Researcher of the Month
Major: Physics and Mathematics, Class of 2023
Research Mentor: Dr. Navid Vafaei-Najafabadi, Department of Physics & Astronomy
Evan Trommer is a senior majoring in physics and mathematics, who for the past eight months has been exploring experimental plasma physics under the mentorship of Dr. Navid Vafaei-Najafabadi (Physics & Astronomy), his professor last fall for PHY 301: Electromagnetic Theory.
This spring, Evan worked with his mentor to develop a proposal, and subsequently applied for and received funding from the URECA Summer program to pursue undergraduate research full time from May 31 – August 5, 2022 on: “Probing the Electromagnetic Field Structure in Plasma Wakefields Using Relativistic Electrons.” His researchproject built on his extensive programming skills, and his combined academic training in physics and mathematics, and has since led to analytical and numerical simulations that will soon be tested at the Accelerator Test Facility at Brookhaven National Lab where an electron beam is used for probing plasma waves generated by a high-power CO2 laser pulse.
Evan presented a poster on this work at the Summer Symposium, explaining the simulations he ran to experimentally measure electromagnetic field structures inside these wakefields; and generally, how the laser wakefield accelerator technology is especially of interest to physicists because it potentially allows for exploration of fundamental physics using much more compact accelerators than typical colliders such as RHIC and LHC.
Reflecting on the positive summer research program experience he had, Evan points to the opportunity to interact within the community of students and mentors participating in the REU Physics program led by Dr. Navid Vafaei-Najafabadi as a lasting benefit; and an experience that has made him more motivated to pursue a PhD in physics. On campus, Evan has been active in the Society of Physics Students as Deputy Secretary and is currently President of the club.
Evan acknowledges how difficult it was to get started in research, recalling how “the pandemic hit and … complicated some things, and made it harder to think how to be involved – even in remote research. But, eventually, I made some closer friends and started getting some advice that really just helped me to push me to get involved somehow. You’ve got to start somewhere, but I think just taking that leap of faith is something that I had to learn how to do. And I'm very glad I did.”
Evan’s hobbies include: playing guitar, being an audio enthusiast, playing Dungeons and Dragons, reading sci-fi; fantasy; mentoring, exercising. He is a graduate of West Islip HS where he was first engaged in a research project on solar panels. Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen: Tell me about your current research.
Evan: Sure. So generally, what I do is work in theoretical and computational plasma physics, and what that means is I try to use a lot of computer code and simulations to model an experiment and try and figure out some equations are some physically meaningful and relevant to test.
Typical accelerators that we're using nowadays, such as the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, typically use electromagnets to accelerate particles. But we're running into a size limit where, if we want to reach higher and higher energies, we need to build bigger and bigger accelerators -- which in turn becomes much more costly to maintain and build. So there's a relatively new type of technology called laser wakefield accelerators … which basically involves sending a high-power laser pulse through plasma, into which we can insert electrons and can potentially accelerate these electrons to similar speeds but in a much shorter distance than conventional accelerators like RHIC at BNL or the Large Hadron Collider.. We use the analogy of the wake of a boat to describe these laser wakefields. If you think of how a surfer rides behind the boat on it’s wake, and gets accelerated and pushed along … that's what we think of when we're putting electrons into this laser wakefield, where the electrons are being pushed along by this wake. And we wish to experimentally measure the electromagnetic field structure inside these wakefields. Measuring the electromagnetic fields is what will help us utilize this technology more efficiently.
How long have you been involved in this research project? How did you get started?
I took an electromagnetism class with Professor Navid Vafaei-Najafabadi in the fall, and I spoke to him during office hours. I asked him about his research, and was happy to be invited on board to start doing a project with him in the spring. That's when I started learning some of the physics theory behind plasma physics and accelerators, and then I applied for the URECA summer program.
It was extremely helpful being part of a summer program. During a normal semester, you may be able to do 10 hours maximum on research, if you can even spare that amount of time where you're doing coursework, etc. But during the summer, I got to work basically full time. And it really was super helpful to have as much time as I needed to run simulations or to read new papers… It afforded me a lot of extra time not only to do my own work but sort of to craft how I perform research itself.
Have you seen a big improvement in your ability to do research?
Yes absolutely. One of the critical things I learned was how to create a logical structure for myself of how to approach a problem. At the beginning, I sort of just tried to tackle a problem with the first idea that came to mind. But I learned to take a step back and to come up with a structured plan. I learned to become more proficient in thinking about how research should be conducted, and how certain problems should be approached.
