Matthew Onstott
Wichita State University, Physics Major, Class of 2011

Thomas Rao

Stony Brook University,
Honors College, Physics Major, Class of 2011

Prof. Thomas K. Hemmick, Physics & Astronomy

DON'T GO INTO THE BASEMENT!"? ..Oh, but it’s worth a tour to the depths of the Physics building, to see the machine itself, and the control room which has evolved into a modern Physics Teaching Laboratory used by K-12 students & teachers, undergraduates and graduates. For a history of the Nuclear Structure Laboratory (NSL), click >> here.

"It’s never really been for us something we had to do, or something we've just seen as work, as a necessity. The’s something I
want to do. It’s something I want to be a part of... It still has that air of fun." -M.Onstott

" We definitely got lots of hands on experience. We got wrench-turning experience. We got to work with electrical stuff. There was also the data, and the math which was fun too." - T.Rao

Interview:

Researchers of the Month: past features

Interview/pdf format

Topic: Neutron threshold experiment for senior and graduate lab


Researchers of the Month

About Matt & Tom

Working in tandem takes on a whole new meaning at the Center for Accelerator Science and Education (CASE), where the camaraderie is accelerated, the energy is positive, and the physics is always fun. Our two Researchers of the Month experienced this unique environment first hand this past summer as participants in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program in Physics and Astronomy, an NSF-sponsored summer research program which, under the direction of Prof. Erlend Graf, has been running continuously at Stony Brook since the early 1990s.

The mission, for two REU students, was to design an experiment for the Department of Physics & Astronomy's Senior and Graduate Laboratory classes (Phy 445/515) that would make use of the Tandem van de Graff [recently retired from research use, after having provided 40 years of service on its own & as an injector to the Superconducting Heavy Ion Linac] and involve modern nuclear physics detectors and methodology (for ex., measurements of neutron thresholds). But the project did not end at the close of the REU program, for either Thomas Rao, a Stony Brook Honors College physics major (class of 2011) from Northport, NY; or for Matthew Onstott, a student visiting from Wichita State University (class of 2011), who has continued his stay at Stony Brook campus during the 2009-10 academic year as a National Student Exchange participant. Both Tom and Matt, in addition to their academic coursework this fall, have continued to return to CASE as the senior/graduate laboratory course they've worked on nears implementation (2010)—to work on and tweak the project, using ideas, wrenches, and other tools at their disposal.

TandemTom Rao and Matt Onstott have the good fortune to work under the mentorship of Distinguished Teaching Professor Thomas K. Hemmick, a founding director of CASE; plus the added benefit of interacting with the core group of Richard Lefferts, Andrzej Lipski, Greg Wille and Dr. Linwood Lee, Professor Emeritus. “It has been a rewarding experience,” according to Tom. Matt adds, “A lot of that is due to the personalities involved. We kind of all fit like one weird family.” Tom and Matt affectionately describe a bond with the Tandem itself, which with its “whirring, and power supplies, and constant buzzing” has became a kind of “high voltage pet.”

In addition to their REU project, Tom and Matt also assisted with set-up for physics events at the Physics Teaching Laboratory, including a week-long MARIACHI workshop. At the close of the REU Program in August, Tom and Matt presented talks on their project at the 09 REU Physics Symposium to other REU participants and faculty [for REU abstracts click >> here]. More recently, the two co-presented a poster, “Neutron threshold experiment for senior and graduate lab," at the URECA-organized undergraduate research poster exhibition featured at the inauguration reception honoring President Samuel L. Stanley, Jr., MD. In the coming spring semester, Matt and Tom will be poster presenters again when they join URECA’s annual campus-wide Celebration of Undergraduate Research—Wednesday, April 28, 2010—in the Student Activities Center. Next year when they are seniors, both Tom and Matt plan to apply to graduate Ph.D. programs in Physics.

