just one topic for my PhD!!


With my Beagles Hude (left) and Aerial (right) at Jefferson Lab.

But at least I have gotten this far. Like I said, if you had told me back in high school that this is where I would end up, I would have thought you were crazy. It has been a long, winding, and often difficult road, but it has been full of adventures that I will never regret.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


About Khalida Hendricks


Lexi, Huda, and Aerial.

It’s hard to believe sometimes but I now have 12.5 years of active duty and 18 years of total Army service. I plan to continue with the Reserves at least until I hit 20 years so I can get a retirement out of it. I have three beagles and two cats and I like to compete with my dogs in events such as obedience, agility, Barn Hunt, and other dog sports, whenever possible. Also I still get to do occasional parachute demonstrations as a member of the All Veteran Parachute Team, which was founded by one of my Golden Knights friends. I am currently studying particle physics, quantum field theory, and astroparticle physics as a PhD student at The Ohio State University.

Happy New Year!

by Nancy Santagata

A New Year’s post has become a sort of unofficial custom here at a Day in the Life.  Therefore, in keeping with tradition, Amy, Megan, Natalie, and I would like to wish you a Happy 2015! 2015-made-out-of-sparkler-lights 2014 was a busy year for us outside of the blog, as you might be able to tell by the fluctuations in time between posts.  🙂  Rest assured that is not an indication that we are slowing down.  We still love working with our friends here at Ohio State (and beyond!) to share their fascinating stories with you.  These included Brendan Mikula’s discussion of the science behind teaching science, Kate Grier’s observations of the night sky from atop Kitt Peak, and a look into the fun of smashing atoms together with Christopher Plumberg.  With all of these great stories, imagine our surprise when we looked at the numbers and saw that our most popular post was written by the editorial board!  We each sincerely enjoyed sharing our individual experiences with being the only woman in the room, and we’re so glad to see that our readers did as well.  Collectively, all of these stories helped the blog accumulate over 11,000 visits in 2014.  That’s equivalent to all of the visits from both 2012 and 2013 combined! We are humbled by those numbers, and we owe the biggest of thanks to each and every one of our readers.

And the map – we can’t forget about the map!


Of all of the stats that WordPress provides for us, the map is honestly my favorite.

It’s really filling in.  We’d like to take a second to personally thank the one person in each of the following countries that single-handedly put or kept their country on the map this year: Botswana, Mongolia, Cambodia, Cyprus, Swaziland, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados, Cape Verde, Ecuador, Mozambique, Albania, Nicaragua, Guernsey, Estonia, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg, Ethiopia, Georgia, and Maldives.  Nothing makes us happier to know that we are reaching readers all over the globe!

Looking forward, we’ll be sharing some pretty unique stories with you this year.  Keep an eye out for posts about jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, what life is like once you finally finish your PhD, attempting research for the first time and loving it, and why the veins in your arm appear blue.  The editorial board is going to sneak a few stories in as well. This winter I spent a few weeks in Alaska photographing the aurora borealis (also known as the northern lights), and the experience was too amazing not to share.  And Megan and Natalie are preparing a post describing the workshop that ultimately brought Natalie to the blog. We hope that these new stories are as well received as our last!

In closing, we’d love to hear from you! What was the coolest science story that you read in 2014, either here at A Day in the Life or elsewhere in the blogosphere? Are there any topics that you’d like to read more about in 2015? Leave us a comment here, on our Facebook page, or tweet us @AditLatOSU.

Once again, Happy New Year!


About Nancy Santagata

violet As a sneak peak to my upcoming post, here I am knee deep in snow while on a hike at Creamer’s Field State State Migratory Waterfoul Refuge in Fairbanks, Alaska. I have been told that this getup reminds people of the character Violet Beauregarde from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory.  Hey, when it’s -20 deg F, all that I care about is staying warm.  🙂

Meet our newest board member – Natalie Keyes!

by Natalie Keyes

ndbk_intro_picAs a student barely out of freshman year, I was very pleased but also somewhat surprised when I got an email from the staff of A Day in the Life, asking whether I would join their blog as a high school board member. I met Amy, Nancy, and Megan, the founders of this blog, at the ASPIRE physics workshop I attended at OSU last summer. Little had I imagined when I signed up for it that the program would open doors for me far beyond the fascinating two days I spent learning about neutrinos and radio waves! I guess I must have done something right at the workshop, because here I am, typing this introduction. I’m so excited to join A Day in the Life and help ensure that its content is accessible and interesting to the target audience, high school students like me.

I have yet to take a physics course in school at this point, but I have been a science kid for as long as I can remember. My interests have evolved gradually over the years from math to astronomy to my great twin loves, physics and computer science. Curiosity about these topics and most anything STEM has led me to do a great amount of self-directed learning, an odd result of which is the fact that I know more about relativity than basic mechanics. I enjoy spending time reading books on theoretical physics and coding in various languages. I am also excited to be the head of the Software group this year for the Columbus School for Girls FIRST Robotics team.

However, one of the most unique and interesting science experiences that I’m anticipating in the coming year is this opportunity to work on A Day in the Life. I am looking forward to expanding my knowledge of physics, from the basics to the coolest frontiers, and delighted to help share that knowledge with others through contributing to this incredible blog!

