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Physics majors from around the country get summer research experience

By Nana Koram
July 29, 2002

Lying out all day on a sandy beach, shopping at the mall or catching up with old friends - these are just a few of the activities that many college students engage in during their three months of summer sunshine and freedom. Yet if you walk into a number of physics labs on campus this summer, you're likely to see undergraduates huddled in front of computers, engrossed in complex-looking calculations or fiddling with electrical components in an attempt to create special circuits.

These ten students are physics majors from universities across the country who have come to Vanderbilt to participate in the highly competitive REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) with matching funds from Vanderbilt.

According to Royal Albridge, the physics professor who directs the program, the purpose of this summer of research is to encourage undergraduates, including women and underrepresented minorities, to develop an interest in scientific research. The program provides the opportunity for students to become involved in research and to meet and develop relationships with research professors.

"The program also allows students from smaller institutions with limited research facilities to have access to the state-of-the-art equipment in Vanderbilt's research labs," Albridge says.

Heather Barker, a rising senior from King College in Bristol, Tennessee appreciates the opportunity to use Vanderbilt's advanced research facilities: "Because my college is so small, we don't have the facilities to support in-depth research, so this program gave me the chance to participate in research as an undergraduate".

Barker, a two-time veteran of the program, works with the Living State Physics Group and is researching on the usefulness of a device called the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) in diagnosing stomach ailments. Barker's research has convinced her to "pursue a graduate degree that entails physics research." She says that her experience these past two summers have yielded several benefits, including "learning about the graduate student environment, meeting the faculty in the department and just living in a new place for the summer."

She is not the only student who is enjoying spending her summer doing in-depth research. Jonathan Jarvis, a senior from Samford University, believes the program to be "an excellent graduate school preparatory experience". Jarvis, who works with Dr. Charles Brau, is currently occupied with building a 50-kilovolt-pulsed-DC power supply as part of a free-electron laser project.

Having previously done some research at Purdue, Jarvis is no alien to the lab. His work in research labs has allowed him to develop a scientist's instinct. "I usually have a pretty good gut feeling that tells me when an investigation is worthwhile and when I'm just chasing rabbits," he says.

Jarvis' summer here at Vanderbilt has convinced him that graduate school must definitely be part of his future plans. Research is what he loves and, like he says, "You've got to do what you love."

Not only does the program benefit the students, but it also benefits the university. "Not only do students have access to Vanderbilt's research facilities and excellent professors, but Vanderbilt also has access to highly motivated and intelligent students from across the country," he points out.

As the director of Vanderbilt REU physics program since its birth four years ago, Albridge has seen many talented REU participants apply for graduate school at Vanderbilt. In fact, two of the program's former students are currently enrolled as Vanderbilt graduate students. These gifted individuals bring enthusiasm, creativity and ingenuity to the Vanderbilt graduate student body, Albridge says.

So don't be surprised if you walk by one of the labs in the Stevenson Center this summer and catch a glimpse of several young adults diligently working on a complex-looking experiment rather than hanging out at the mall with their peers.

- VU -


Nana Koram is a graduate of the Communication of Science, Engineering and Technology program.


National REU sites in physics, materials science, astronomy

 


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