Physics Students Assist with Research at National Lab

By Becky St. Clair on April 15, 2019

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Last quarter, a few PUC physics students were given the opportunity to visit and assist with research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee. The idea was to give the students hands-on research experience in order to explore what research is like in a laboratory setting.

PUC is one of three collaborative institutions working with ORNL and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to investigate X-ray-induced charge transfer.

“This concept is not completely understood, due to lack of data,” junior chemistry major and trip participant Vola-Masoandro Andrianarijaona explains. “The research we’re doing seeks to better understand cosmic ray background.”

To do this, there are two different sets of measurements that must be considered: the rocket measurement (aka: “all sky survey”) and the laboratory measurement. The former is done by NASA, the latter by ORNL, using the same rocket.

“The laboratory measurement requires the ion beam to simulate the ions present in space that contributed to the data in the all sky survey,” Andrianarijaona details. “Then, the data from the all sky survey and the laboratory measurement will be compared to determine if the ion beam produces the same ions that are present in space.”

While at ORNL, Andrianarijaona and her fellow PUC students participated in fine-tuning the ion beam to optimize the measurements taken by the rocket. This must be done for high-sensitivity measurements, including adjusting diffraction gratings via computer, reading the ion beam current via ammeter, and recording the current of the ion beam vs. time.

“The biggest thing I learned on this trip is there is so much left for me to learn,” Andrianarijaona says with a laugh. “Yet, the information I have learned in class explains the basics behind the research, so this trip also confirmed for me it’s really important to pay attention in class.”

This visit to ORNL was made possible through Andrianarijaona’s father, who shares her name and is a physics professor at PUC. His connections with ORNL extend into a research grant he acquired in 2016, allowing him to get undergraduate students involved in the work.

“Mostly, I accept these opportunities for my students,” he says. “I want them to have these incredible experiences because I believe it helps them understand what their future in physics research looks like, should they choose to pursue it after college.”

Andrianarijaona agrees visiting and working with researchers at ORNL was eye-opening and inspiring.

“These ambitious projects have smaller detailed tasks that must be considered for the best results,” she says. “When working on these tasks, I realized the research project had to be heavily thought out and many people collaborated on different parts to produce the data for the research. It was a great educational experience to visit ORNL, and really helped build upon what I have been learning in class.”

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