For the Love of Spectra

by Kara Mattioli

Almost a year ago my research advisor and I decided to start a project that I initially thought was an exciting, but difficult, task. We had been discussing a research project that I was about to start working on, and my to-do list initially looked something like this:

  1. Help grow a material called graphene
  2. Study the graphene using a technique called Raman spectroscopy
  3. Figure out a way to make hydrogen atoms bond to the graphene (this is called “hydrogenating” the graphene)

The goal of my project was to learn how to study graphene using Raman spectroscopy, and then to use what I had learned to find out whether my graphene hydrogenations would work. At first, I didn’t know how to do any of the things on my to-do list. But I also had no idea of what was in store for me: working with awesome people, discovering a new subject that would fascinate me, and realizing that I love doing research.

I didn’t accomplish step #1 by myself. Instead, I found myself working with several other undergraduate students to learn how to grow graphene by a process called chemical vapor deposition. Two important questions had to be addressed: first, what is graphene? And second, what is chemical vapor deposition?

Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms – it is incredibly thin, so thin that scientists call it a two-dimensional material because it barely has any thickness to it! The carbon atoms are bonded together and form little hexagon shapes. Chemical vapor deposition is a process where you start with a metal, typically copper or nickel, place it in a furnace, and then flow hydrogen, methane, and nitrogen gases over the metal surface while the metal is being heated. With the right amounts of gases and with the metal in a certain temperature range, you can actually grow a layer of graphene on top of the metal! It is a very cool process.


Graphene is a single layer of carbon atoms bonded in a hexagonal arrangement.

The group of students that I was a part of was called the Graphene Factory, which is a research group formed in the Physics Department at The Ohio State University to give students an opportunity to create graphene for other researchers to study. We first made graphene on copper, but it’s hard to study graphene when it is on copper because the chemical properties of copper sometimes obscure the properties of the graphene. So we transferred the graphene onto silicon dioxide. Each student in the group had a different specialty, and mine was Raman spectroscopy. So to complete step #2 on my to-do list, I had to learn about Raman and what it actually measures.

There are many different types of spectroscopy – it is the study of light emitted from or absorbed by atoms and molecules. For Raman spectroscopy, you shine light from a laser at whatever material you want to study, and you study the light reflected from the sample. Light from a laser is at one wavelength and one frequency, but materials can reflect light at many different frequencies. Atoms in a material will absorb light at specific energies and then re-emit some of the energy. A detector collects the re-emitted light and a computer plots the intensity of light emitted at each frequency, creating a plot called a spectrum.

Raman spectroscopy measures the difference in frequency between the frequency of the laser light and the frequency of light emitted by the material. This difference is called the Raman shift.


Raman spectroscopy measures a “Raman shift,” which is the difference between the frequency of the laser light (red) and the frequency of light emitted from the sample (black).

I took Raman spectra on our graphene samples and learned what the spectra were telling me about our graphene. That’s right – spectra are not just a display of different peaks! You can get a lot of information from them, and that is one reason why I think spectra, and especially graphene Raman spectra, are so beautiful.

Graphene Raman spectrum

This is a Raman spectrum of graphene. The Raman shift is measured in units called wavenumbers, or cm^-1, which is proportional to frequency.

The presence of the two big peaks, and the fact that the peak on the right is larger than the peak on the left, tells me that the material is graphene. The coolest part is that the peaks appear due to the vibration of carbon atoms in graphene that are bonded together. The carbon atoms vibrate side to side as well as up and down.

The width of the peaks tells me something about how many layers of graphene I’m looking at, and the fact that I don’t see a third peak before the first one tells me that our graphene is not damaged. Sometimes if carbon atoms are missing or if other molecules are bonded to the graphene surface, the graphene can have many defects and be unusable. And those are just a few of the pieces of information I get from looking at a single spectrum!

Modern art graphene Raman spectra

Sometimes just for fun I like to make what I call “modern art” versions of my spectra!

I studied lots of graphene Raman spectra to learn as much about our graphene as I could. Then came step #3 – trying to hydrogenate graphene. To do this, I place a graphene sample in a vacuum chamber, then heat the graphene and expose it to hydrogen. I’m still fine-tuning the hydrogenation details, but I did get to build my own vacuum chamber for this project, which was really fun!

vacuum chamber picture

This is a picture of the vacuum chamber I built, which is circled in purple.

I take Raman spectra of the graphene before and after my hydrogenations to see if the “normal” Raman spectrum of graphene changed. Remember the extra peak I mentioned earlier that only shows up if the graphene is damaged? Well, when I try to hydrogenate graphene, I want that peak to appear! It means that the graphene structure would be “damaged” because it would not consist of just carbon atoms anymore – a lot of the carbon atoms would be bonded to hydrogen.

hydrogenated graphene image (Image from Science magazine)

When graphene has been hydrogenated, hydrogen atoms are bonded to one or both sides of the graphene. Source: Science

I really enjoy interpreting spectra and finding out what does and doesn’t work in an experiment. In many ways, my job is kind of like constantly solving puzzles, and I love it. I like viewing research projects as puzzles to be solved, and with that view the things on my to-do list are more like putting a few of the pieces together. I’m so glad that I have the opportunity to learn how to become a scientist, and to discover new things that I never suspected I would love so much.


About Kara Mattioli

Kara Mattioli pictureWhile I have always loved science, I never imagined that I would become a physicist. I initially came to Ohio State as a pre-medicine biochemistry major and had my heart set on becoming a surgeon. I decided that I wanted to learn more physics, so I changed my major to physics and ended up loving it. My career interests changed from medicine towards pursuing a full-time career as a scientist. I’m now entering my senior year as an undergraduate at Ohio State, and I plan on applying to physics graduate school. In my free time, I enjoy reading, hiking, and visiting art museums.