Particle physics research

Physicists scramble to get more undergraduates into research

Sneha Dixit kept herself company during a 25-hour journey – by plane, train and taxi, from Bangalore, India, to Chestertown, Maryland – with Stephen Hawking’s popular science book The grand design. She was on her way to join the Class of 2024 at Washington College.

Dixit knew she wanted to study physics like Hawking. But it wasn’t until she started her studies that she understood what working as a physicist was really like.

“I wanted to be a physicist for almost seven or eight years now,” she says. “And when I got to college, I realized that physicists don’t just sit in front of textbooks and solve equations. They do research, that’s how they discover things, that’s what makes them physicists.

This is also what Dixit wanted to do.

But most undergraduates who are lucky enough to participate in experiments attend institutions that offer doctoral degrees and receive a high level of federal support for research. Dixit is at a small liberal arts institution that primarily offers four-year degrees. Faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions like Washington College face a number of barriers to providing research experience for their students.

Luckily for Dixit, Washington College physics professor Suyog Shrestha found a way around these hurdles, at least for a small group of students. With Shrestha, Dixit was able to analyze data from the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider.

Physicists who participated in a planning process for the future of high-energy physics in the United States – called Snowmass – recently championed efforts like these in a white paper, “Improving HEP Research at Institutions undergraduate and predominantly community colleges”.

To achieve their goal of making the research experience accessible to a wider range of undergraduate students, they wrote, they will need support from college and university administrations, experimental collaborations and funding agencies. .

Learning by doing

Conducting research is learning how to find answers outside of a textbook, says Matt Bellis, associate professor of physics at Siena College just outside Albany, New York.

When it comes to big questions like why the universe is mostly matter and not antimatter, “you can’t just go to a book and figure out how to solve it,” Bellis says. “You have to be creative in how you approach these problems for which there are no answers.”

Siena College is a private Franciscan college with a student body of just over 3,000 undergraduate students. But Bellis makes sure his students have access to physics research.

For students earning graduate degrees in physics, that head start is important, Shrestha says. “High-energy physics is a very difficult field in the sense that it requires years of preparation before anyone can be productive.”

Beyond upgrading a student in experimental collaboration, research experience can also make a career in physics more feasible. “I think I understand what physics is better than before,” says Josephine Swann, a physics student at Siena. “I didn’t imagine he was so connected to so many other areas. I was very intimidated by the physics before I got into it, but it’s so much more accessible than I had hoped.

In collaboration with Bellis, Swann recently performed calculations related to a search for dark matter particles by the CMS experiment at the LHC. The experience introduced her to a larger research community than she thought.

“I learned from so many people,” she says. “The LHC project physicists, my professors, other students and people in fields other than physics such as biology and chemistry have been very helpful. I had no idea what was invested in a full calculation like [the one] I did, and ours is still full of uncertainties.

“I had just finished [introductory physics class] ‘General Physics I’ when I started working on this project, and I can’t even begin to say everything I learned.

Even students who don’t go on to study physics can benefit from early exposure to scientific research, says Sudhir Malik, a physics professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez who worked on the Snowmass white paper. “Research is something that brings additional technology and additional skills, which are not part of the university curriculum,” he says.

Research at primarily undergraduate institutions

Professors at Carnegie-ranked research institutes and doctoral institutions are expected to devote the majority of their time to research, typically teaching two or fewer courses per year. Graduate students are responsible for teaching many undergraduate classes.

In contrast, faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions are expected to spend most of their time teaching and they are assessed on their ability to teach. “Teaching is incredibly easy, unless you really want to do it,” says Bellis. “Teaching well takes time and effort.”

The greater workload for faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions may make it difficult for them to travel to attend experimental collaboration meetings or to perform service responsibilities such as data taking, sensor maintenance or computer operations.

This prevents many undergraduates from doing research, says Malik. “If the teachers of [predominantly undergraduate institutions] do research, then only students can participate.

Primarily undergraduate institutions are generally not created for research. Important upper-level courses that physics students need are not offered or are rarely offered, due to the small number of students enrolling in them. Additionally, undergraduate institutions lack the infrastructure and equipment available at institutions with more federal funds for research.

In research-based institutions, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers support faculty. Supervising and coaching them takes time and effort, but it also allows teachers to delegate tasks.

In contrast, faculty at institutions where there are no graduate or postdoctoral students must advance at a slower pace. “If you really want to give the student a good experience, it takes time to teach them the basics,” says Bellis. “And this time you’re teaching them, you might just do [the research] yourself.”

All of this puts faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions at a disadvantage when competing with faculty at other institutions for the funding needed to cover expenses such as collaboration membership fees, payment of student researchers, and access to IT equipment and resources.

“If the university wants to set up something, some kind of research, it always needs external funding,” says Malik. “And external funding is a challenge for us.”

make it work

One way for faculty at smaller institutions to engage undergraduate students in research is for larger institutions to offer to share resources.

Siena College, for example, has partnered with Cornell University, which provides graduate student and post-doctoral assistance, as well as technical and administrative support and an already established connection to the CMS experience. and its host laboratory, CERN.

Similarly, Shrestha, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at Ohio State University, is using her connection to the larger institution to further her research on the ATLAS experiment and bring in students from Washington College.

Physicists suggest in the Snowmass white paper that experimental collaborations could ease the burden on faculty at small institutions by charging less to participate, offering different levels of membership, and providing funding for travel. They could also allow professors with heavier teaching loads to do service work remotely.

Funding agencies prohibit professors from using grants to pay their institutions in exchange for relieving them of some of their teaching responsibilities. But allowing faculty with heavier teaching loads to do so would help faculty at smaller institutions, the white paper says.

The US Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation provide financial support for faculty at mostly undergraduate institutions, Malik says.

The NSF offers funding opportunities called Facilitating Research at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions, designed for schools that do not have internal funding for research. The DOE Office of Science provides funding to faculty and students from institutions historically underrepresented in research through the Visiting Professor Program, which allows faculty to collaborate during the summer with scientific and technical staff in laboratories nationals. Starting in spring 2023, as part of the Office of Science RENEW initiative, the VFP program will also offer spring and fall sessions.

Some primarily undergraduate institutions also offer funding for faculty research. Shrestha has supported summer research students, including Dixit, with a small stipend from the John S. Toll Summer Student Research Program at Washington College.

For Dixit, who is on track to graduate early in 2023, the opportunity has been transformative.

“It’s something I wouldn’t mind doing for the rest of my life,” she said. “And whatever hunch I had that I wanted to be a physicist, it was true.”