Prior to participating in the REU Physics & Astronomy program here, Tom Rao had worked at Brookhaven National Laboratory with Dr. Bill Morse the summer before starting his undergraduate studies at SB — doing detector simulation for forward calorimeters for a high energy electron positron collider (ILC or CLIC). For Matt Onstott, it was Stony Brook that provided the first hands-on physics research experience he was seeking. Reflecting back on this valuable opportunity, Matt Onstott states: "If you’re on the fence, do it. A lot of times, the most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of I’ve been uncertain of. But there’s been someone there, there’s been something inside that said, go ahead and give it a shot. " Below are excerpts of Matt Onstott & Tom Rao's interview with URECA Director, Karen Kernan.


The Interview

Karen: Matt, how did you first find out about the physics REU program here at Stony Brook?

Matt. It was really just in passing, a small conversation in the hallway that took 15 seconds. I heard the term “REU” from my undergrad advisor at Wichita State. And instead of putting in the back of my mind, I decided, “yeah, I’ll check this out. “

Karen.  Tell me about your project. What you're been working on?

Matt. What we’re doing, in laymen’s terms, is to design an experiment for the senior and graduate level lab course here at Stony Brook.

Tom. Currently the experiment we’re working on is to use the Tandem accelerator to generate a proton beam which we’re going to shoot at an aluminum target. And we’re hoping to see fusion. What we’re looking for specifically is a threshold energy for the protons to fuse with the aluminum and create silicon and emit neutrons.

Matt.  Tom and I, we’re kind of guinea pigs. Our whole focus is to make sure the experiment runs smoothly, make sure everything is operating correctly. Later on we’ll be involved in writing up the labs for the course these kids will be taking. They’ll essentially be given all the parts – and they’ll do it themselves. They’ll run everything themselves. They’ll turn the knobs and dials. They’ll play with the computer. Produce the beam. The project is a way for them to get hands-on research while they are still undergrads.

Tom. Prof. Hemmick, our mentor, realized the educational possibilities for the tandem and saw that it could be used for laboratory experiments for students, that they could do some neat physics with it.

Karen. What have you learned from working with your mentor, Prof. Hemmick?

Matt. You learn that it is possible for a human to essentially be an push yourself to limits of what’s attainable.

Tom. He’s a very good speaker. And he has a LOT of information on a lot of different things.

Matt. There were times, also, when Tom and I would be working from 9-5. Sometimes, we might be kind of beat from a long day. Then Prof. Hemmick comes in with this most outrageous energy and we work until midnight….. Not only does he have knowledge about what he’s involved with, he has passion, he has energy, he constantly drives forth...

In addition to Prof. Hemmick, there’s a core group down there that we work with… Greg Wille, Andrzej Lipski, Rich Lefferts, and Dr. Linwood Lee. He was kind of like our saint, actually. He’d pop in and help us out. He was definitely a wealth of knowledge on the subject. He’d pull out some old papers. Not only did he know the answer but he provided sources for us to look at...So we definitely had lots of help! And when there were big electrical issues, Prof. Hemmick would come in and talk to Greg and they would sort it out, get everything clear. We were never really in the dark. . . .There are definitely some cool characters here, they’ve seen the history of it all. They’ve been through the ropes.

Karen. What are some of the things you most like about your project?

Tom. It was a really fun project. What I thought was fun was when we started to take measurements, the first time. We were measuring neutron currents as a function of energy, trying to find where it stopped being flat and you got output from the neutrons. . . You work so hard, you put a lot of effort into getting your result out, and then finally after doing all the set-up, lots and lots of set-up..... you’re seeing the little numbers …

Karen. What were some of the challenges you faced?

Matt. Luckily enough, we always have so many side tasks we’re constantly running. We put on so many hats it’s not like we’re doing just one thing. We're computer specialists for awhile- fixing old Dells from the early 90s. We did a lot of wrench turning. We had to set up the beam lines themselves, playing nuclear engineer. And then of course we had the other side when we had to crunch equations…We had to get the physics correct and see what we were actually trying to achieve. So there were so many different aspects to the project. Sometimes when something goes wrong, we could move our focus to something else or just sit down and talk.

