What these students did for their summer vacation: 2016 undergraduate research at KIPAC!

by Lori Ann White

Some things just go together. Hot dogs and mustard, smart phones and selfies, school and summer vacation. But science is a year-round proposition, and several undergrads didn't seem to mind forgoing their summer vacations to pursue a variety of research opportunities with members of KIPAC. (Protip: it’s never too soon to start thinking about next summer!)

SULI students come to SLAC

Nine students from around the U.S. came to KIPAC in June of 2016 via the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) program, sponsored by the Department of Energy. They contributed to a full range of projects, from efforts to directly detect particles of dark matter, to working on a cutting-edge spectroscopic instrument that will contribute to the understanding of dark energy, to doing analysis on some of the most energetic electromagnetic waves in the universe.

SULI students (from left) Nathan Sandford (advisors: Eric Charles and Mattia di Mauro), Jacqueline Beechert (advisor: Kevin Reil, who wrote this previous KIPAC blogpost), and Angela Bai (advisors: Richard Partridge and Noah Kurinsky), kicking back in the Kavli Building at SLAC.

One SULI student, Angela Bai, was even willing to venture beyond her major to take advantage of the opportunity to explore the universe.  In her ‘normal’ life she is a biology student at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., but Bai spent her summer "modeling electric fields for the development of the high-voltage detector," to be employed by the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) to look for particles of the elusive stuff.

"I really like the biology major at Georgetown and I wouldn't change," she says, but adds that she would like to try something different after the biology degree. Or even sooner. "I wanted to do astrophysics research," she says. "Though I originally wanted to do something related to the cosmic microwave background, just being in this environment and able to talk to people about dark matter is really cool."

Jacqueline Beechert, a physics major at the University of Michigan, says that her work writing guide focus and alignment software for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument's (DESI's) guide camera was her first experience with astrophysics research, but she didn't stray quite as far from her educational origins. She has also done work for KOTO, a study of rare K meson decays at Japan's Proton Accelerator Research Complex.

"I really enjoyed it," she says of her summer delving into astrophysics research. "It's definitely something I'll want to pursue in graduate school." Mindful of the "PA" in KIPAC's name, as well as her own previous undergraduate research experience, Beechert said she's interested in particle astrophysics. And in coming back to KIPAC for grad school.

Nathan Sandford, a SULI student from Pomona College in southern California, has already decided on an astronomy concentration with his physics major, but was still able to gain experience in a new area: analyzing Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope (FGST) data from dwarf galaxies in search of dark matter. He had previously worked on galaxy evolution simulations. "It's been really interesting to be exposed to this completely different area," he says.

Some of the other SULI students (from left) Jenny Smith (advisor: Zeeshan Ahmed), Christian Gilbertson (advisor: Maria Dainotti, who has also written a previous blogpost in this venue), and Nitika Yadlapalli (advisor: Giacomo Vianelli, who wrote this previously in the KIPAC blog) presenting their findings at the end of summer forum where all students discussed their results.

Stanford undergrads have fruitful summer

Meanwhile, several of the more than 30 Stanford physics undergrads who spent their summer conducting research contributed to KIPAC projects. Some of their research: purifying xenon for the LUX-Zeplin dark matter search; creating galaxy simulations for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project; investigating properties of neutron stars; building the telescopes that detect the cosmic microwave background; and even finding ways to use string theory to describe black holes.

None of the students seemed to mind spending the summer at Stanford. For Albert Wandui, it wasn't even his first time giving up a vacation. He first appeared in this blog just prior to his trip to the South Pole over winter break in 2015-2016, and his summer research was a continuation of the work he's done for the BICEP3 experiment, developing and then fabricating mesh filters to screen out infrared radiation and help keep the detector cool.


Albert Wandui with poster.

"I was able to really characterize them," he says, including discovering some fabrication problems he was able to solve. "We can now manufacture much higher-quality filters." Wandui hopes to go back to the South Pole during his next winter break.

Recent KIPAC postdoc Kate Follette (who has also appeared in this blog) is joining the faculty of Amherst College in the spring and was able to give a couple of future students (including Clare Leonard, below), the opportunity to start their research early. According to Leonard, "I heard Kate talk about searching for exoplanets when she came to Amherst to interview for the position," said Leonard, and now when Follette takes up her position, Leonard will be able to jump right in.


Clare Leonard, an undergraduate at Amherst, 
explains her research to Greg Madejski.

Paul Draghis, who recently began his sophomore year, passed up a trip home to Romania for the chance to work with KIPAC faculty member Roger Romani on neutron star research (another subject covered previously in this blog, back in 2014). Draghis made a last-minute discovery about a neutron star that's a member of a binary system—the temperature of the side facing away from its partner star is higher than theorized—that not only required some fast revision of his poster, it's requiring some rethinking of how heat circulates on a very special type of neutron star.

"This temperature discrepancy may be common to black widows," he says, referring to the type of neutron star that "eats" its companion by pulling matter off the other star with its powerful gravitational pull. "Making a discovery is really exciting."


Paul Draghis with poster.

On the more theoretical astrophysical front, Ethan Sussman did some advanced work with Shamit Kachru which resulted in a rather impressive poster, pictured below. Sussman's research tended more toward pure mathematics—specifically, number theory—to solve equations that reveal the entropy of a special type of black hole. "This project was unusually sophisticated for an undergraduate," says Kachru, but "Ethan's performance was extremely impressive, and in fact he is now writing a research paper on his results with one of my graduate students who was working on similar problems."


Ethan Sussman's poster summarizing his black hole research.

It's never too soon for undergraduate students who want the opportunity to spend their summers making discoveries to start preparing for 2017! SULI applications are due mid-January.

Stanford undergraduates interested in summer research can start with Summer Research for Undergraduates, on the Stanford Department of Physics website.