Physics Students Participate in National Science Foundation Internships

Photo of Jonathan Kessler

Jonathan Kessler, a Southeast Physics student from Evansville, Ill., standing in front of the experimental SciBath detector.

CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., July 9, 2008 — If you’ve ever read a cyberpunk novel, you’re probably familiar with terms such as “nanotechnology” and “molecular assembler.” It is, thus far, impossible to create matter out of thin air; nonetheless, nanotechnology is a quickly developing field of science.

Three students from Southeast’s Department of Physics and Engineering Physics are completing National Science Foundation funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) internships this summer, and two of the three students are working with those once-fictionalized concepts. Clayton Schenk, a native of Evansville, Ill., is working with the Interdisciplinary Materials Research Group at Southern Illinois University (SIU), and Jonathan Kessler, also a native of Evansville, Ill., is working with the Neutrino Physics and the Nuclear Physics Groups at Indiana University. Janessa Burford of Benton, Mo., is working with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Jonathan said he was prompted by his Southeast professors to apply for various REU programs. He stumbled across the application for Indiana’s program on the National Science Foundation’s Web site.

“When I received my acceptance e-mail, I couldn’t turn it down because I’ve been anxious to get started on some type of project in particle physics,” said Jonathan. Jonathan said he is one of the top 14 of more than 100 applicants who applied for this REU.

“I’m proud to get to work around some of the brightest students in physics from across the country,” said Jonathan.

His project, officially titled “Particle Detection with a SciBath Detector,” will be completed mostly by his advisor and himself, although there are two graduate students and one other undergraduate working with them. Jonathan is helping to build and assemble Indiana University’s scibath detector, which will be used to detect and track particles such as neutrons, neutrinos and muons, or heavy electrons.

“These types of particles, especially the neutrons and neutrinos, are extremely hard to detect because of how rarely they interact with matter,” said Jonathan. “In fact, a neutrino could travel through hundreds or even thousands of miles of lead before ever interacting with another particle. Modern detectors are extremely large and have limited tracking abilities; however, this detector hopes to increase these capabilities to the next level.”

Jonathan said most of his work will be using computer software created for the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and highest-energy particle accelerator located in Geneva, Switzerland. Using this software, Jonathan will simulate the detection of radiation from nuclear plants and devices.

“More simply,” said Jonathan, “I’ll write a computer program to determine if Indiana’s device will work as predicted. If it does, there will be more interest in completing a larger scale project of this type.” 

Jonathan said the Department of Physics at Southeast introduced him to many beneficial skills.

“At Southeast, I’ve been introduced to a number of useful skills in a laboratory setting,” said Jonathan. “I’ve even learned through the experiences of my professors themselves because of the small personal atmosphere of our program.”

Jonathan hopes to graduate from Southeast in December 2009 with a bachelor of science degree in physics, mathematics and engineering physics. Three majors require an immense amount of work, but Jonathan, who said, “I just couldn’t make up my mind in the beginning and decided to stick with all three,” wants to maintain the intensity he has created for himself.

“I plan to attend graduate school to get a doctoral degree in physics,” said Jonathan. “I’m still deciding which area of physics I want to pursue. This opportunity is going to play an important role in the decisions I make after this experience.”

Not surprisingly, Jonathan’s goals don’t end at a doctorate. His sights are set on what’s happening in Switzerland.

“I would like to visit and hopefully, someday, have the chance to work in collaboration with a group at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research] near Geneva, Switzerland,” said Jonathan.

While it’s true that knowing the right people can sometimes help to reveal opportunities, many times it’s more about being observant. Clayton Schenk said he first learned of his internship at SIU from a sign on the wall.

“I knew of the REU program through other students,” said Clayton, “but I saw a sign on the wall in the physics wing for the internship at SIU and said, ‘I can do this!’”

Clayton’s official project title is “Synthesis and Characterization of Ferromagnetic Alloy Nanowires.” In layman’s terms, Clayton’s lab is researching nano materials (very tiny materials); more specifically, carbon nanotubes, or very small tubes of carbon. Accompanied by two graduate students, one post-doctoral student and an advisor, Clayton’s main job is to grow the carbon nanotubes and measure their electrical properties. On a larger scale, Clayton said the carbon nanotubes show a current density and thermal conductivity greater than copper, so they could be used in applications to increase the speed and/or thermal components of various electronics, such as computers.

On any given day, he attends to the various aspects of the experiment, grows nanotubes and makes the electrical device for the required measurements. He said the REU administration also gives interns several opportunities for socialization at SIU, such as attending a Cardinals game, touring the local plastics factory, going to summer concerts or attending weekly lunches.

“This has given me great insight into what graduate research would be like,” said Clayton. “It can be taken further into a professional career. I haven’t made any definite future plans, but I now feel more ready to tackle the challenges presented in a research environment. In the REU group, it is interesting to live and do the same kinds of things with people from all around the country.”

Clayton plans to graduate with a bachelor of science degree in engineering physics: applied physics and engineering option in May of 2009. He would like to attend graduate school once he has his bachelor’s degree, but he said he is undecided about the specifics. He said his education at Southeast gave him a more rounded view of life.

“Southeast has taught me to be more of an extroverted person,” said Clayton. “My experience here has enabled me to develop interests I would not have otherwise pursued.”

Jonathan also hails Southeast’s role in his extracurricular activities.

“I would say my biggest regret since I started Southeast is that I did not take advantage of the student organizations sooner,” said Jonathan. “I’m now an active member of the Math Club, the Physics & Engineering Club and Phi Kappa Phi. I’m also a newly elected Student Government senator. If I had gotten more active during my first or second semester on campus, instead of waiting until my fifth and sixth semester, I would have been more prepared and successful in the positions I now hold.”

Clayton’s advice for students of the University is congruent with his recent opportunities and successes.

“Read the signs on the wall!” said Clayton. “Getting A’s in school is meaningless without the ability to work with others and be sociable. Work hard on your studies, but take the time in and out of the classroom to talk and have fun with your peers.”