Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) Mechanical Engineering major, Class of '08
Dr. Helio Takai
Physics, Brookhaven National Laboratory
lIt's amazing what they throw out there in the garbage at BNL!.. . For my antenna I used supplies we had, garbage items. ..You do what you have to.The only thing I spent money was PVC elbow pieces. I spent $3.50. Most of the things I got from the basement or from our storage room.
Interview: read more >>
Researcher of the Month
While only a freshman, Jessica Newman was awarded a Battelle fellowship to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory with Dr. Helio Takai on the MARIACHI project: Mixed Apparatus for Radar Investigation of Cosmic-rays of High Ionization. Although she previously had little background in her proposed research topic, the experience of designing and constructing an antenna to be used as a tool for high energy cosmic ray research had far-reaching success and consequences: her antenna design was subsequently used as a prototype in Zambia!
Jessica presented this work at an end-of-summer BNL poster session (August 2005) and more recently at URECA's Celebration of Research & Creativity (April 2006). One year earlier, she had taken the opportunity to present a different project based on research conducted for her freshman WISE 187 course with Dr. John Noé, an optics project that particularly showcased her love of both science and art. Her combination of interests and talents sometimes comes to a surprise to others;"Jess, why aren't you going into Art?"
This very motivated, ambitious and creative student—whose talents are all brought into play as she gains expertise in her chosen field of mechanical engineering and design—also happens to stand out as one of the first third-generation students at Stony Brook University (her father majored in Physics and Astronomy; and grandfather earned two master's degrees at SBU). Jessica is an active member of Women in Science & Engineering, and is regularly called upon to be a spokesperson for women in engineering. Having definite plans to pursue a future in aerospace design, Jessica will soon begin an exciting internship at EDO Corporation, and intends to apply for the 5-year program in mechanical engineering and design. Below are some excerpts shared from her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director .
Karen: What can you tell me about your mentor?
Jessica:One thing about Helio is that he's a teacher's teacher. He teaches a graduate class here for physics teachers who teach high school. . . there aren't as many students interested anymore in physics. So Helio is a participant in this thing called Quark Net. . . He shows them different lab experiments, some that can be done in the classroom and others just to enhance their own skills. Because as a physics teacher…physics is a hands-on thing. Teaching right out of the book takes away from the learning experience, especially for high school students. Since I was working with him, I was able to volunteer and help out. We set up the labs. Some of things we did were really simple--popping pop corn in the microwave and graphing that. . . I even helped set up the cloud chamber. And finally, the last day, Helio had me help him make liquid nitrogen ice cream. It was really nice to meet a lot of these teachers and hear about their classroom experiences. It's interesting to hear about how people teach and compare it to my own experience in a physics classroom.
What kind of work did you do last summer at BNL?
What I had to do was build an antenna that had to be economical, weather-resistant, and fairly simple to put together since high school students would be replicating it.. .The purpose of the antenna was to receive radio signals reflected from atmospheric ionization…and analyze the data to potentionally find high energy cosmic rays which have yet to be seen. . . A new found source was lightning strikes—we saw that with my antenna, which was quite remarkable. That was back in August.
So I used their idea of a tripod type inverted dipole. My antenna has two dipoles that are crossed, perpendicular…I used simple materials, like PVC recycled aluminum tubing, scrap wood. It started off with my hand drawn models. And I worked with Helio to figure out exactly what we wanted. With a technician, I built the antenna under 90 minutes, put it together, all fairly simple. We put it outside, hooked it all up. We did need to buy an antenna amplifier so that we could see the data a little more clearly. It took data for a good 2-3 months. We're onto a new antenna idea now.
. . . To build my antenna I had to scrounge around for parts. It's amazing what they throw out there in the garbage at BNL!.. . For my antenna I used supplies we had, garbage items. ..You do what you have to. I had the supplies there. The only thing I spent money was PVC elbow pieces. I spent $3.50. Most of the things I got from the basement or from our storage room. We had some broken antennas. So I recycled: recycling is good. Brookhaven is all about saving the environment. . . . It worked decently well considering the components that I used. It was nice too that there was a lot of leniency in my project. I'm a very independent person and I always like doing projects on my own. So even though the project I was working on was a big giant experiment all together, my little antenna was something that Helio let me "do what you gotta, see what you can come up with, and get back to me." It was really a lot of exploration and a lot of research on my own. And I got to explore the facility, talk to different people, and find out different materials, go on the web and find out what's good, what's not good….Talk to different people that use the materials. There was a lot more involved than you would think. But it was worth it . . .
I understand you're been continuing to work at BNL, even though the summer program ended a while ago.
We have the new MARIACHI-wiki site. Like Wikipedia except Mariachi. I've been working a lot on that. Because we're making it user-friendly. It's really gonna bring together a lot of people. There's so many people involved in it. High schools across the island . . .We sent it to the NSF: they think it's great!
When you first started working at BNL,.you didn't have much of a background in the field, did you?
Not at all. I had gone into this project not knowing what to expect at all. Going into it…I didn't know what was to be expected of me. I feared that I would have to learn programming…[but] it worked out. I know that I'm going to miss it.
You did have some previous experience, I recall, from your WISE freshman course, right?
That first project was an independent research project that we were just allowed to pick--anything having to do with optics. We actually stumbled upon this artist..[Austine Wood-Comarow]. . . she did a new form of artwork called polage. She uses cellophane to make artwork . . . I actually was fortunate to be able to speak with her over the phone. It was really fun making these different pieces and to learn the science behind it. It was really fun to show people at URECA. …[I've been interested in art ] forever.. .It's really nice that even though art isn't my major and isn't my primary focus in my life…it really makes up almost 80% of my personality. It's no wonder how it permeates through and I get recognized for it anyway..somehow people find out and I'm known for it again. My engineering friends say, "why don't you be an art major?"
