Nuclear Physics @ Central Michigan U (Podcast #8)

Greetings from GradSchoolShopper headquarters! We recently talked with some of the folks at Central Michigan University’s graduate physics program about the very cool work they’re doing, and their proud collaboration with the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab (soon to be the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams). Keep reading to find out what CMU can offer you as a student.

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Is nuclear physics your goal? Are you a CMU student? Share your experience in the comments!

GradSchoolShopper was joined by five members of CMU’s physics department: Alan Jackson, Mihai Horoi, Georgios Perdikakis, Matt Redshaw, and Kathrin Wimmer.

GSS: Central Michigan University recently made a major push to strengthen its nuclear physics program, hiring three new experimental nuclear physicists – George, Matt, and Kathrin — in Fall 2012.  What’s behind the interest in nuclear physics? Why was the decision made to expand the initiative?

Alan Jackson: The department has had a strong nuclear physics presence over many years but one of the reasons that is behind our investment in nuclear physics is the fact that we’re an hour away from the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab at Michigan State. Our existing people have been collaborating with scientists at NSCL for a long time. NSCL is in the process of upgrading — it will become the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and that is a major upgrade. It will become a much bigger, much more important laboratory worldwide, and CMU wants to be in on the ground floor of that.

GSS: Can you tell me a bit about the research being conducted at the NSCL?

Mihai Horoi: Presently the NSCL is doing research in rare isotopes and the people are involved in that kind of research. That’s why they plan to upgrade and find new isotopes which are not yet discovered, and probably learn a little more about the significance for nuclear synthesis in stars and supernovae. For that we need to know something about their probability to react and to understand the complexity of nuclear forces.

AJ: Matt, George, and Kathrin – each of them is currently working or has been working at NSCL, and continues their collaborations.

George Perdikakis: I’m interested in nuclear astrophysics. In this context what we’re interested in is how reactions with nuclei, and how the properties of nuclei, can work in the stellar environments in stars, how do they produce the elements we see around us in the world, how do they produce the spectacular effects we see in the sky, and in the end trying to understand some fundamental questions, like where these elements come from, how stars explode, how they evolve, what is their nature? And to do that we need to use accelerators, we need to be able to study the nuclear matter.

Redshaw, Perdikakis, Wimmer NSCL

CMU collaborates closely with MSU and the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. CMU professors (L-R) Matt Redshaw, Georgios Perdikakis, and Kathrin Wimmer visit the facility.

GSS: This probably has to do with the feeling that the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams is going to be a premier nuclear physics laboratory once it gets underway. Can you tell me a bit more, any of you, about what this excitement is about, what FRIB will contribute to nuclear physics as a discipline?

Kathrin Wimmer: FRIB will be way more powerful than all existing accelerators so far, so it will produce rare isotopes with much bigger intensity, and way more exotic isotopes which can be used for research.

Matt Redshaw: Some of the things that we can learn about by studying these exotic, rare isotopes that don’t normally exist in nature… we can learn about the structure of the nucleus, in particular the forces that hold it together. We can also learn, as George was saying, about some astrophysics processes, about how the heavy elements are formed, for example, and about the processes that go on when stars explode in a supernova at the end of their lives.

MH: There are about 250 isotopes which are stable or almost stable in nature. In the laboratories around the world, including NSCL, about 2,000 more were discovered, and the theories predict that there are a few thousand more which have to be discovered. Some of them which are important for the processes taking places in stars, which George mentioned, are not yet discovered, so [FRIB] will make enormous progress in that direction.

GSS: To take this out of the realm of physics and apply it to life, what kind of research have facilities like this led to that really have changed our understanding of our world? How would this be supercharged by your program over there and the FRIB?

AJ: Nuclear physics is important in a number of areas. We know about nuclear energy, we know about nuclear weapons. A growing field is nuclear medicine, where there are various for example cancer therapies that are being developed and use radioactive sources. One of the spinoffs of work that will be done at FRIB will be expanding the possible isotopes that could be used in radiation therapy or other kinds of healthcare treatments.

GSS: So in essence there’s a lot of crossover between this area and other fields. It has a lot of application beyond the immediate physics environment.

MH: Absolutely. You can go so far as saying that the skills nuclear experimenters get are useful on the street, because they have very good knowledge of forecasting, statistics, how to interpret different experiments… their skills are [desirable] in many, many areas.

Magnet delivery @ CMU

CMU receives a 12-ton magnet that will be used for high-precision mass measurements. It’s a very attractive feature of the program (electromagnetically speaking). Photo: Courtesy.

GSS: This sounds fascinating, certainly a huge leap in the right direction when it comes to research and to a whole assortment of really interesting stuff. How would you say that CMU’s investment in this program, in nuclear physics, is affecting your current students? Has it given them more opportunities in the field, in other fields, in terms of  advancing professionally or academically?

MR: I’m building a new mass spectrometry lab here at CMU, and so currently my students are involved in designing and developing some of the experimental equipment that will be used as part of this new mass spectrometer.

AJ: I think this is really a tremendous opportunity for students. We’re building three new labs in the department, basically from the ground up, anybody who’s worked in a lab knows that making an experiment work is a tricky business and takes hard work, a lot of creativity. There’s a lot of opportunity for students to play important roles in the development of these labs. In addition, these guys are practicing nuclear physicists. They are busy running experiments now, and students are involved now in those experiments. Kathrin might want to say a word about an experiment that she recently did.

KW: Just a month ago I did an experiment at NSCL, and my students also participated in the experiment. They could see the detectors and accelerators there at NSCL and they were really excited, and now they’re working hard on the analysis of this data to get some information about the structure of nuclei that were studied in the experiment.

