Physics major, Class of '06, Marshall Scholar
Prof. Harold Metcalf
Physics & Astronomy
For me, I have a tough time learning in classes. It doesn't always seem relevant what you're doing. I think you're much more likely to retain if you know why you learning something. . . actually being in the lab you really use the stuff that you learned. Instead of just using a set of electronics in a classroom lab, I got to use a million dollars worth of electronics in a real lab.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
Melissa spoke with URECA, days after returning from Tuscon, Arizona where she presented at an Undergraduate Research Symposium at Frontiers in Optics 2005, a joint annual meeting of the Division of Laser Science (DLS) of the American Physical Society (APS) and the Optical Society of America (OSA). Melissa discussed frequency-comb technology for optical atomic clocks, a topic she explored this past summer while working at the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics (MPQ) in the laboratory of Theodor (Ted) Hänsch, this year's recipient of the Frederic Ives medal, and one of this year's Nobel laureates. What was particularly exciting was that all three 2005 Nobel laureates in physics — Roy Glauber, John Hall, and her former mentor Theodor Hänsch — were being recognized at the conference. And Melissa, along with a few other undergrads, had treasured opportunities to interact with these and other leading experts in optics/laser sciences.
Melissa's summer research experience in Germany was not the first time she'd worked with a Nobel prize winning physicist! During summer 2004 when she participated in an REU program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Melissa worked with 2001 Nobel laureate Eric Cornell at the JILA Institute's BEC Group and will be listed as a co-author on an upcoming Cornell publication (paper submitted). And the research she did with Prof. Hänsch's group in 2005 through an international REU program led not only to her recent symposium presentation in Tuscon and to hobnobbing with Nobel laureates, but had other benefits as well. Melissa enjoyed bike riding, travel and a chance to hone her German-speaking skills— all the while getting some neat results on a difficult experimental physics project.
Melissa chalks up her noteworthy accomplishments, in part, to good luck. Yet the serendipitous path Melissa now follows as she pursues a bright future in optics is all the more impressive when we learn that Melissa was not the superstar science student in high school that she is in college. Melissa initially began her undergraduate career studying industrial design, but changed her direction after being frustrated by a year of poor grades and poor health. She then got a degree from Nassau Community College in Liberal Arts, before coming to Stony Brook University as a transfer student in 2003. So how did Melissa get from point A to point B? The x-factor, in this case, was Prof. Hal Metcalf of our Department of Physics & Astronomy. Professor Metcalf was the first to open the doors of undergraduate research to her, and has been providing steady encouragement and support ever since. Growing up in Great Neck, Long Island, Melissa was also lucky in having been turned onto physics while still in elementary school. She now has the happy prospect of doing what she loves to do — and being very good at it!
A capstone to this wonderful narrative is the news that Melissa was awarded a Marshall Scholarship (Nov. 2005) which will fund two years of post-baccalaureate study in the United Kingdom. She is the first Stony Brook student to be honored with this very prestigious award and plans to pursue a doctorate in the Department of Atomic and Laser Physics at the University of Oxford (see also University Press Release 11/17/05;and Newsday article 12/10/05). Below are some excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director .
Karen: Have you always had such a strong interest in physics? Did you participate in some of the well-known Long Island high school science research programs? Were you active in high school science fairs and competitions?
Melissa:I have a complicated story. . . I was told in middle school and HS that I wasn't an honors level science student. I had about a B/B+ average in science classes. The honors kids, they all had 98/99 averages. I couldn't compete with that. I'm not very good at regurgitating facts. Also I had medical problems, and I couldn't keep up with the work . . . I learn everything in my own way. I had teachers who wanted us to memorize and repeat, and I wouldn't do that. I absolutely refused. I am a different kind of student than they're used to, than they thought of as successful. They weren't really willing to give me the time and the patience to develop. Plus, I was a kid. I was not so focused as I am now.
How did you even come to pursue physics then?
Actually physics was one of my first interests when I was in elementary school. I took a physics class at the high school, it was a special program. . . . And I was really into it. I really wanted to do it. We did these various experiments. We set up a simple electrical circuit, we learned how a battery is charged using a metaphor of a girl running back and forth carrying charges. . . I took home one project for the elementary school science fair. The teacher knew how excited I was.
What made you decide to transfer to Stony Brook, after things didn't work out with your first year of college, and after you had switched to Nassau Community College?
