The Importance of Outreach

by Tajana Schneiderman

Civic duty is considered a fundamental aspect of our society. I believe, however, that civic duty extends beyond serving one’s country and into returning energy to the communities of which an individual is a member. Because of this belief, I’ve always been a part of community service.

I first started volunteering at the wee age of six – I had just learned how to play piano, so I started to play at music recitals for retired nuns. It wasn’t much, but the smiles that my rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” elicited were enough to get me hooked. By the age of 12, I was running my own program – arts and crafts with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. When I was seventeen, I was tasked with raising money to build wells in rural Vietnam. Although none of these activities were explicitly scientific, they allowed me to build a solid foundation in leadership and a valuable skill set that allowed me to engage in the outreach that I do today.

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Doing arts and crafts in a nursing home.

My senior year of high school, I capitalized on my experiences and started devoting time and energy to STEM fields. The first of my endeavors was tutoring. My school’s chapter of the National Honor Society (NHS) nominated me to coordinate the tutoring program. Every week, I sat in my high school’s library and answered questions fellow high-schoolers had about math and science courses. I also coordinated other tutors’ schedules. Later that year, I was accepted as a leadership council member of the INTERalliance – an organization that promotes local IT talent and encourages them to stay in the Greater Cincinnati area by giving them internship opportunities and other incentives. My work with this group allowed me to give students opportunities to learn programming and other tech skills.

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Volunteering at a one-day event called TechFest. I was one of the delegates from Cincinnati to spread the INTERalliance mission to Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

When I started at The Ohio State University, I decided that being a freshman wouldn’t impact my ability to make meaningful contributions to the community. I also decided that I wanted to give back to the physics community. I was fortunate enough to go to a high school with a wonderful physics program and plenty of opportunities to get engaged in science. I was aware that not everyone had this opportunity, so I wanted to make these options available to others. Physics is awesome, and I think everyone should be able to see the beauty of it rather than the horror stories we often hear. That’s why projects like this blog are so important.  When the only representation of physics is that of an impossible class no one likes, people aren’t motivated to study it. But physics is so much more – it’s a key to understanding the world and universe around us. I believe everyone should have an opportunity to see that. Besides, with more people interested in science, the diversity of people involved increases. This is a good thing, not only so that every segment of the population is represented, but because diversity in science leads to new approaches to answering questions and novel discoveries.

I first started working with the Society of Physics Students (SPS). I asked a colleague from my internship with General Electric (GE) to bring in a few hiring managers to teach students about the possibilities available in industry. In addition to telling us about the IT Leadership Program at GE, we learned about their Global Research Center – a subdivision of GE that develops technology of the future. This subdivision seeks out PhDs for their work – something ideally suited to those wanting to pursue research without academia. Then, I started the Physics Summit – a one day recruitment event for high school students. Both of these experiences allowed me to give back in different ways. The first allowed me to help out physics majors – people that help me in classes, people that are in my lab, and people that are my friends. The second allowed me to reach out to the extended community and give them an opportunity to learn about the amazing possibilities at OSU.

This past year, I was elected to the position of Outreach Coordinator for the Society of Women in Physics (SWiP). There are several things I’d like to accomplish during the remainder of the year. I will organize a toiletry drive benefiting the YWCA. In addition, I’ll run the yearly fundraiser – in the past, funds have gone to purchase microscopes for a local school, to fund the Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics (GRASP) summer camp for middle school girls, and to fund a Wellness and Lactation room for the physics department. I also find volunteers for events. This year, we had members volunteering at the Ohio State Fair. They helped to run a booth that put on physics-based shows and demos to get kids passionate about science. They also volunteered at GRASP. Additionally, I’m the Society of Physics Students Outreach Coordinator. This position is more focused on professionally developing our students – we’ve had a graduate school application workshop and are planning on hosting several other workshops or company visits. In January, we’ll be running demonstrations for a middle school and high school group.

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A physics show put on at the 2007 Ohio State Fair.

Both of these roles are important to me because they allow me to inform the public about science. If people are interested in the STEM fields, then they’re more likely to support any research that is done. And research needs to be supported so we can make advancements in technology that change our daily lives. If people see how much fun science (and specifically physics) can be, they’re more likely to get involved. Then we have a more diverse pool of physicists. These roles also allow me to empower existing scientists and give them opportunities to build their careers and professional selves. By creating stronger scientists, we can further science. Outreach has the capacity to inspire others and engage them in novel ways. To me, that makes it worth it.

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About Tajana Schneiderman

T_BPI am a second-year undergraduate student studying Physics at The Ohio State University. Outside of class, I serve as the Outreach Coordinator for both the Society of Physics Students and the Society of Women in Physics. I also am in my second year of experimental condensed matter research with Dr. Fengyuan Yang. In my free time, I like to read, hike, and knit. When I graduate, I hope to pursue a PhD in physics.

Fire a laser at it!

by Howard Yu

If you’ve ever seen a Star Wars or Star Trek movie, you’re familiar with the concept of a laser, a word that conjures images of fantastic sci-fi space battles. But lasers are no fantasy – they’ve thoroughly infiltrated everyday life, and are used in everything from barcode scanners and DVD drives to industrial cutting, surgery, and of course, scientific research. How do lasers work, and how do we use them in research? I’ll try to address those questions here.