GSS: Amazing. So if that’s what the current students are involved in, certainly new students would have even more incredible and unique opportunities over there.

Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine is one of the many fields open to trained physicists. Photo: Flickr/Brookhaven National Laboratory, Creative Commons.

GP: I would say that one important thing about new students is that they will be able to participate in the full cycle of research by building something in the lab here at CMU, taking that to a big experimental facility, in our case FRIB, currently NSCL, but also other major facilities, analyze the data, participate in making some discoveries, some small discoveries in research, presenting this data, writing papers, going to conferences. The important thing is that since we’re building those new labs, students will get the hands-on experience on actually what it takes to do all that and to go through all that process, and I think this is a very big asset for someone doing graduate school

GSS: While they get that training and experience they’re also going to be among the first to work at this amazing new facility. Once your students get clear of the degree process, and they have that degree, where do they move on to? What other opportunities would you say the FRIB would facilitate in getting into other fields and other jobs and wherever they may go afterwards?

AJ: Many of our students leave CMU with their degree and they go on to other universities, and work at other universities. They also go to work. Mihai mentioned before, there are lots of areas where students with training in physics, particularly experimental physics and nuclear physics, lots of opportunities for those students in the job market. We’ve talked a little bit about nuclear medicine. I learned today that there’s nuclear physics in the oil industry. Turns out some nuclear physics techniques are used in hunting for new deposits. There are a number of areas in the job market for students with good, solid physics training.

GSS: So once a student walks out of CMU with their Master’s in physics they have the world in front of them basically to go and do, essentially wherever they wish.

AJ: That’s the way we like to think about it!

MH: Well, I mean, that’s reality. I’ve trained many students in nuclear physics, mostly in nuclear theory, simulations, and I graduated a few of them even this semester. Most of them either go for a PhD program after the Master’s, in a closely related area which may be nuclear medicine, nuclear engineering, some of them go for different workplaces which require this kind of skill. One of my recent students went to the patent office, for example. There are many, many opportunities. I don’t believe that we have any Master’s students who went out without a job.

GP: There’s demand in all the facilities around the world for physicists that have hands-on skills or computational skills. There are many different things, I mean the list could go on.

AJ: One of the hopes that we have is that students who finish at CMU and at our sister institution, MSU, that those students will find opportunities at FRIB. FRIB is a $600 million project. It will be a big lab with a staff hundreds, maybe a few thousand people, technically trained. We expect there will be lots of opportunities to work at this facility here in Michigan. And we’re really excited about that, we’re hoping to see many of our students working someday at FRIB.

MR: I think another benefit of the two-year Master’s program is it gives students an opportunity to see what real research is actually like, and that will give them a chance to see if they want to pursue that kind of research for their PhD, so I think it’s a good introduction and also in some ways gets them ahead as people who come after two years with that kind of research experience.

GSS: What makes the program there at CMU, the Master’s of Science and Physics – what makes the program special, what makes it stand out?

Redshaw, Wimmer, Perdikakis NSCL

CMU professors (L-R) Matt Redshaw, Kathrin Wimmer, and Georgios Perdikakis are part of CMU’s growing collaboration with MSU and the NSCL. Photo: Courtesy.

AJ: Well, CMU is unusual in having a freestanding MS program, a Master of Science program. In physics most graduate programs are focused on the PhD. Students can earn a Master’s degree at those institutions but the focus is on PhD students. Here we have a freestanding Master’s program. Our Master’s students are our main focus here. They get first crack at the exciting projects that faculty have for students to work on. It’s a small department, 15 faculty members. That means that students have a lot of one-on-one interaction with faculty.

MH: I would add that our graduate students can write a thesis, so therefore graduating from our program, the student is more in research than taking classes, if you want. We give our students more hands-on experience.

MR: We should mention that students can have a teaching assistanceship or a research assistanceship that will cover their tuition and give them a living stipend as well , which is very nice to have.

MH: What Matt said is very important. We actually always support students financially so they can safely do research without worry, and in fact all of the time they are funded to do research. So that is one of our strengths. We could do that, we are able to do that over the years.

AJ: That’s right, Mihai raises a good point. Many graduate programs in physics have students supported on teaching assistanceships for the first several years of their residency in the program. We’ve been able over the years to bring our students in… they may teach for the first year, but certainly in their second year and two summers we’ve been able to support them on research assistanceships, which gives them the opportunity to work, to spend more time in the lab, to get more research experience. This is a very strong aspect of our program, and Matt, George, and Kathrin have opportunities currently for students coming in on research assistanceships so they’ll have even more experience doing research by the time they finish their Master’s degree.

GSS: Alan Jackson, Mihai Horoi, George Perdikakis, Kathrin Wimmer, Matt Redshaw – I’d like to thank you for speaking with GradSchoolShopper. It’s been a pleasure. I suspect that many of our listeners will take this conversation to heart when they do begin to apply to grad schools. Certainly these are opportunities that do not exist in places where they don’t have the same kind of facilities as you do and will up there. We really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us!

AJ, MH, GP, KW, MR: Thank you!

Want to learn more about the Master’s of Science and Physics at Central Michigan University? Start by clicking here.

Are you a CMU student? Is nuclear physics your goal? Share your experience in the comments!

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Advice to Students

Physics can be hard, and you spend a lot of time doing homework, preparing for the GRE, etc. But do some activities that remind you why you love it, and keep you enthusiastic about what you’re studying. — Kendra Redmond, Program Coordinator and Assistant Editor, Society of Physics Students, Podcast Episode #1

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