Contributing to an International Collaboration as an Undergraduate

by Paul Schellin

The evening before the physics GRE (a test required for my graduate school applications) I received an email from my advisor asking if I was interested in a project involving hardware work. I have been working on the hardware for two different ultra-high energy neutrino detectors (ANITA and ARA) for about two years now, so this was not unusual. The difference with this request was that the work would be in Taiwan, and that a colleague of mine, Eugene (a PhD student), and I would be traveling there for two weeks!

I can’t say that I when I began my undergraduate research I thought that I would have the opportunity to travel overseas to work on a project, and as such I was extremely excited about this request from my advisor. I got very little sleep thinking about it that night, but still I went in to take the GRE feeling pretty confident. The rest of the summer I spent preparing myself for the work by learning as much as possible about the systems that we would be working with and the measurements we would want to make.

Soon enough though, I found myself having taken the ~24 hour journey to Taiwan. During our first hour on the campus of National Taiwan University (NTU) we were already lost, but luckily a couple capable of understanding English were able to point us to the hotel where we would be staying.

The next day was full of introductions and acclimation, but it was made very easy for Eugene and I. We felt right at home in their laboratory and everyone was friendly to us and always offering to help. The communication in the lab was already in English on a day-to-day basis, as their research group is advised by a professor from South Korea (who does not speak much Chinese). During our stay there were also two visiting researchers from Japan, all working alongside us toward the same goal.

What I did in Taiwan is probably best explained by the flow of the average day:

We woke up in the early morning, having slept on these bamboo-ish mattresses. Showered, headed to Taiwan’s cafe-style version of 7-Eleven for breakfast. For breakfast there I generally had these triangles of rice and fish wrapped in seaweed, which were really pretty tasty.

After breakfast we walked through the early morning heat to the physics building. Every time I walked somewhere in Taipei, I was seriously dumbfounded by the amount of litter in this city. There isn’t any. None. This makes me reflect upon the respect individuals in East Asia seem to have toward their city, and I can’t help but compare this to Americans and Europeans.

Upon arriving to the physics building, we would swipe a card to enter. There are at least three security cameras to every room and hallway on the ground floor. We’d take the elevator (which normally tried to have some sort of conversation with me, but I could never understand exactly what the elevator was trying to convey…) up to the ninth floor, where the lab is.  Just like at American universities, the grad students tend to arrive a good amount after 9am.

The view from the lab’s windows is gorgeous. I can see the Taipei traffic come and go as well as the mountains around this side of the city.  You can actually see a good amount of the surrounding area too, since most buildings in that direction aren’t too tall.  Eventually, I have to stop staring out the window and actually do work.

The view from the lab in Taipei.

We would start off our day assembling the components to be tested. We were testing the radio equipment (coaxial cables, amplifiers, filters, and fiber transceivers) that would be deployed with a new station for ARA. These measurements not only allow us to verify that each component works, but they also enable more accurate simulations of the detector as well as improve analysis of the collected data after the detector is deployed. A lot of care had to be taken during these measurements, documenting which wire went to which component and recording every serial number combination. It was rather tedious, but I could at least talk to the other researchers in the lab during this time (there were a few electrical engineers and grad students who did arrive before 10am), so I was able to learn quite a bit about academic life outside of the West.

After we finished whichever component testing rig we were working on, the fun could begin. We would hop into the elevator with the rig, go down to the second basement, through a dark, abandoned parking garage, and through double doors. Inside, there are working lights and turning them on reveals the door to a large anechoic RF-shielded chamber.

The anechoic chamber.

We would run a bunch of tests on the components, measuring several electrical properties of each component and comparing them to either the expected values or the “ideal” values. For the most part the tests were executed properly, which was quite a rewarding feeling. The Antarctic-bound detector we were working on has a really strict shipping schedule, so it is very important that every component is carefully tested as any major setback has a chance to delay the deployment by an entire year. After finishing the tests, we would retrieve the components and return to the lab. By that time most of the group would have arrived, and we’d discuss things that needed to be done, things which were behind schedule, and results that others had attained. The rest of the day we typically spent compiling all of our data together into plots to be presented to the collaboration members. This was my least favorite part, but without it no one would be able to make heads or tails of what we were doing and what our results actually meant. When we finished the data compilation, it was around dinner time.

Every night (for two weeks!) we would have dinner at a different restaurant. There was a wide variety of food, mainly different East Asian dishes, all of which were excellent. I’ve added quite a few meals to my “to-attempt-to-replicate” list, so it will be a while before I run out of things to try to cook.

Since returning from Taiwan, I’ve resumed my regular class and research schedule. I have found that the work we did has improved my understanding of several concepts which have been useful in the development of detector simulations for my research, but also helpful in my classes, for example in my senior lab class I was able to apply techniques of making data less noisy, allowing me to take on and resolve a tricky data analysis predicament. The most remarkable thing which I’ve taken away from the experience, however, was seeing the results of the work that has been done at Ohio State and at all of the other collaborating universities being pieced together to form a complete, functional system. Seeing this after two years working on the project reminded me of the importance of every individual’s contribution to the finished product, a thought which I will not forget anytime soon.

