Physics Students Do Research at Nation’s Top Institutions

By Nadia Macias

UTEP News Service

Students from UTEP really do go places.

For junior physics major Isaac Lopez, it was Batavia, Ill. – to help researchers with one of the most mind-blowing theories of the decade.Junior physics major Andres Ortiz presents the research he did at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past summer to fellow UTEP physics students. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceJunior physics major Andres Ortiz presents the research he did at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this past summer to fellow UTEP physics students. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

But wait, let’s start from the beginning.

This past summer eight undergraduate students within the College of Science’s Department of Physics received the opportunity to study for free at some of the nation’s top research institutions.

“I have been working with MIT, Virginia Tech, UT Austin, the University of Arizona and more, to place our students there in the summer – all our students, but particularly underrepresented minorities because they really are underrepresented in physics,” said Vivian Incera, Ph.D., chair of the department. “Sometimes it’s the first time they leave El Paso, and it’s a way for them to see that they can actually perform and be very good at a level they thought they were not capable.”

In Lopez’s case, he received a $4,500 National Science Foundation grant to participate in the University of Chicago’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program within their Department of Physics.

Through the program and his interest in cosmological physics, he landed at the United States Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab).

For ten weeks he worked on the holometer project, an experiment that – if successful – could literally turn our idea of the universe upside down.

In short, physicists have found that everything is made of tiny particles, but since they act like waves, one cannot actually pin down where the particles are in space, or how exactly they move. This particle-wave duality applies to everything we know, such as atoms and light. 

What we still don’t know is whether it also applies to space and time. Physicists suspect that it does – that space and time are “quantized.” The holometer experiment is designed to detect this.

The researchers are testing the theory by shining a light beam, splitting it in two, and then bringing it back together. They then study the recombination to see if the light has even the slightest distortions. If so, they will have detected a holographic noise associated to a quantized space-time, which will deeply change the way we understand our universe.

“Since there is a demand for high precision by the machine, everything must be just right,” Lopez said. “One problem they were experiencing was a resonating of the mirrors in the setup. Just as how the front of your neck resonates when you hum. One step to correcting this is to have a device to measure this resonating. This device is known as an accelerometer. I was able to design, build, and test these so they can be used to help correct the resonance problem.”

Stephan Meyer, Ph.D., who oversaw Lopez and is the co-principal investigator of the experiment, said, “Issac built two small accelerometer units with amplifiers and signal conditioning electronics. He assisted in making the measurements of the vibration isolation stage properties to show that they would work in our configuration.  His work is now being used to continue the development of the holometer instrument.”

The project does not expect to have results until sometime next year.

Similar to Lopez, Armando Garcia is a junior physics major. He spent his past two summers at The University of Arizona’s Summer Research Institute program. After attending the first time, he was invited to return supported by grant funding.

“The program impressed me very much,” Garcia said. “And I knew that I could still learn and grow by going again.”

Last year, he received an honorary mention for a poster he did on atomic, molecular and optical physics at a joint conference held by the National Society of Black Physicists and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists because of his work at the university.

His research revolves around the study of graphene, a pure carbon substance that shows promise for potential high-tech applications such as display screens and solar cells, and whether the electrons of organic systems play a role in determining its visual properties.

After completing their summer research programs, both students returned to UTEP and presented the work they had done to fellow physics students.

According to Incera, the number of UTEP undergraduates participating in summer research has been increasing slowly over the years, and she wants to increase it further.

“This activity was to encourage and tell other students that they too can do this,” she said. “I received excellent feedback from all the institutions about our students, and they’re telling us to send them more.”

Other physics students who spent their summers researching at some of the nation’s top institutions included Andres Ortiz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Matthew Quiroz, the University of Texas at Austin; Jessica Salazar and Arturo Adame, the University of Arizona; Enrique Ramirez, the University of California, Berkeley; and Rudy Gonzalez, Texas A&M University.