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It Takes a Volunteer | Ensuring a Culture Where Vol is a Verb

Diversifying Nuclear Physics & Building New Relationships

Nadia Fomin had a straightforward goal in mind: recruit students from underrepresented groups to go into nuclear physics, adding diversity and strength to the field. Alejandro Cepero, Thaddeus Smith, and Gema Villegas wanted to bolster their research experience and learn more about nuclear physics opportunities. With funding from the US Department of Energy for the Nuclear Physics in Eastern TN (NPET) fellowship program, those objectives aligned perfectly.

Alejandro Cepero

Alejandro Cepero

Thaddeus Smith

Thaddeus Smith

Gema Villegas

Gema Villegas

Recruiting Tomorrow’s Physicists

An American Physical Society Study showed that only about 13 percent of physics undergraduates in 2018 identified as being from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Fomin, an associate professor, recognized the opportunity to strengthen nuclear physics as a whole by attracting students from a broad range of backgrounds and experience. Engaging them as undergraduates might well persuade them to pursue graduate degrees and become the professors and national laboratory scientists of the future. NPET is the result of that ambition.

Fomin recruited UT Physics faculty and scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to serve as mentors, guiding students through projects in neutron beta decay, nuclear astrophysics, and the nuclear physics of neutron stars, among others. NPET launched in June 2021 with a cohort of 10 fellows from Minority Serving Institutions across the country. For now, the program is virtual because of the pandemic. Students worked full-time in the summer, transitioning to a 15-hour-per-week schedule in the fall and spring while they resumed their studies. Workshops on career development and practical skills round out the program.

Stars, Neutrons, and a GODDESS

Smith is a senior at Fisk University in Nashville and was excited to apply when he learned about the fellowship.

"I thought it was a really good opportunity to get some hands-on learning in the field," he said. He’s paired with ORNL’s Steven Pain on the GODDESS detection system, which supports experiments that illuminate the structure of exotic nuclei.

"I’m working on (monitoring) the health of the GODDESS detector system at ORNL while experiments are taking place and also after (they’ve) taken place," he said. "What makes that kind of unique is that ideally, you should be able to monitor it from different places."

For Smith, having a mentor is a key element of the fellowship. He said he appreciates guidance on "learning how you show the work, organize the work, and all the soft skills in between."

Villegas is a physics major at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami and for her, applying to the program had a decidedly personal motivation after navigating a tough semester during COVID that left her feeling depleted.

"I wanted to answer the question, do I really want to keep taking classes?" she said. "I know I love physics. That’s my passion. I know that’s what I want to do. I just wanted to know if the sacrifice was worth pursuing my passion."

The NPET fellowship answered that question.

"I’ve loved it," she said. "My experience has been great. I basically found the answer that I was looking for." She’s working with Associate Professor Andrew Steiner and is trying to model what a neutron star looks like inside, with an eye toward applying that model to neutron star merger simulations.

"In those extreme events we can learn a lot about questions physics wants to answer," she said. She presented her work at the November 2021 meeting of the Southeastern Section of American Physical Society (SESAPS), as did Cepero, a fellow FIU panther. He works with Fomin and her graduate student, Jimmy Caylor, on the measurement of the neutron lifetime.

"I’ve learned a lot working with Nadia and Jimmy," he said. "Even if I change directions, the experience will help me no matter what I do in the future."

A Great Experience

While this year’s program was distance-based, all three students said that didn’t lessen its value. While in-person contact would have been ideal in some cases, they were still able to do computational modeling or data analysis from home. The online approach reinforced other skills and actually made the program possible for some fellows.

"I would have loved to be at Oak Ridge and see everything," Smith explained, "but at the same time it also gave me a sense of freedom to be able to work separately."

Managing his assignments independently so he was ready for informal discussions taught him how to stay organized so he was always ready to contribute.

"Whenever I present research, or new progress points, or even just write in a data log—it really helped me build up some skills in that department," he said.

Villegas wouldn’t have been able to participate if not for the remote model.

"I didn’t have the option to move for the summer," she said.

Seeing the program was virtual encouraged her to apply.

Smith, Villegas, and Cepero are all seniors set to graduate in spring 2022, working with their mentors until then. All said their advisers have been flexible and helpful about balancing projects with their respective course loads. They also had praise for the workshops where they’ve worked on writing resumes and personal research statements: ideal exercises for graduate school applications or job searches.

"The workshops have been so helpful," Villegas said. "They put us on a deadline. This made me accelerate the process. Now my applications are mostly done; I just have to submit them."

Like Smith and Cepero, she plans to pursue a graduate degree in physics. She knows she’ll stay with nuclear physics, while her counterparts are giving the field serious consideration as what Smith calls "a heavy favorite." As part of the first NPET cohort, they’ve built a network of colleagues and helped each other out with projects and ideas.

"This program has been a great experience," Smith said.

Fomin will build on this success with the next group of fellows.

"We're going to switch it to start at beginning of school year, rather than beginning of summer," she said. "That way, students slowly ramp up and learn about the physics of the projects they'll be working on, so when they show up in person in the summer of 2023, they can hit the ground running."

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