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Physics Students Earn Over $50,000 in Summer Funds

By Ariana Stone

Photo: John Geraghty, working at a NIST lab.

This summer, physics students have had “record success” in obtaining internship and hands-on research opportunities, according to professor Phil Johnson, physics internship and research coordinator. Students earned more than $50,000 in stipends, room, and board, with approximately $45,000 coming from external grants and scholarships. In all, students have been working with institutions locally, nationally, and abroad.

“The number of physics majors has surged over the last few years, and the high level of activity in the department among faculty, staff, and students is attracting extremely motivated and talented students,” says Johnson. “This means we have more strong students applying to research positions overall.”

Given AU’s proximity to influential institutions, most students are working at local facilities, doing hands-on research with established physicists. “This lets us have the best of both worlds: a relatively small department with a close-knit group of students and faculty on campus, but with easy access to many opportunities for students to engage research at prestigious labs in the area,” says Johnson. Take, for example, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)'s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship, which includes a $4,500 stipend, travel, and housing. “Although NIST is not as familiar a name as NASA to the public, it is home to one of the most preeminent physics laboratories in the world, with hundreds of physicists,” says Johnson.

This year, three AU students received NIST fellowships, including Virginia Perkey, CAS ’11, Michelle Nadeau, CAS ’12, and John Geraghty, CAS ’11. Geraghty is working to yield the most accurate possible measurement of Planck’s constant—a fundamental constant in nature that helps control how big quantum physics effects are. He is working at a lab in an isolated wood building—a condition necessary to prevent disturbance from external magnetic fields. “I’ve been using a lot of my electronics and computer science knowledge from my classes, but I am also learning a lot,” says Geraghty. Perkey is developing a new type of T-wave sensor that could be used to study Earth’s atmosphere from space. Nadeau is working on a groundbreaking quantum physics experiment that could lead to the development of innovative technologies, such as quantum teleportation of information.

Several students are conducting research on campus, such as Michael Roberts, CAS ’12, and Robert VanKirk, CAS ‘12, who received AU Undergraduate Research Awards: Roberts, to work with Johnson on an ultracold quantum physics project at AU and NIST, and VanKirk, to work on a quantum mechanics of light experiment on campus. Several students are working at NASA, such as Greg Clarke, CAS ’12, and Andrew Feierman, CAS/SIS ’12, who are working on lasers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Applied physics minor Caitlyn Quinn, Kogod ’10, has a paid internship at the Flight Center, working on the “Smoke Point in Co-flow Experiment.” Betsy White, CAS ’11, is conducting NASA-funded research at AU on astrophysics with physics department chair UJ Sofia.

Beyond D.C., Brian Waligorski, CAS ’11, is at the University of Wisconsin, working on simulations of the evolution of the universe and the possible role of the newly discovered dark energy. David Menasche, CAS ’11, is in Germany on a prestigious Research Internship in Science and Engineering (RISE) from a German academic exchange program, working with a graduate student on acoustical physics and studying intensive German.

“It is a top departmental priority to encourage and facilitate undergraduate student research in physics,” says Johnson. “Research has shown that this is a critical characteristic of vital and exciting physics departments, and is very important for the student’s future career goals. All of the physics faculty put a lot of time into helping our students get involved in research on and off campus.”