How does your research experience complement the class work that you are involved with as a math and physics double major?
It neatly combined what I was learning in my physics and math classes. The work that I did directly follows up from the class that I took with Professor Navid because it relies heavily on knowledge of electricity and magnetism. And it also has some connections to optics, which is another class I took. But in terms of the theoretical basis of what my research was about, it required using a lot of math skills and a type of approach that I really learned from my math classes about how to find an equation, or how to simplify something to get an equation into a reasonable form for us to look at … So my research ended up drawing upon both my physics classes and previous math classes and sort of tied them together in a nice bow; it allowed me to take what I learned, along with some computational skills, in class and outside of class to actually put it all together.
Did you enjoy the opportunity to present your research at the end of the summer program?
Yes I did! I had quite a few people come up to me at the poster session. And having people that I was either working with, and some that didn't know my research too well, as well as people that I'd never met before, all come up to me and be interested in what I had to say was super encouraging.
What do you most enjoy about doing research?
There's a lot to enjoy about research! As cliché as it sounds, there is a great deal of satisfaction is discovering something new: so actually, as a result of the research, we found, or developed, a particular equation that we think could potentially be very useful for understanding these laser wakefields. And that's something that we're hopefully going to be testing at Brookhaven National Lab this August.
It's super exciting, and the fact that I was able to work through the problem of understanding, “where does the equation comes from?” and “why it can be important?”— that whole process was incredibly satisfying. Whether or not it ends up being correct, the fact that it can tell us more information in itself is exciting. If it fits, it tells us that we understand the wakefield better and we can predict it better. And if it doesn't fit, then it tells us “Oh, we have something else that we have to look for and it doesn't behave how we think it does…” The insight and knowledge that you get when you test a hypothesis you're working on and you know you are contributing to the scientific community’s understanding of a problem is incredibly satisfying.
How has your mentor helped you to develop as a researcher?
Prof. Navid has fostered a very welcoming research group. Everyone there is very kind and very willing to help, with the custom being that the more experienced people help the less experienced people. I think that's what has made it so very comfortable – being able to go up to any of the grad students or other professor, and to be able to ask for help and for guidance into how to approach problems. That atmosphere is very helpful for new students, especially students getting into research for the first time.
Plus, Prof. Navidwas there whenever I needed to talk to him. He was readily available for me to talk through problems with him. And in general, he's just very caring about his students and wants them to succeed, so he tries to do as much as he can to ensure that his students complete their projects and do what they need to do. Before we even started the project for the summer, he worked with me to create a timeline so that we could figure out a logical and reasonable timeframe for me to do certain steps.
What advice would you give to fellow classmates about getting involved in research?
I know a lot of people in my year were impacted by covid, and it made it a lot harder to interact with professors and get to know them – to take that leap of faith of starting something that's new to them. So my advice is, once you look into a professor’s research and if you find it interesting, set up a meeting time or go to their office hours; interact them face-to-face and build a rapport with them. It’s okay to send multiple emails in case they miss one, but don’t overdo it. You just have to go for it!
And when you do take that leap of faith and start doing research, it's important not to get too overwhelmed at the start, when you are new to research. It can be very easy to jump in and think “Oh, I want to do this … and that … to do what the grad students are doing…”, but it's important to make sure that you take those small steps. You have to crawl before you can run, and you need to absorb as much baseline, fundamental information as you can at the beginning stages, as far as what is important to do as a young researcher, before you can take larger and larger steps, and become more knowledgeable in the field that you want.
Another important piece of advice is just to get to know the people that you're doing research with-- not only your advisor but other students around you. This summer, I was working alongside other students from the REUs. And it was so good to get to know them because they understand what you're going through and you can help each other along. You can work on problems together; you can talk to them and get ideas for ways to approach problems. And just having friends in physics, or any field of science, is super important.
Was undergraduate research something you knew you wanted to get involved with while you were at Stony Brook?
I definitely had an idea that I wanted to do research in physics, but I wasn't sure how to go about that. And then, when I got here and started talking to my peers and learned about how some of them got involved in research very early, it seemed very overwhelming and somehow just way over my head and I had no idea how I could actually even attempt it; I didn’t know where to start. Then, the pandemic hit and complicated some things, and made it harder to even think how or where to start getting involved – even in remote research.
But, eventually, I made some closer friends and started getting some advice from some upperclassmen that encouraged me to start getting involved. You’ve got to start somewhere, but I think just taking that leap of faith is something that I had to learn how to do. And I'm very glad I did.