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Truly we live in the future.

Before I talk about lasers, I need to talk a little about light. Physicists use the term “light” to refer to all electromagnetic radiation, which includes the visible light that we see as color, but also things like radio waves, microwaves, and x-rays. Light behaves both like a wave and like a particle, and the individual light particles are called photons (the idea of light as particles originated with Einstein, and is actually the work for which he won the Nobel Prize).

The word “laser” originated as an acronym, standing for light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Essentially, lasers consist of an energy source, a gain medium, and an optical resonator. The gain medium is what makes it possible to generate the laser beam and determines the color of the light produced; this is what people are referring to when they say, for example, “HeNe laser” (say hee-knee). In that case, the gain medium is a mixture of helium (He) and neon (Ne) gas, which produces a red beam. Lasers can be made with many different gain mediums, including dyes, gasses, and solids. First, the energy source generates the first few photons to get the laser started. The photons pass through the gain medium, and each photon interacts with the medium and has a chance to produce another photon traveling in the same direction as the original. This is why the word “gain” is used, because you start with one photon and end up with two. Finally, the optical resonator – at its simplest a pair of mirrors at either end of the laser – passes the photons back and forth through the gain medium, so that each photon produces many additional photons before escaping the resonator. This process results in a steady stream of highly coherent photons.

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Basic design of a laser – in this case, the flashlamp provides the energy source, the Nd:YAG crystal is the gain medium, and the two mirrors form the optical resonator.

The feature that distinguishes a laser from other light sources is the laser’s coherence. Unlike, say, a light bulb, a laser produces light that is almost completely the same color.  (The color of light is determined by its wavelength. Wavelengths of visible light range from about 400 nm to 750 nm – see Andy Berger’s post for an idea of how small that is.) Lasers can be made with a wide variety of wavelengths, ranging from 150 nm to over 1 mm. Different applications have different wavelength requirements – for example, optical disc drives use lasers to read information off of CDs, DVDs, and now Blu-ray discs. The reason Blu-rays can store more data than CDs or DVDs is because the laser used to read the disc is blue, hence the name.  Specifically, Blu-rays use 405 nm light, while CDs and DVDs use 780 and 650 nm respectively.

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Spectrum produced by a fluorescent lamp (left) and by a HeNe laser (right).

Lasers also produce spatially coherent light, by which I mean a laser generally sends photons only in the direction it is pointing. The light from any source will spread out, and lasers are no different (and different lasers will spread at different rates). However, the beam from a flashlight or spotlight will spread out much more quickly than a laser, and we can use various optics to make a laser beam spread very little over long distances (a process called collimation), something that’s only possible because of the laser’s coherence. Even a spotlight is only visible from up to a few miles away, while you could aim an ordinary, well-collimated laser in San Francisco at the Empire State Building and the spot would be maybe a single story tall, so still easily visible (assuming you didn’t hit any mountains along the way). A side effect of this is that you should not be able to see a laser beam if you are not looking right down the beam path, as there simply isn’t any light for your eye to see. When you can see the beam, it’s because some of the light is scattering off particles in the air.

There are a wide variety of measurements you can do with a laser. In our lab, we have a titanium-sapphire laser (Ti:Sapph) that can output about 2 watts of power. We use our laser to investigate different materials properties – one of the basic measurements we do is to just hit a sample with the laser and see what light comes back out. Another measurement that I do is to reflect the beam off of a sample to do a sensitive measurement of its magnetic behavior.

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The inside of our laser (left) and the optical table in our lab (right).

You can see the table has a grid of holes that we use for a variety of equipment, most commonly lenses and mirrors to focus and steer the laser beam. Something we have to keep in mind is that the absolute power of the laser is often not as relevant as the power density. We can focus a laser down to very small spots (about 100 microns in our lab), so the amount of power the laser delivers is also focused into a small area. It’s like using a magnifying glass to start a fire, a staple of survival movies. A typical incandescent light bulb consumes 60 watts of power, which it converts into light and heat (an incandescent bulb is actually much better at producing heat than light). If a laser output that much power and was focused to a 100 micron spot, the power density would be high enough to cut through steel (I have a couple of shirts with holes in them from laser damage).

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Kind of like this. (Goldfinger, 1964)

It’s hard to believe that when they were invented, lasers didn’t have any obvious purpose – they were a solution in search of a problem, a toy for scientists to play with. Today, they’re widely used in both commercial and research applications, from more mundane uses like laser pointers to out-of-this-world uses like igniting nuclear fusion. It just goes to show that as a scientist, you never know when the experiment you’re slaving over could someday affect the lives of millions of people around the world.

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About Howard Yu

ahowardI’m a senior graduate student in Professor Zeke Johnston-Halperin’s lab at OSU. I was born and raised in California, but chose to come to Ohio anyway. In my free time, I read a lot of books, watch a lot of movies, and play soccer and basketball. After graduating, I hope to work in public policy.