Physics Undergraduates Conduct Summer Research at UC Davis

Daphne Garcia
Daphne Garcia

This summer, 12 students from around the U.S. traveled to UC Davis for a very different view of physics from typical coursework. The undergraduates worked on research projects side-by-side with faculty and graduate students in the Department of Physics at the UC Davis College of Letters and Science.

“This experience has made me excited to continue my education and pursue a graduate program in experimental condensed matter,” said Daphne Garcia, a physics major at Portland State University in Oregon who is conducting nuclear magnetic resonance experiments with Professor Nick Curro. “The work is very hands-on, which I really enjoy. I’m also able to learn the concepts behind the experimental work, and understanding ‘why’ is very important to me — it’s the reason I got into physics. I’m hoping to learn and take in as much as I possibly can.”

During the 10-week program, students live on campus and receive a $500-per-week stipend. The summer research program is funded by a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant from the National Science Foundation. The UC Davis Department of Physics has been an REU site since 2004. 

“The REU activities teach skills useful for further scientific endeavors, give students a broad perspective on possible future paths, and help them build a network of professional contacts,” said Rena Zieve, physics department chair and head of the REU program at UC Davis.

In addition to specific research projects, the students also learn from field trips to physics-related settings such as the McClellan Nuclear Research Center and the Advanced Light Source at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. At the end of the program, each participant gives a formal research presentation and presents a written project report that can lead to a peer-reviewed publication. Twelve peer-reviewed publications have been published by REU students (with UC Davis faculty co-authors) since 2017.

Here, two students in the 2019 REU program describe their experiences at UC Davis.

Hannah ManetschHannah Manetsch
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This summer, I am doing research in the area of computational condensed matter physics with Professor Richard Scalettar. I am developing a code utilizing a quantum Monte Carlo algorithm in order to study and confirm the interesting physics accessible through a recently proposed experimental setup that utilizes a synthetic dimension in rotational space for ultracold molecules.

This experience has already given me insight into this specific area of research, which will help me as I decide what particular field of physics I wish to pursue in graduate school. Going forward, the technical and communication skills that I am able to cultivate this summer, through working with new people and with new technology, provide an invaluable basis upon which I will be able to pursue both science and teaching. I am very grateful to be able to have the opportunity to grow in such ways in a collaborative and encouraging environment, even as I narrow down the area of physics that I am most interested in for future studies.

Kristopher MortensenKristopher Mortensen
Northwestern University

My research is to analyze the spatial and kinematic distribution of a giant cloud of gas known as the circumgalactic medium (CGM), which surrounds a nearby galaxy. We analyze the gas distribution via giant arcs of light, which come from a galaxy behind the galaxy of interest, shining into the gas. As the light shines into the gas, different elements absorb that light. We can detect that absorption throughout the CGM using a technique called integral-field spectroscopy. With our analysis, we hope to understand how this gas behaves as well as uncover information about how it plays a role in star formation in galaxies.

This experience really helps me to see the whole picture in an area of astrophysics that I wish to pursue: high-energy astrophysics. A lot of my research at Northwestern was about understanding the physics behind the collisions between two neutron stars or the core-collapse supernovae originating from dying stars. To fully understand how these phenomena came to be, I need to look at the composition of their host galaxies and see if their composition correlates with the production of neutron-star mergers or supernovae, which is similar to what I am currently working on this summer. In addition, I am learning about how to analyze observational data as well as smooth the data so we get the most accurate analysis possible. At Northwestern most of my research was theory and simulations, so the chance to work with real data ties all of my experiences together so that I can work to support/argue the theories in high-energy astrophysics with the data that is presented to me.

Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science