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.
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.
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.
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
Three 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.