Art didn't work out. [So I figured] why not go back to what I wanted to do orginally? What would stop me this time?....I decided I wanted to continue in physics. Stony Brook seemed like the best option. It was the best state school for science. I'd heard about undergraduate research opportunities from people at Nassau. Someone there told me I should get involved in REU programs. They had a good department here at SBU.
How did you find a research placement?
My first professor that I had for physics was Harold Metcalf. I was just blown away by how good a professor he was and I was so interested in the class. I felt like…a little kid again, loving physics! He saw my interest. I heard he was giving a talk at an open physics night about the coldest temperature in the universe. "Wow, that's so cool!", I thought. So I brought my dad. . . .I asked Hal afterwards: "Can I see your lab?" He told me to talk to the graduate students. And they invited me to lunch, told me about the project. I started hanging out in the lab, just watching them do whatever they were doing. Basically I was hanging around the lab for the first semester. During the winter break, I was going to be staying around. I asked if I could have a project. [Prof. Metcalf] said: "Do you want to get paid?" I said, "okay!" That was my first project. The littrow prism beam expander. So I made a beam expander for a laser beam so it could make an elliptical beam out of a circular beam.
This turned out, I believe, to be the project you presented at our on-campus URECA Celebration in April 2003. How independent was this first project? How much guidance did you get?
I look[ed] at textbooks and tried deriving my own formulas based on what I need[ed] to do. I wrote an Excel program to figure out what prism arrangements would get certain beam expansions. And basically discovered the trick to it. I also got guidance from Prof. Metcalf and from the graduate students and postdocs. I learned a lot on my own about optics and stuff. It's not the biggest project, but it was good for getting started. . .
After your initial experience with the Metcalf group, what made you get interested in applying to a summer research program?
I started looking for summer opportunities. They were interviewing people for the Physics Department to hire a new faculty member. They invited students to listen to the talks and to have lunch with the candidates. We had a few candidates from Univ. of Colorado, Boulder. And I heard such great stories about it. JILA is the big name for optical physics in the US. So I decided that I really wanted to go there. …. They had an REU program. I found the REU program online.
I know you got into Boulder — the only REU program you applied to! But how in the world did you end up finding the great mentor that you did?
Actually, that's a little complicated [too]. . .They put me with a graduate student who really didn't care so much to help me and just left me in the office for hours, telling me to play with the computer program that I couldn't figure out. So I figured maybe I should try to switch, look elsewhere. . . So I went to the REU program director. . . She showed me the other groups, the other labs in the BEC group. At one lab I went into they were working with rotating Bose Einstein Condensation (BEC), creating vortex lattices and superfluid. The postdoc was a really nice guy. He really explained things. And I was really interested in it. And I asked, "Could I have a project here?" He said: "You have to talk to the boss. Eric Cornell." I went to Eric Cornell's office. . . He got back to me that Monday. He had a really interesting project for me.
What can you tell me about the project you did with Prof. Cornell's group?
What they wanted to do next was to apply an optical field to the spinning BEC. . . So what I had to create was an optical potential or interference pattern of laser light to rotate with the BEC. So the question was: How do we make this interference pattern? How do we control it to do what we want with it. Those were questions I investigated while working with the group. . . . So basically I was able to finish the project. I figured out to make this interference pattern, how to predict it using Mathematica…
Was it difficult to learn? You only had eight weeks to complete the project, right?
I got help. Basically everything I did is with help. Because I didn't really know that much. I still don't know that much.
Is it true you might even have a publication resulting from this work?
I just got really lucky with that one.
I know you had a poster at the URECA Celebration, on-campus, in 2003. What was your first off-campus presentation of research?
The Frontiers in Optics …in Rochester, last year. It's a relatively new thing. The undergraduate research symposium. There were maybe 10 undergrads presenting. . .I gave a talk. I wasn't nervous about it because I had already given the talk for the REU students back in Boulder, Colorado for my group and for Eric Cornell. In fall 2004, at the symposium in Rochester ...that's where I met Prof. Martin Richardson from the University of Central Florida. He organizes an international REU program that goes to France and Germany. I knew that there existed a program. Well, I thought...how could I do better than Colorado? Go abroad? . . . And [Prof. Richardson] said he'd love to have me apply!
Successful networking, I'd say! But once you got into the international REU Physics program, how did you manage to get your specific research placement?
I really wanted to go to the Max Planck Institute for Quantum optics because I've heard it was one of the best places in the world for optics. [It's located] near Munich. [Prof. Richardson] said: " I don't know if we can find out a place in Munich. The people who I know, they're not taking undergraduates".. . . So I asked Prof. Metcalf. He had had a German exchange student a number of years ago who works now for Prof. Theodor Hänsch. So he knew this guy. . . And there happened to be someone in the group who had a project for an undergraduate. His name was Ronald Holzwarth. It was in his group. So I was really lucky to get that position.
