Physics students join research at Los Alamos

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Some ACU students spend their summers traveling abroad to such exciting places as England and Uruguay. Some spend their free time on mission trips or doing volunteer work or taking a job to earn extra money.
And some ACU students spend their summer working to make nuclear reactors safer for America and for the rest of the world.

los alamosLast summer, three students worked with the ACU nuclear physics research group at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico. Sarvagya Sharma, Tyler Thornton and Nathan Pickle participated in a project known as NIFFTE. The acronym stands for Neutron Induced Fission Fragment Tracking Experiment and is funded by the Department of Energy. Its goal is to study atomic fission more precisely in an effort to construct new nuclear reactors that are safer and produce less waste. It will do so by creating a new detector far superior to older models, one which can give a 3-D image of a neutron being absorbed by a nucleus and splitting into two smaller parts.

The project, which has been in existence for two years, is a collaborative effort between three laboratories and six universities: Los Alamos National Lab, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Idaho National Laboratory, Oregon State University, Ohio State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Colorado School of Mines, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and ACU. All nine of these institutions send students and personnel to work on different aspects of the project - including coding, electronics and experimentation.

Exceptional experience for physics students

los alamosThe ACU Nuclear Physics Research Group routinely takes students to several national laboratories each summer to do research, and Los Alamos has been a target destination for several years. Professors encourage students to do research at one of the national labs over the summer; if interested, students can apply to the ACU Nuclear Physics Group. Selected students are then recommended to apply for a lab-funded position, where they can work with high-quality researchers on projects that relate to their chosen fields.

Dr. Rusty Towell, ACU professor of physics, points out that such experience is both a privilege and an honor for the students.

"Our get students get to work with the best researchers," he said. "It really is world-class research."

Towell, who is one of two senior scientists from ACU to participate in the program, is also a principal investigator for ACU. He works with students during the school year who are continuing the research they started in the summer, holding weekly meetings in order to check on their progress and discuss questions they may have.

"It's crucial to their full development," he said.

One of the most important components of the project is a computer simulation of the time-projection chamber (TPC), a machine that tracks the paths of fission fragments that are produced by the neutron induced fission of a nucleus. Building a real-life TPC is very expensive, particularly when multiple unknown factors might affect its performance. Researchers in the NIFFTE collaboration are therefore working on a virtual model that allows them to test the design and observe it via a computer screen before the real detector is built.

Sarvagya Sharma was involved in this section of the project, taking data from the computerized TCP and analyzing it. His computer code tracks the fragments' movement through a series of electronic cells and gets information about what cells receive fragments. He wants to know two things: how many tracks the fragments create and how to find the closest possible line going through all the nuclear fragments.

A complex experiment

That may sound complicated or impossibly complex. But Sarvagya has no problems with it.

"I did the fun stuff," he said.

los alamosHe worked alongside Tyler Thornton, who was also working on designing the computerized simulation. Tyler, who was working on data simulation, made adjustments to better simulate live data; he also worked to include "noise," or interference from external factors in the model. In an effort to simulate more realistic data, he tried to give a more accurate description of what actually happens in a time-projection chamber.

Nathan Pickle wasn't involved directly in data imaging or simulation; in his words, he was doing "nuts and bolts kind of work." His job was to work with the hardware that will ultimately control temperature measurements in the real TPC. The data acquisition software provided to monitor the measurements wasn't compatible with the hardware provided, so Nathan worked with Tyler on re-writing the code for the software. Someday, this system will measure temperature, air pressure and voltages in a physical TPC.

The goal for this section of the project is to integrate software and hardware so that researchers can take measurements from labs across the country and be able to access them from any given location. This part of the project is the first step to the real data, Nathan says. The hardware can be used for troubleshooting problems in the experiment, as well as finding strange things happening in the lab where the TPC will be kept.

Students, professors work together

While at the lab, he and the other ACU students communicated frequently with their mentors back at ACU. Weekly phone calls with the research group, frequent email exchanges, and local supervision from collaborators helped the students develop a sense of independence while providing them with the resources crucial to their success. Members of the physics department - including Dr. Isenhower, Dr. Qu, Dr. Towell and Mr. Watson - also visited the lab during the summer.  

The mentoring provided by the university gave the research group the knowledge and skills they needed. Even though they ended up doing some work on their own, the students knew they were prepared to take on unexpected challenges.

"Sometimes it was slow going, but it was a good learning experience," Nathan said.

Even though working with computer coding isn't his area of interest or expertise, he found the project interesting and a good way to increase his skills.

"It was good to challenge myself," he said. "It's a great opportunity ACU provides."

The effects of this sort of research are far-reaching, both for students and for the project itself. Rusty Towell points out two of the major benefits for students: a better classroom experience and better opportunities for graduate school.

"It makes the classroom more fun when they come back," he said. "[And] our students are sought for and accepted into some of the best graduate programs in the country."

The students concur, citing personal experience and career goals as evidence.

"Doing research as an undergraduate is great when it comes to applying to grad schools," Tyler Thornton said. "It also helps in class work … you're used to having to solve difficult problems."

Sarvagya Sharma agrees with him.

"It has something to do with my major, definitely," he said. "It's really something to be working with people who have so much experience in their field."

A chance to present at Hawaii conference

ACU students and faculty aren’t the only ones who notice the difference extracurricular research can make. Thirteen ACU students, including the three who worked at Los Alamos over the summer, were selected to present their research to the American Physical Society Conference in Waikoloa, Hawaii, this fall. This is an international conference that includes physicists from both the United States and Japan, and is a chance for these students to not only present their work, but also to learn from that of other students and researchers.

The directors of the project have also noticed the research done by these students as well as others working at the lab. Sarvagya points out that as a team they had two goals this year: to take real measurements, and to re-create an entire experiment using a computerized simulation.

"We've been consistently meeting those [goals]," he said.

In their spare time, the three ACU students didn't just sit working in the laboratory. They went to church with the local congregation, spent time outdoors hiking and having bonfire nights with the youth group, and went rock-climbing at the YMCA. All three found Los Alamos beautiful, surrounded by mountains and offering a wealth of scenery.

"Los Alamos is a great place," Tyler said.

The summer was busy, filled with the challenges of research, the pressure of fulfilling goals, and the fun of spending time with friends in the local community. But the rewards are already making themselves known: a heightened classroom experience, better chances of getting into good graduate programs, and a sense of learning new skills and improving old ones. Perhaps Nathan Pickle managed to sum it up best.

"It was a cool place, cool experience, neat people."

Learn more about attending ACU 

ACU Undergrads at National Labs
ACU's engineering and physics students help conduct nuclear physics research at national labs each summer. See their experiences at Fermilab and Brookhaven.
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