Tom. Sometimes it looks easy at first. You think, "This is all we have to do?" Then, you realize..."oh, wait. There’s this and this, then something happens. Now we have to go back and fix something else." Through the process, though, we definitely got lots of hands on experience. We got wrench-turning experience. We got to work with electrical stuff. There was also the data, and the math which was fun too.

Karen. As part of the REU – you are expected to do a final presentation at the end of the program. Did you enjoy this part too of the research process too?

Matt. Tom’s great to work with. When it goes to presenting, we sort of balance each other. He’s excellent about figuring out the main points to get across, everything that’s involved, in terms of the math, the science. I take over with how to present, how to make an analogy for what we're doing, to describe it in abstract terms, and bring it back to the real world. . . It's fun working as a team.

Karen. So, communicating the science is something you really try to focus on?

Matt. I was reading Richard Feynman recently. Feynman was saying, if it can’t be described in a freshman lecture, you’re not done whittling it down to its most elegant form. I try to make it so you take these very erudite concepts, and describe them in ways that an average person would understand, that makes the science accessible ....

Tom. ..which brings us back to our main goal, really, which is education.

Karen. How long have each of you been interested in physics? or science?

Tom. I’ve always thought I had an interest in science. My interest in physics particularly started in high school. I took physics and found it interesting. I also liked it better than chem!...Then I had a summer research experience at BNL after my senior year. That was fun too. But it was very different than this experience which is more hands-on... There I was running simulations and I would sit all day crunching numbers while the computer was doing its thing.

Karen. How about you, Matt? When did you first get interested in physics?

Matt. It’s interesting to try to think back and map it. If I would have to pinpoint a specific time…it would be that old high school physics class. I had a teacher who… like Hemmick, made it fun. He made it sound important and interesting. Physics was something that wasn’t trivial, it was something really mattered in the world.

Karen. Some students I talk to have never done a summer research program. What advice would you give? What do you think is particularly valuable about doing summer research?

Tom. It gives you a lot of preparation gives you that hands-on experience. It allows you to really delve into it. You don’t have to worry about midterms and stuff over the summer. So you can really immerse in the people around you. It’s a really different feeling over the summer. It was a lot of fun, and I definitely think it’s very valuable experience for the hands-on research aspect of it.

Matt. When I went to a graduate workshop recently [Grad School 101, offered by CIE/AGEP], they told us it’s going to give you a leg up on the competition when you apply to graduate school. It’s going to mark you as someone who is interested enough in what you’re doing to give up free time.

Also, there are those of us that have the drive to do research but don’t have the opportunities or wouldn’t have access to the research or equipment an REU-type of program gives us that time and kind of evens out the playing field. ...Personally, I think it’s valuable not only because its going to give you hands-on experience, and it’s going to help you decide what you want to do….but because it’s going to just be a lot of fun! Even outside of the bubble of your work, you’re getting to connect with kids from all over..You get to go do group activities, you get to form relationships rather quickly with people so that in a matter of weeks you can get to know people better than friends you’ve known for years.

Karen. Is it difficult to balance academics & research?

Tom. Even though I have late classes Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday...on Friday I don’t have any classes. So I actually have free time when I go down to do research. I have a big chunk of time. I’m glad I’ve been able to find this to fill it with because it’s been a rewarding experience.

Matt. We all made a pact – that we’ll try and come in as much as we can. But we made it so that on Fridays, we’re all here, always. It’s been that way since the beginning. I don't even think, “I can schedule something else in that time slot and then say, see you research.” It’s never really been for us something we had to do or something we've just seen as work, as a necessity. The’s something I want to do. It’s something I want to be a part of.. It still has that air of fun... seriously! There’s still imagination with it. A lot of that is due to the personalities involved. We kind of all fit like one weird family.

Karen. And what about the Tandem? Have you bonded?

Matt. That giant red sausage? ...We call out to it and it responds with whirring, and power supplies, and constant buzzing. So it’s our baby.

Tom. A giant, high voltage pet!