In this edition of the Friday Newsletter, we celebrate our student researchers and look ahead to the next speaker series event on near-Earth asteroids!
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
This was an exhilarating week … no foolin’! Students from across the university presented their work during Research and Innovation Week at SMU. It was a chance to celebrate new ideas, new initiatives, and even dead ends and wrong turns … all essential to the progress of human knowledge. (“SMU Physics Students Shine During Research and Innovation Week“)
We are excited about the coming weeks as the Speaker Series will continue unabated through the end of the term, May 2. That last event – The Spring Colloquium – will be announced soon once we finalize the details of the event. Needless to say we will continue the tradition of capping off each term with a big event, including a featured speaker and a celebration afterward. Look for details about this in an upcoming issue of the newsletter … no foolin’!
There has also been a shift in Fondren Science Building in the last few weeks. Over Spring Break, the Physics Department coordinated and partnered with Dedman College, and particularly the facilities director of the college, to create two new spaces in the building for all to enjoy. As any user of this building knows, it lacks useful social and common work spaces. This era is now ended.
In the basement (ground floor) of the building, right at the bottom of the central staircase, you will now find the Rosalind Franklin Reading Area. There are tables, chairs (including a comfy one that is good for napping), and a stocked whiteboard for conversations. You will also find reading material from the Departments of Biology, Chemistry, and Physics to peruse if you are bored. As I wrote in the letter I have left in the reading area,
This space, the first common area on the ground level of Fondren Science Building in at least the last decade, lives at the intersection of three STEM departments at SMU. The Department of Biology’s teaching laboratories line the main corridor of this level. The Department of Chemistry has research laboratories in the area behind the central staircase. The Department of Physics has offices, teaching, and research laboratories throughout this level. This is, quite literally, the place in Fondren Science Building that is the crossroads of these three great fields of science.
This reading area is for all students, staff, and faculty who work or pass through this part of our STEM program here at SMU. Sit and read a book. Plug in your laptop or mobile device and read, work, or just charge. Take a nap in the big comfy reading chair. Work at the whiteboard with peers on a tough problem or question. This space is for all of you who need a place to sit, think, rest, contemplate, or just relax.
Rosalind Franklin is crucial to the history of science. She worked at the intersection of biology, chemistry, and physics to identify the double-helix structure of DNA using X-ray crystallography. Who better to represent the intersection of our fields than someone who crossed them with such lasting impact on the human species? At SMU, all of us strive to redefine the frontier of knowledge. Use this space in whatever way you need to further that goal.
In addition, the lobby of the building, which has only ever contained built-in benches with no useful work surfaces, now contains two large 3’x3′ tables and a bunch of cafe chairs. Students can gather around the tables, or work solo on something on their laptop, and finally have a more comfortable setup to do this.
I am eternally grateful to Dedman College for providing about half the furniture for these two spaces. It’s an excellent example of partnerships in the university, but also efficiencies in the reuse of existing resources to improve SMU and drive us to be the best version of ourselves.
In this edition, we celebrate our student researchers and look ahead to the next speaker series event on near-Earth asteroids!
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
SMU Physics Students Shine During Research and Innovation Week
Physics graduate and undergraduate students displayed and discussed their research during two poster sessions this week. The first was on Tuesday and featured undergraduate research. The second was on Wednesday, and focused on graduate student research. Students in the physics program at SMU made strong showings on both days.
Faith Fang, working in the LUMINA Laboratory with Prof. Jodi Cooley and Research Assistant Professor Rob Calkins, shared her investigations into radon “plate out” on polyethylene, a common plastic used by dark matter (and other) experiments. In particular, she used a “wind ring” to expose plastic samples to a radon source. The ring channels a flow of air continuously over the sample, and the source steadily emits radon. As a result, plastic is continuously exposed to a rather constant rate of radon gas.