Were you the only undergraduate in your research group, at the MPQ Institute?
Pretty much! Well. . . I can't speak for the whole Institute. I was certainly the only American undergraduate there in my group. It was a little intimidating. But I guess I 'm kind of used to that — being the only one who doesn't know anything. And I mean just accepting that that's how you learn. Just accepting your position makes people want to help you, teach you things. I really learned a lot.
What kind of research did you do in Germany?
The research involved testing a radiofrequency measurement system for precision frequency measurement. Basically the idea is that we can measure frequencies very very precisely with a technique that was developed by Prof. Hänsch. But the levels of accuracy we're looking for—10 to the minus 18—a thousand times better than current cesium clock, which is 10 to the minus 15. . . . We need to work it out experimentally, how we're going to get those levels of accuracy. . . No one had every tried seeing if they could measure a laser pulse repetition rate with that kind of accuracy. What you have to do is compare two systems. Because you can never know how accurate something is based on itself. I tried a series of experiments: first using a signal generator to see how low we can get the measurement system, which was not as good as we wanted to. It was a very difficult project. It's not a completeable project..it's just cracking open the door to this type of very experimental work. . . I got to work with a lot of radiofrequency devices. My experience in junior lab the previous semester really helped with that. I felt I was pretty well prepared for working with that stuff from electronics lab [from SBU]. . . The first month I was in Germany. I was wondering if my project [was] really something important. It seemed kind of boring. It's something that's not interesting for a postdoc to do. But for an undergraduate it is really interesting. Because everything is new to you.
The project that you worked on last summer, is this what you presented at the Frontiers in Optics meeting just recently at Tuscon?
Yes. After the conference I went to say hello to Prof. Hänsch and he did remember who I was. He told me he wanted to go to the undergrad research symposium and to show him where it was. . . . He said he just needed a couple minutes because the newspaper wanted to interview him. Glauber and Hall were there also. Hall started talking to me, and Prof Hänsch took a picture of us. Hall is from Boulder. Hänsch told Hall that I worked with Eric the previous year. And he was pretty impressed..that I'd worked with two Nobel prize winners. . . . I was in the room with the reporters [when they interviewed the 2005 Nobel laureates in physics]. The important OSA people were there.. . . .Newspaper reporters and me. It was the coolest thing that's ever happened to me. . . . Hall is a really cool guy. I never met him before. Hänsch was super nice . Even before he won the Nobel prize, I knew he was one of the greatest minds in physics of our time. …I had a nice conversation with Prof. Hänsch. I had spoken to him twice before...so that was pretty cool.
Will you now be continuing on in the field of optics? Going to graduate school?
I'm totally hooked. I can't do anything else now. Having those experiences as an undergraduate. . . most people don't get that even as graduate students. If I have so much luck in this way — and I really love doing the stuff — why should I go anywhere else? [At the meeting in Tuscon]…it was just really amazing. They're looking at me like I'm the future of optics.
Aside from your success as an undergraduate, and the positive feedback you've been getting. . . what makes you love this field of research? What is so enjoyable to you about the particular research that you do?
I love the challenge. It's always solving puzzles. Especially last summer. Everything always goes wrong in experimental physics. Your job is to find out what went wrong and how to fix it. Even if you never know what went wrong if it's fixed you leave it alone.
Do you get flustered by actual research experiences?
You get frustrated. . . But after you find the solution to it and you fix it, it's like WOW I want to do that again! It doesn't feel good when something really important just broke. After you find the solution of why it broke and you fixed it, it's a really great feeling!
In all these research experiences you've had, and in all your observations and interactions with scientists. . . what do you think makes for success?
You have to be really creative. Basically you want to get from point A to point B. . . Nobody's done it before. So you have to figure it out yourself. You have to machine your own parts. You have to build your own devices, decide what you want to do, how you're going to do it. There are always a number of ways to do everything. You just want to make it the simplest way possible to minimize the amount of things that can go wrong.
How much of the work you've done so far in physics research involves working with other people? Are you isolated, working on your own much of the time?
