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Several of our recent posts have highlighted stories about women facing a new challenge in their scientific career.  Whether it be taking an important exam, trying research for the first time, or presenting their work to colleagues, the stories have all emphasized that the experiences built scientific confidence. What experiences have you had that built your confidence? Have you done well on a test or tried something new?  Please share your story with us!

My Summer Experience Taking my Candidacy Exam

by Jessica Brinson

My name is Jessica Brinson, and I have just begun my third year in the graduate physics program at Ohio State University. My research area is high energy experimental physics, and I have been doing research on the data collected by the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS), which is one of the detectors for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is the largest and highest energy particle accelerator to date. It is located underground at a depth equal to a football field near Geneva, Switzerland. Two proton beams are accelerated around a ring and made to collide at the points where the detectors have been built so that we can study the results of the collision.

I finished all of my required classes at the end of the Spring quarter and took my candidacy exam during this past summer. The candidacy exam is a five week long process in which you are responsible for researching a given topic. Four weeks are devoted to writing a paper, and then you are given one week to prepare a presentation, which is given to four faculty members. My research topic was ‘The Discovery of the Higgs Boson.’ The Higgs boson is a fundamental particle that is responsible for giving mass to all of the other fundamental particles that have been observed, such as the electron and quarks, which make up the proton. I got my topic on July 29th, only three weeks after CMS announced their results showing evidence for the observation of a new boson that could be the Higgs. Since the excitement about the discovery was still fresh, it was the perfect time for the topic, but I was still nervous about taking my candidacy exam.

After receiving my topic, I spent two weeks doing nothing but reading everything I could find about the Higgs. I had heard many things about the Higgs boson throughout my undergraduate and graduate careers, mainly through my classes, but it wasn’t until I had to do the research for my candidacy exam that I fully grasped what the Higgs meant. While studying, I recognized many of the concepts that had been brought to my attention through the classes that I had taken, but it also revealed how much I didn’t know. I had learned why the Higgs is necessary in theory from my classes, but I had not done much research on how to detect it experimentally. The Higgs’ lifetime is so short that our detector is not able to see it directly; we can only detect the particles that the Higgs decays into and work our way backwards to figure out what actually happened. With over 40 million events a second, it was amazing to learn how the CMS detector worked to give us an idea of what happened in an event.

The next two weeks of my candidacy exam were spent writing my paper, which would end up being over 30 pages long. After two weeks of reading, I had to decide what the most important aspects were in the search and discovery for the Higgs. Writing everything down really solidified everything that I had been reading in my mind, and helped me in explaining the most important concepts in my own words. Many, many revisions later my paper was complete.

After I turned in my paper, it was time to prepare the oral presentation that I would give. The biggest challenge was condensing all of the material from my paper into a presentation that was only supposed to last 20 minutes. Even though your presentation is technically 20 minutes
long, the oral portion of your candidacy exam typically takes two hours. The faculty members who sit on your committee are allowed to interrupt with questions at any time. The oral presentation forces you to adequately explain concepts, but your committee is also interested in pushing you to the brink of what you don’t know. It is nerve wracking to not know an answer to a question during the oral exam, but it is expected that you won’t be able to answer everything. The committee wants to see how you pursue an answer to a question when you don’t immediately know the answer. This is a key portion of the scientific process because the research you do for your PhD will be a new question that does not have a definitive answer yet, and you are responsible for figuring out what the answer is. After a two hour talk, my committee conferred and decided that I had passed my exam!

Looking back on my candidacy exam, it was a stressful experience. However, your candidacy exam is meant to push your limits as a graduate student so that you are prepared for the research that you will have to do to obtain your PhD. Now that it is finished, I am really glad that I did it because it was a very rewarding experience. I learned so much from it and feel confident to pursue my PhD.

Here I am discussing my research with a fellow scientist.

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About Jessica Brinson

I am from Saint Joseph, Louisiana, and got my bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University. My undergrad research was dedicated to neutrino physics related to Tokai to Kamioka (T2K). I now attend graduate school here where I do research for Chris Hill for CMS at the LHC.

