The Catholic University of America

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Student Physicists Emerge in Search for Kaons, Quarks, and Gluons

In late October, in East Lansing, Mich., physicists from around the world and with long lists of degrees listened attentively to presentations on the intricacies of building a subatomic particle detector. The theretofore unknown speakers were three Catholic University undergraduates and a high-schooler from Northern Virginia.

Sophomore Nathaniel Hlavin and freshman Laura Rothgeb, both physics majors; senior Mike Metz, an engineering major; and Marshall High School junior Katya Gilbo of Falls Church, each won a national award to attend the American Physical Society’s Division of Nuclear Physics Conference and present the results of research they conducted last school year and this past summer at Catholic University.

The awards came from the Conference Experience for Undergraduates program, sponsored by the American Physical Society, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy. The program’s goal is to provide a “capstone” conference experience for undergraduate students in nuclear physics research. The student physicists present their work at an annual international conference, as full-time physicists do.

Under the guidance of Tanja Horn, assistant professor of physics, the Catholic University group is working on a project to design and build a Kaon Aerogel Cerenkov detector to be installed at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (JLab) in Newport News, Va.

The Cerenkov detector will identify minute subatomic particles called kaons and their constituents — the quarks and gluons that blink into and out of existence and are driven by the “strong force,” one of the four basic forces of nature. The other three are gravity, electromagnetism, and the still-mysterious “weak force.” Little is known about kaons, quarks, and gluons as they cannot be seen under a standard microscope.

The detector will be used in the University’s strangeness physics program at JLab. Strangeness physics is named for the so-called “strange quark” particle, one of the fundamental building blocks of all matter.

At the Catholic University physics lab, Horn’s student researchers learned the basics of particle detector construction — from using an oscilloscope to check electronic signals to building a simple detector to measure cosmic ray muons, electron-like particles that stream down to earth from outer space.

Then the students set into motion on the Cerenkov detector. Metz built a prototype that allowed testing of its component aerogel, the lightest known substance in the world, and Hlavin developed procedures to test the detector’s electronic devices. Rothgeb carried out simulations of the detector using state-of-the-art modeling software that’s used in medical applications such as radiation therapy. And Gilbo performed calculations for the detector’s preliminary design and found a method — commonly used in biology to measure the surface area of leaves — to measure the refraction index of the aerogel without much handling of the delicate material.

Horn says the students’ research results have been an “important” part of the development of the detector, which will be complete by the end of next year. Even as that happens, the student researchers who’ve helped build the high-tech device still will be in school. Like those little-known but energetic kaons, quarks, and gluons, they’ll be quietly zipping around the Catholic University lab. 

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The Team:

Nathaniel Hlavin, sophomore physics major from Vienna, Va.

Mike Metz, senior engineering major from Bear, Del.

Laura Rothgeb, freshman physics major from Annandale, Va.

Katya Gilbo, junior at Marshall High School in Falls Church, Va.

“Eureka!” moment:

Nathaniel: “I have been working to design and set up this data acquisition system…and it uses different components or different pieces than a system at the JLab. But about a week before the conference, I finally got data out of it and results that are very, very similar to the JLab results — even using different pieces. As far as science goes, that’s definitely success.”

“It was the first time I actually ran the simulation after writing my new configuration and actually got results in the neighborhood of where they were supposed to be — that was really exciting and encouraging.”  

Best part of physics:

Laura: “Having the opportunity to really look at the things that we don’t understand and to come to a better understanding of them, and to know that the underlying principles are always true, and something that we learn in the lab is entirely applicable to our everyday life and to even bigger questions.”

Most difficult thing to explain to non-physicists:

Nathaniel: “If you get the question of ‘What do you do?’, you could say, ‘Well, I do this little thing’ or ‘I test this piece of equipment’ but you kind of have to tell a real big back story for that to make sense.”

Best part of the conference:

Laura: “In the poster section, we were able to present our research and answer questions and kind of establish our place in the physics community as people who have done valid research. That was really exciting. Also being able to sit in these lectures [by world-class physicists]…and hear my professor giving a talk — it’s inspiring.”