Do you think there is a lot of creativity involved in doing research?
For my experiment, I was thrown a lot on my own. . .you've gotta be creative. You have to have a lot of patience and an open mind, be really receptive of other's ideas. A lot of people get caught up with:"this is what I want." I came up with a design, pictures…I went through them with Helio to find out what he liked, what he didn't…there were a lot of different components. That's all part of engineering and problem solving. When part of the project is dependent on you, it's dependent on your ideas, your decisions…your creativity.
What was it like working on research during the summer, vs. doing a research project for a course?
It's so much cooler. It's Brookhaven National Lab. . . Say I'm working on an independent project of my own . . .I'm doing it because it's an assignment. Yeah I'm interested in it, but it's an assignment. It doesn't affect anything else. It's just mine solely.. . whereas a major project like the MARIACHI experiment that I was working on. . . this is a major component of Helio's work. This is his experiment; this is what he's working on. This is his life. It incorporates so many different people, from places around the country, so many countries around the world. It's really big. It's so cool to be able to work on that…you're not just working by yourself and trying to make conclusions on your own. Your part is an integral role in a giant experiment. It's so much better because it's a real world thing where your work is significant in the real world. You're making an impact.
What do you find to be frustrating about research?
The most frustrating part was getting the opportunity in the first place! As a freshman no one wants you. You don't have experience or background. It's tough. It doesn't make sense. . .that's the most frustrating part, finding the opportunity. Now..I have applied for a lot of things. At every interview they say that my resume is very impressive. Having Brookhaven National Lab on there.. any sort of experience that you can get. . . is worth it—even if it's not directly related to your field. Now I'm going to be working for an engineering company. Engineering..but my research has been in physics.. . . That's why I'm doing this internship this summer. Is engineering something that I want to do for the rest of my life.. I'll answer that [I have an internship this summer at EDO, from a contact made at the Career Fair. This year, I had a much better time at the career fair rather than last year as a freshman. . . having experience definitely helped out.
What was your favorite experience at Brookhaven Labs?
It's definitely working with Peter Muhoro from Kenya. He, Tara Falcone and I…we really had a good time. We just had a lot of fun working on my antenna. He helped me try to build another antenna. That, and Quarknet was fun too. All the physics..We did all these different demonstrations. We set up demonstrations that they could use in their classrooms, made ice cream potato guns, a cloud chamber..all these crazy things. that was a lot of fun too. There were so many things that were just fun…
Also, I got to go on a tour while I was there at BNL…with the high school teachers to see the major projects-- the PHENIX experiment, RHIC and the Light Source. It's just amazing the things that are going on. Seeing the PHENIX project, that was literally jaw-dropping. It was so massive. You could see the work that was put into it…It's really amazing: people are working on it right now. It's really cool.
What advice would you give about research?
Just look. It doesn't hurt to apply. I applied to so many different things. The worst that can happen is that you have to make a choice. Just go for it; you'll never have the opportunity again. Once you go to graduate school. . . you're really going to be working on your research for whatever you're doing. You're not going to be able to experience different things and experiment. Everyone says take advantage of your time in college. Also, don't be discouraged and don't wait. I didn't even think about research [at first] and I know a lot of freshman don't think about research. Definitely don't limit yourself. For me…I searched on campus and I was a little discouraged, because none of them were looking for undergraduates…They wanted graduate students or something more full time. If you really want research…though, don't let that discourage you. Keep your options open for other things. If you're a bio major and something in chemistry comes along....and you can't find anything else …Go for it..Maybe you'll discover that chemistry is what you really want to do. It's better now to find out before you end up with your degree and you hate your work. That would be the worst thing. You go all through school and you never stepped into the field to see what it would be like. You need the experience. It's definitely changed me a lot . . . Research is good, despite what people say…I think the stereotype of research needs to be erased, it definitely needs to be uplifted more. As a kid..high school..immediately you think of a guy in a lab coat late at night with his chemicals all by himself and that's all he does…but there more to it than being your lonely consumed scientist.
Do you feel you have any advantages/disadvantages as a woman working in your chosen field?
I never really thought about it in that way. In high school I didn't feel there was a disadvantage. After being in Stony Brook and being part of a minority, I don't feel there's any special treatment or there's discouragement. There's more of an advertisement now for more women to come into the field. It's a little disheartening that a lot of people are not interested in the engineering fields…that a lot of women, some are discouraged by the fact that it's male dominated..or they don't think they'll get an opportunity. But that's part of the reason why I like it. I like the challenge and I like being different.
Did you hear that this year, many more women in the WISE program applied for the Battelle fellowship? I know you were involved in publicizing the Battelle opportunity.
I really promoted it a lot. Helio told me that the new Battelle award recipients were asking about me…whether I was going to be here. He told me, "You're sort of like their hero." It's surprising for me because I used to be a shy person. I'd never expect myself to be that role for other people. It's really motivating that other people look up to me. It really works hand in hand that while I motivate them, they motivate me to work harder. I did tell Helio that I"ll come by and visit. Helio is the type of person I 'll stay in touch with—forever. I still talk to Peter Muhuro, and to Tara. the whole BNL research experience has been really good for connections. Just making friends—but you're learning at the same time.