My Summer Research Experience

by Jasneet Singh

With the new school year underway, I often think back to the few precious months I spent homework-free.  My summer, however, was very different than that of many of my classmates.  As a high school junior, I was given the opportunity to work in Professor Leonard Brillson’s Surfaces and Interfaces Laboratory at The Ohio State University.  In April of this year, Prof. Brillson came to my school, Columbus School for Girls (CSG), and gave a presentation about the research his lab conducted.  As soon as he introduced his topic of semiconductors I was lost.  I spent the rest of his twenty-minute presentation trying to piece together what I did understand from his PowerPoint (which was not much) and form a picture of his research. The questions running through my mind were endless but the few that bothered me the most were, could I work in a university lab with my one-year knowledge of high school physics?  Was I smart enough?  Pushing my low self-confidence aside, I submitted my resume, thinking it could not hurt.  It was not until Dr. Sweeney, who organized this program from the CSG end, informed me that I had been placed in Prof. Brillson’s lab, did the feelings of nervousness and anxiety return.

My first day of work was a blur of tours, filling out paperwork, and many handshakes.  Having four other CSG girls participating in the program with me made me feel much more comfortable but once we split up to meet our mentors, I was on my own.  After navigating through the Physics Research Building, I finally found my way to the office of post doctoral researcher Dr. Snjezana (Snow) Balaz.  As soon as I met my mentor for the rest of the summer, I felt at ease; she was incredibly friendly and easy to converse with as we toured the different labs.  Even though I did not know some of the terminology she used, and could not have told you the long names of the different machinery after she said them, I still learned an immense amount that first day.  Evan, a graduate student in the group, helped Snow explain to me the concept of radiative recombination when showing the Depth-Resolved Cathodoluminescence Spectroscopy (DRCLS), an instrument I used throughout my internship.

The rest of summer followed the tone of that first day, learning more and more about how the instruments work, and what physics they study.  Not long after, I was also able to learn how to take data on my own.  One of the most rewarding experiences was learning how to use DRCLS and be sent by Dr. Balaz to the lab to take data on a few samples of zinc oxide (ZnO) that were being used for collaboration with the Seebauer Group from University of Illinois.  The purpose of this collaboration is to see if the defects are driven by electrostatic or thermodynamic forces.  After taking data, I learnt how to use a software program called Origin in order to analyze peak intensities and provide Dr. Balaz with graphs to include in a report that was sent to the other group.

I also got over my apprehension towards asking questions, and am grateful for Dr. Balaz’s patience.  She told me it was better to ask questions than to assume an answer, because assumptions can lead to many more mistakes.  I took that advice very seriously and made sure to clarify anything I was unsure about.  I also was able to build my self-confidence and noticed a significant change when explaining what I was doing to my family.  The true test arrived on the day of my final presentation, when I had to explain concepts that were still relatively new to me, to Prof. Brillson, Dr. Sweeney and the other CSG girls.  The nervousness stayed with me up until I took the stage.  Once I started my PowerPoint, I knew what I wanted to say and felt comfortable presenting the data; this was one of my proudest moments.

The learning did not occur solely in the labs or through the whiteboards in the office.  I also had the opportunity to attend group meetings, talks, lectures, tour different labs, and met researchers from the Air Force Research Laboratory.  Dr. Balaz was a great teacher, and also acted as a resource for all of my questions, giving me advice regarding choosing majors in college, undergraduate research, and career options.  Even though I am a high school student, and graduate school seems many years away, it was nice to have someone to talk to about the process.  Dan, a graduate student working in the same office as Dr. Balaz, also became an advisor to me and answered my questions about his undergraduate and graduate school experiences at OSU.   I knew how lucky I was to have so many people willing to talk to me about their experiences, and help me think ahead to my future.

I can confidently say that taking advantage of the opportunity to work in Prof. Brillson’s lab this summer was one of the best decisions I have made.  I am proud of everything that I have learned and accomplished in such a short period of time, and am not sure I would have achieved this level of personal satisfaction from another job.  I’ve opened my eyes and mind to the world of research, and found that I enjoyed every minute I spent in those labs.  Thank you Prof. Brillson, Dr. Sweeney, for organizing this program, and thank you to Dr. Balaz, Dan, Chung-Han, Evan, Mitchell, and Jackie, for welcoming me into the group and taking the time to explain to me the different aspects of your research.  It truly was a memorable summer.

Taking data on the Atomic Force Microscope, measuring forces between the tip and the sample to obtain the topography of the ZnO sample.

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About Jasneet Singh

I was born and raised in Lancaster, Ohio and am currently a senior at Columbus School for Girls.  I am unsure of where I will be attending college next year but I plan to major in either chemical engineering or biomedical engineering.  Wherever I attend college, I hope to become involved in some form of research.  Any advice or comments are welcome!