However, she found that despite those conditions different plastic samples appeared differently contaminated. She traced this to the fact that by moving, placing, etc. these plastic samples they were each picking up different amounts of static charge (e.g. from the triboelectric effect). The electric fields of the plastic samples were, therefore, each different in an uncontrolled way. Electric fields are known to alter how radon sticks to surfaces.
She showed that by removing or controlling static charge and putting in place other systems in the wind ring (such as an anti-static fan), the amount of contamination by radon became rather consistent. Polyethylene is commonly used in storage containers in clean rooms and other facilities core to dark matter research. Understanding how the polythylene itself might become (or not) contaminated by radon gas, which can then contaminate samples stored inside the containers, is a key question for future dark matter experiments.
Faith won top honors on the undergraduate poster day for her research, poster, and her engaging presentation and ability to respond to questions.
The graduate poster day was equally exciting. Three physics Ph.D. students, as well as an Engineering and Physics Major in the Lyle School 4+1 Masters program, showcased their work on Wednesday. Santosh Parajuli, working with the SMU ATLAS group and mentored by Prof. Allison Deiana, discussed his work on a “catch more” method to search for the production and decay of two Higgs bosons during a single proton-proton collision in the Large Hadron Collider. Traditional approaches focus on single promising channels and work hard to enhance the signal in those channels. Santosh’s approach, instead, gathers together a series of weaker channels and then hunts their signatures for evidence of di-Higgs production and decay. This is achieved with a machine learning approach, a Boosted Decision Tree, that takes 20 weak discriminating variables and composes them via an optimization and learning strategy to create a single potent discriminator against processes that fake the signal. For his work, Santosh took top honors in the Physics category.
Ph.D. students Michael Litke and Jasmine Liu, both working in the SMU SuperCDMS group, also presented and discussed their work. Michael had looked at “velocity damping,” an effect in which dark matter is slowed by rare, but non-zero, interactions with the materials in the Earth surrounding the dark matter experiment. This then alters the rate at which dark matter particles, slowed (“damped”) and now hitting the dark matter experiment, will interact with nuclei in the experiment. This is a potentially large effect for bigger possible values of this interaction strength, but the rarer the interaction the less of an effect there is from “damping” when interpreting your observations.
Jasmine Liu presented her ongoing work in understanding how a class of dark matter candidates, called “Axions,” might interact with the SuperCDMS detector. Axions were invented decades ago to solve a mystery in the theory of the strong nuclear interaction, but a kind of Axion could also be a good candidate for dark matter and would be copiously produced by the Sun. Jasmine’s work explores the interaction of a candidate Axion with either an atomic nucleus or atomic electrons, and will eventually lead to a prediction about how SuperCDMS can (or cannot) rule out such particles.
Physics and Engineering dual major Abigail Hays presented her work with Prof. Paul Krueger in Mechanical Engineering on the amount of turbulence around a fin. The mechanical fins are analogous to biological fins and can, in principle, be moved in ways that mimic biological fin motion. The current setup – a water channel that moves metal-particle-doped water past the fin and uses a thin sheet of laser light to track particle velocity around the fin – is designed to provide “control” measurements. Eventually, they will alter the fin itself and see what effects this has on drag between the fin and the water, which in turn affects turbulence in the water.
The Department is proud of all the students who presented their work during this week. Congratulations to Faith and Santosh on their honors!
REMINDER: Summer Hamilton Research Scholar Proposals due April 8
(The following is adapted from the announcement sent by the DCII on March 7, 2022)
The Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute (DCII) announced that the Hamilton Undergraduate Research Scholars Program will continue for the 2022-23 academic year.
They are now accepting proposals for summer Hamilton Scholars, with a deadline of Friday, April 8. A separate call will be circulated for semester or academic year 2022–23 proposals. The Hamilton Scholars Program was established to provide hands-on research experience to Dedman College undergraduate students, enabling them to collaborate with top faculty researchers and contribute to the creation of cutting-edge knowledge. The Program seeks to support projects on topics of interdisciplinary interest and impact that help Dedman College faculty members to advance their own research while simultaneously providing a meaningful learning experience for the undergraduates. Please note that student-led projects for which the faculty member’s only role is as a mentor are not eligible for Hamilton awards.