It's all collaborative. Whenever you write a paper you never say "I"; you always say "we"…even if it's just you, it's always "we." Because you're always either referencing someone's paper , or because there's a very good chance that someone else did something along the same lines of something you want to do as part of your project. Plus every step of the way, I was always asking a postdoc or graduate student or my advisor: what do I next? You're just amazed how much experience these people have, how much they seem to know about everything. Then you realize, after you've done something, you've struggled with it, you've figured it out . . . [that] you're going to remember that the next time you see it. So they've seen everything. They know what's going on. After a summer of doing that, I started also getting an intuitive feeling of what's going on and what's possibly gone wrong.
How would you say research has enhanced your education?
For me, I have a tough time learning in classes. It doesn't always seem relevant what you're doing. I think you're much more likely to retain if you know why you learning something. When you go into a research environment and you feel like you really don't know anything, it's a real encouragement to be able to learn. Plus while you're doing something, you're also learning about it, and the principles behind it. I learned a whole lot this summer — about physics in general, how we can analyze error. Error analysis is something that most undergraduates students just put on fake error bars, that's your error. In precision measurement, that's your whole project: getting rid of error, lowering error.
. . . I know [now] much more about the fields. You can't really discern what's that important from your classes. Especially in the field that you're going to do. But actually being in the lab you really use the stuff that you learned. Instead of just using a set of electronics in a classroom lab, I got to use a million dollars worth of electronics in a real lab.
What are the advantages of doing research in the summer, vs. doing research throughout the year? Does the intensity of summer work get to be too much?
When you're doing a summer research experience, you are a full time researcher. So you can spend every day, 8-10 hours a day, doing just your project. . . What I like about [the intensity] is that you choose it. When you're ready to work, you work. And you can work as long as you want. If you have a good day you can work the whole night. If you're having a bad day, you don't have to work. It balances out. I really like the idea of setting your own hours, setting your own pace. . . [During the school year, you can't stay up till 2 in the morning when you have class tomorrow and you need to be rested plus you have homework to do. So that has to take priority. And when your primary responsibility is research, you can spend as much as you want on it. Most of the important stuff happens in a day or two. So basically it's not a smooth progression of doing research. This week we really got something done. We might do nothing the next two weeks. …
The first month [in Germany].. I was just learning. I was learning. I was trying to do something that wasn't working. What I accomplished was [actually] done in a short time. I wanted to compare two lasers with each other…What's the fastest we can do this experiment? I think in all experimental physics, it's like that. You set up the project and fix things for 99% of the time. And one day it works and that's when you get all your data. And then you take down the experiment 'cause it worked.
It sounds like you need to learn a lot of additional skills along the way —including fixing equipment.What other skills were important for you?
Soldering is definitely an important skill. It's actually pretty fun. . . Mathematica is pretty important. ..
Machining [parts] . . .I got to do while I was in Colorado.
You always seem to have had the initiative, the presence of mind, to seek extra help. Is it difficult to put yourself on the line, to ask for help?
I would have gotten absolutely nowhere if I didn't ask people for help. It's pretty comfortable for me to ask people for help. It's what I started doing when I first came to Stony Brook. The physics classes as Nassau were not as preparatory as the ones at Stony Brook so I fell very behind. The only way I caught up was asking every graduate student I knew to help me with this problem, with that problem. . . People like to help you. That's one thing I discovered. Now that I'm helping other people I find I also like to help people. There's a student I'm kind of mentoring. And she comes to me with her questions in Modern Physics. I can't always help her. If I can, it feels really good. She comes with questions. Three times a week. That's been a really rewarding experience.
Do you want to be a physics professor? Are you interested in doing both teaching as well as experimental research?
I would like to be teaching. I do enjoy teaching. Having been to this conference, you see it's not about the people who are already established in the field, it's about the students, and building on yourself with the next generation. It's really probably the most important, or at least 50%,of your responsibilities as a physicist. You can mainly do that as a professor, so that's my current goal.
Going to this conference, meeting and working with the Nobel laureates . . . what has this done for your general outlook?
Just feeling [that] this is the world that's waiting for me. It was really one of the most exciting moments of my life. They were talking to me. I could barely listen. I couldn't hear what Prof. Hall was saying I was just thinking this is the coolest thing that's ever happened to me. . . Just seeing what kind of people there are, it just makes me want to learn this stuff. To be eventually, maybe one day on their level.
What's your advice for students interested in your field, or even more generally, for students interested in going into research in general?
Don't be shy. Don't be afraid to march right into someone's office. They're usually pretty friendly and if they're not.. it's not your fault. Because I had the guts to walk into the office of a professor who I felt intimidated by. . .and ask him, "do you have research?" Or "can you answer my questions?" You find there's a whole world there waiting for you if you just ask for it.