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Fall 2012 Newsletter


Student Summer Research

During the summer, many universities offer paid internships to undergraduates, placing them in functioning science labs to conduct their own research project. The intention of these internships is to prepare undergraduates for medical and graduate school and broaden their functional science knowledge. Below two of our seniors describe their summer experience.

Aaron VanDyne '13

Aaron VanDyne

I worked with Dr. Arie Bodek's group at the University of Rochester. The majority of the group including myself worked from Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois. I was working in the area of particle physics, and specifically the decay of a Z-boson or virtual photon to a pair of muons. My research was concerned with correcting the CDF RunII dataset, which is complete now that the Tevatron has been shut down. I first applied a set of cuts to remove the background from the sample. I then applied two different corrections to the data to bring it into line with simulation. A plot of a quantity called forward-backward asymmetry, which showed that the correction had been successful. This plot can be used in the future to measure a quantity called the electroweak-mixing angle, and the CDF RunII dataset may be the best opportunity to make such a measurement.

The corrections that were developed for this data are themselves an important result. The correction method used for the data was based on a correction developed by other members of my group for a detector at CERN. Over the summer, we showed that the correction worked extremely well on datasets from both detectors, and I am an author on a paper that has been reviewed and is pending publication in the European Physics Journal. The paper is already in preprint on arXiv. The title of the paper is "Extracting Muon Momentum Scale Corrections for Hadron Collider Experiments." This is my first publication, and this publication will give me a leg up on other students going forward.

The best part of this summer was getting to experience what research in physics is like. I enjoyed the type of work that I was doing; however, I came to the conclusion that I was not particularly interested in particle physics due to its limited applicability in broader contexts. I did, however, develop my computing skills over the summer and hope to use those skills going forward. I must also note that the accommodations that I was given by the University of Rochester were excellent. We were in fact provided a rental car for the entire summer and the apartment we stayed in was fully furnished.


Kelly Anderson '13

Kelly Anderson

This past summer I had the opportunity to conduct research at the University of Rochester with Dr. Candice Fazar, Dr. Judy Pipher, and several other faculty members at the university. When I initially agreed to work with her I had very little knowledge about what we were going to research, other than the fact that it had something to do with asteroids. So naturally, I told my friends and family that I was going to spend my summer saving the Earth from impending doom. The day I arrived at the university, my knowledge increased tenfold; I soon learned that the project we were to work on had been in the making for a number of years, which meant that I had a lot of catching up to do. The first week of my time there was largely spent reading textbooks on the theories and technologies used in our research, and it was then that I began to understand the importance of what we were trying to achieve. My familiarity with the complex theories and equations is still rudimentary compared to the experienced faculty I worked with at U of R, but I will gladly share my experiences and what expertise I have. 

The development of infrared detectors has become an important area of research in the field of astrophysics, largely because of their promising potential for space-based applications. The lifetime of any space mission is limited by a number of factors; three of which are its location, its operating temperature, and the longevity of the components involved (our focus is on detector arrays). The location is important because it determines if the instrument can be serviced periodically based on its orbit. The operating temperature also has a significant influence on the performance of instruments in space, and in general, the closer the external environment is to absolute zero the better the components function (due to a lower background).  Even the detectors themselves must be kept cold relative to the radiative signature they are trying to measure.  While space itself radiates at a temperature of ~3 K, other sources, such as our sun and even the earth contribute to the overall heat load on the telescope housing the detector and make low temperatures difficult to maintain. A typical way to reach such low temperatures is to use cryogens such as liquid nitrogen and liquid helium, but their use in space is extremely costly and supplies inevitably run out.  Passive cooling, while it can reach an operating temperature of 30 K, is not without its drawbacks, as there are currently no long wavelength (~10 m) detectors optimized for low background detection that can function at this temperature.  It was this need that initially drove the detector development that I became a part of this summer.  Given current progress in this area, the third factor, detector longevity, is most directly related to my summer research, as it is unknown how these detectors will perform after many years have passed.

These detectors are now being further developed for the proposed Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) space mission. NEOCam consists principally of a telescope and a wide-field camera, and is designed to detect asteroids and other potentially harmful objects in space. It is intended to operate at the L1 Lagrange point, which essentially means that the NEOCam would be relatively easy to access since its orbital period would match the Earth’s. Additionally, these detectors are being developed to operate at higher temperatures (~30-40 K) than their current functioning counterparts (~6-8 K) so that the innovative technique of passive cooling can be used, eliminating the need for cryogens without sacrificing performance.

As for my contribution to this research, I aided in the testing of a particular detector and the analysis of its performance. This detector, known as H1RG-110, has a wavelength cutoff of 10 µm and is composed of the semiconductor material HgCdTe (an ideal choice for our applications). The H1RG-110 was tested in 2007, and by examining its operability again in 2012 I was able to determine how its performance has changed over time. I spent a considerable amount of time in the lab taking data with the detector, which was mounted in a vacuum-sealed container filled with cryogens (in order to mimic a passively cooled environment). Most of the tests involved exposing the detector to light for a period of time, then returning it to darkness. These tests provided current and voltage data for the pixels throughout the array, which were used to ascertain their operability. Although the detector already performed poorly in 2007 (due to manufacturing processes), I was able to determine that roughly 13% of the pixels that had acceptable operability in 2007 failed to meet the same specifications in 2012. The causes of pixel degradation over time are still under investigation, but I intend to remain involved in this research in order to help establish what these causes are.

The ten weeks I spent doing research were thoroughly enjoyable; being able to use concepts that I have been studying in classrooms for years was highly rewarding and affirmed my decision to pursue a career in electrical engineering. The faculty members that I worked with were all friendly, encouraging, and eager to instruct me on various procedures and analysis methods. One of my favorite tasks was refilling the cryogens, partly because it was fun and partly because the vapors were refreshingly cool compared to the often sweltering laboratory. Once, I decided to stick my hand in a container of liquid nitrogen, which was a very thrilling experience (and less painful than one might think). It turns out that because the human hand is at a much higher temperature than the boiling point of liquid nitrogen, the nitrogen vaporizes upon contact and creates a small layer of air between it and the hand, thus leaving it unscathed. It is important to note, however, that this will only work if it is done relatively fast. Otherwise, all the bad things you heard about liquid nitrogen will soon prove to be true.

Besides continuing research over the next year, I will have the opportunity to present my work at this year’s PhysCon in November. It will be a great opportunity for me to talk to experienced physicists, astronomers, and engineers about what I’ve been doing and get their professional feedback on my work. Obviously, the fact that the conference is located in Florida has nothing to do with my desire to attend this prestigious event. But in all seriousness, it will be a wonderful time of learning and connecting with the scientific community, which will undoubtedly open up many horizons for my future in physics and engineering.

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