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About Paul Schellin

I grew up in Port Clinton, Ohio, hoping to study robot engineering, but after spending a year abroad in Germany after high school, my ambition shifted toward studying physics and astronomy, which I am currently doing as a senior at Ohio State. I am currently working on research focusing on detecting ultra-high energy (UHE) neutrinos and cosmic rays using the ANITA and ARA detectors. Next year I plan on continuing my physics education at the graduate level, though I’m not sure where just yet.

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Standing Out in a Crowd

by Andrea Albert

Hi there, I’m Andrea Albert and here’s a look into my life as a physics graduate student.  I’m entering my fourth and final year at OSU and will be defending–successfully, I hope!–my PhD thesis in the spring.  Since graduation is right around the corner I’ve been thinking a lot about my post-graduation research options.

I am a member of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (Fermi LAT) collaboration, which is an international group of ~400 scientists who maintain and analyze data from the LAT.  The LAT is a telescope in space that is surveying gamma rays.  Gamma rays are super energetic photons, or light particles, that come from the most violent, extreme processes in the universe like spinning neutron star jets and supernovae!  Our data is publicly available so anyone–even you!–can download and analyze Fermi LAT data.

As a high-energy physicist, I am no stranger to working in large collaborations.  The Fermi LAT collaboration is small compared to the teams that discovered the Higgs Boson–CMS and ATLAS.  There are thousands of physicists on those experiments.  In my case, I work closely with about a dozen collaboration members whom I almost never see.  They are in Sweden, Italy, or California so we mostly communicate via email or group conference calls.  In that sort of environment it is very easy to just sit back and listen, which is pretty much what I did for my first year and a half of graduate school.  I absorbed a lot of information, but few people in the collaboration knew who I was.

In the spring of 2011 I was almost done with classes and had started my own research project.  As I progressed, my advisers encouraged me to give frequent updates at our collaboration conference calls.  At first I was intimidated to be presenting my results to a group of more experienced physicists.  Would I come across as a complete moron who had no idea what she was doing?  Thankfully this was fundamental research and I quickly realized that we were all investigating the unknown together.  My colleagues are great about giving me tips of things to look at or details about the instrument to keep in mind.

Over the past year and a half my visibility within the collaboration has grown.   Now I have collaboration members asking for my advice, too!  A few weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., for our annual collaboration meeting.  I had a great time finally meeting several colleagues whom I had worked with via email or over the phone, but had not met face-to-face.  I was also given the opportunity to present a status update on my research to the entire collaboration.  This was awesome and I was so thankful they were confident in asking me instead of my adviser.  Since I had made myself so visible within the collaboration, it was obvious to everyone that I had done the majority of the work on my current analysis and so it made sense for me to give the update.

Also, while I was at the collaboration meeting, I started asking around about potential postdoctoral research position openings at other institutions.  Much to my surprise, several professors told me they were impressed by my work and wanted to help me get a position at their institution or where ever I wanted to go.  Now I know I will have strong letters of recommendation from scientists besides my adviser, which is really important for postdoctoral applications.

Physicists have a reputation for being somewhat anti-social, but even physicists need to network and create good professional relationships with the people who are going to help them get to the next level.  I think this applies for any aspiring scientist, even one who’s still in high school because you will need recommendation letters for college applications.  Recommendation letters from people who have seen you in action count more than from someone who can only say “well he/she got a really good grade in my class”.   All of my major opportunities that have helped shape me into the scientist I am today would not have been possible without my mentors along the way helping to open doors for me.  Of course those doors would have shut quickly if I had not stepped up and proved myself to be an excellent scientist too.

I’m excited about finishing up my thesis and moving on to a new institution to do research as a postdoc.  It looks like I will have choices regarding where I end up and will be working with great people who want to work with me as well.  It would have been easy to just sit in the background in the Fermi LAT collaboration, but I am so glad my advisers encouraged me to make myself visible because it has led me to develop several strong professional relationships with the physicists I work with.

Here I am (back row, fifth person from the right) at the 2011 Fermi Summer School.  The two week summer school is held annually by the Fermi Collaboration and introduces new members to research using Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

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About Andrea Albert

I grew up as an Air Force brat and have lived all over the United States.  I went to an all-girls high school in Connecticut called Miss Porter’s School where I had fantastic science teachers who encouraged my interest in physics.  I received my B.S. in Astrophysics and Religious Studies from Rice University in Houston, Texas.  I got involved in research right away in college and have always loved it more than class work.  I came to Ohio State early to do research the summer before classes started and have been with my group ever since.  My advisers are Richard Hughes and Brian Winer and we search for gamma rays from dark matter interactions in the galaxy.  So far we have only seen dark matter through its gravitational influence, and many physicists these days are trying to find a difference kind of signal, like gamma rays.  Besides research, I have also been in an a capella group, am an active member of the Graduate Women in Physics group, and have performed dozens of physics outreach shows around Columbus.