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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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!

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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 www.physics-andrea.com and follow me on Twitter @PhysicsAndrea.