The award provides funding (a stipend) for the student for up to 29 hours of work per week during the summer (June 1 – August 3). Details of the numbers can be found in the March 2 email from the DCII. Proposals may also request additional funding for student travel to conduct research or present work at a professional conference, though available support is limited and travel awards will be made on a case-by-case basis.
Hamilton Scholars are expected to participate periodically throughout the summer in an online discussion forum, and to submit a brief reflection on their research for the DCII’s social media channels at the end of the summer. The DCII will also host a reception for Scholars and their mentors during Spring 2023.
For more information on the Hamilton Scholars Program, see the DCII website: https://bit.ly/3Kpa2W1.
Department Speaker Series Continues on Monday, April 4, with Dr. Ron Ballouz Speaking on “The Strengths of Near-Earth Asteroids”
The Department Speaker Series continues with Dr. Ron Ballouz of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He will be speaking from remote, but the event is still in-person in FOSC 123 at 4pm on Monday, April 4.
His lecture is entitled “The Strengths of Near-Earth Asteroids.” Dr. Ballouz notes that near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) pose both a hazard and an opportunity. He will discuss how he and his colleagues used a combination of remote observations of asteroid Bennu and the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft´s surface interaction on October 2020 to gain knowledge of the strength of both the surface layer and meter-scale boulders. These results will be placed in the context of the surface evolution and interior structure of Bennu and NEAs, in general. He will show how these findings may be used to interpret upcoming next-generation population surveys of NEAs, providing a glimpse into the strength and interior properties of the least discovered and most populous Potentially Hazardous Asteroids.
Refreshments are served in the Hyer Ed Cafe in FOSC 16 around 3:45pm, and the event begins in FOSC 123 at 4pm (it’s a 1 minute walk between those two rooms). We welcome all participants!
Past Speaker Series events are available from our YouTube playlist. Catch up any time!
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of your activities in research, the classroom, and beyond are very welcome!
The department staff continue to work on behalf of Research Operations (Michele Hill) and Academic Operations (Benisha Young). They can be contacted for assistance, or to make appointments for input and help, through the Department Main Office (FOSC 102).
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of students in research, the classroom, internships or fellowships, awards, etc. are very welcome!
If you are an alum of the doctoral, masters, majors or minor programs in Physics at SMU, or have worked in our program as a post-doctoral researcher, and wish to share news with the community, please send your story to the Physics Department and we’ll work with you to get it included in a future edition.
THE BACK PAGE
The Physics Teacher’s April Physics Challenge!
Society of Physics Students Faculty Advisor and our department’s informal “Puzzle Master,” Prof. Randy Scalise, invites you to try to solve this month’s physics challenge from The Physics Teacher. The first correct solution he receives (email@example.com) from an SMU Physics faculty member, staff member, or student (Ph.D. or Master’s candidate, SMU SPS member, Physics Major or Minor, or Biophysical Science Major) will be awarded a prize. You needn’t be a Physics major or minor to be a member of the SPS, and all students with an interest in physics are encouraged to join the SMU SPS. Prof. Scalise can help you with that!
The winner will get to select from the following four books,
- Gleick, J. “Chaos: Making a New Science“.
- Crease, R. P. and Mann, Charles C. “The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics“.
- Thorne, K. “Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy“.
- Greene, B. “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality“.
Solutions must be complete enough to understand your strategy, reasoning, and methods; providing answers with no explanations are not acceptable. Dr. Scalise urges submitters who believe they have the correct answer to, of course, also submit their solution to The Physics Teacher using the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to follow the journal’s guidelines for submissions (see below). The deadline is the last day of this month.