Six physics graduate and former undergraduate students - Alec Kirkley, Shreya Sutaria, Polina Abratenko, Tali Khain, Noah McNeal, and Robert Weinbaum - have been awarded competitive national fellowships for the 2019 application cycle.

Alec Kirkley

Alec Kirkley has been awarded a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship through the Department of Defense. The NDSEG Fellowship is highly competitive and is awarded to students with strong academic and research backgrounds in science and engineering. Support lasts for three years and provides a tuition waiver and stipend. Alec has also won the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, but he chose to accept the NDSEG award.

Alec is a third year graduate student in physics working with Professor Mark Newman on complex networks. Broadly, Alec’s research involves developing models for networks and their formation. Once this framework is set up, tools from statistics and machine learning can be applied to the model to make predictions about real-world networks. Real-world networks could be anything from airline routes to research citations to relationships between people, and studies of these networks might include how frequently certain research papers are cited or how airline routes change when a new airport is built. 

For his proposed NDSEG fellowship research, Alec will study a specific type of network called a signed network, where each connection can be positive or negative. For example, in relationships between people, a positive connection would denote friendship while a negative connection would denote animosity. This type of network has especially useful applications in political and social science. Models of formation of human networks could help predict future relationships, and these predictions could be used to identify potential conflicts in groups or between people. Relationships that do not fit within the network model could also be identified, which could be useful for detecting threats or suspicious behavior. Finally, these models could help researchers learn about the formation of close-knit groups like political factions, or understand more about the social structure of such groups.

Shreya Sutariya, Polina Abratenko, Tali Khain, Noah McNeal, and Robby Weinbaum have been accepted into the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). The NSF GRFP is another highly competitive program that recognizes students in all sciences who have a strong academic and research background as well as a commitment to community engagement. NSF support lasts for three years and provides a tuition waiver and a stipend to each winner. Recipients of this fellowship also have the opportunity to apply for additional support for internships (GRIP) and international travel for research (GROW).

Shreya Sutariya

Shreya Sutariya is a first year graduate student working with Professor Jeff McMahon on observational cosmology. She first became interested in this work while doing summer research at U-M, also with Professor McMahon. During her summer research program and continuing into graduate school, Shreya has studied the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The CMB is made up of light left over from the early universe that permeates all of space. A remarkable aspect of the CMB is its homogeneity, meaning that it looks essentially the same everywhere in the universe. However, tiny fluctuations in the CMB can help answer fundamental questions about the evolution of the universe in its earliest stages. Studies of the CMB can also assist in understanding galaxy formation and dark energy, a mysterious form of energy driving the expansion of the universe.

For her NSF GRFP work, Shreya proposed to work with the McMahon group’s collaboration at the Simons Observatory on improving the precision of CMB measurements. Current data is obscured by galactic and intergalactic dust, and the effects of the dust can be reduced by enhancing the sensitivity of the instruments used to perform the measurements. Shreya plans to contribute by improving components of the optical systems used in telescopes that probe the CMB. She will test optical properties of different materials that can be used in new telescopes specifically tailored to precise CMB measurements. Her data will be combined with numerical simulations to determine how to construct the telescopes to promote the clearest observations. The new telescopes, located at the South Pole and in Chile, are expected to be operational in 2021. After this, Shreya plans to contribute to observations and data analysis.

Outside of research, Shreya has volunteered at the Centro de San Jose, an education center serving elementary school students in southwest Detroit. The center offers programs in a variety of subjects, and one of Shreya’s roles was as a tutor for the students. In addition, she plans to create a new program called Particle Party, which will introduce the students to atoms, particles, and fundamental forces.

Polina Abratenko

The second NSF GRFP winner, Polina Abratenko, graduated from U-M in 2018 with a degree in Physics and Mathematical Sciences. Polina’s GRFP proposal was on the development of instrumentation and data analysis methods for the Short-Baseline Neutrino (SBN) program at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). The SBN program is composed of three experiments which will study neutrinos - tiny, fundamental particles that rarely interact with other particles. There are three known types of neutrinos, but their masses are not well-determined, and there is also the possibility that a fourth type of “sterile” neutrino exists. The SBN experiments aim to investigate neutrino masses and search for sterile neutrinos. However, because neutrinos rarely interact, they present a challenge to measure. When an interaction does occur, the neutrino itself cannot be measured; instead, other particles produced in the interaction are studied. The properties of the other particles are used to work backwards to understand the neutrino. Polina’s work focuses on developing methods of analysis used to accomplish this, as well as applying those methods to specific experiments.

Polina became interested in neutrinos while spending a summer doing research at Columbia University with Professor Mike Shaevitz. After returning to U-M, she worked with Professor Josh Spitz on improving code used for data analysis at MicroBooNE, one of the experiments in the SBN program. Since graduating, Polina has been working at MIT with professor Janet Conrad, another member of the MicroBooNE collaboration. She began graduate school at Tufts University this fall, continuing her studies of neutrino physics with Professor Taritree Wongjirad.

Outside of research, Polina has helped organize a Technical Skills Workshop through the Society of Physics Students at U-M. Often, physics students are expected to be comfortable with skills like programming but have never had the opportunity to learn them in a formal setting. This can deter students from pursuing physics research or even from majoring in physics. In an effort to lower this barrier, Polina has organized a two-year series of workshops on various programming and computing topics, teaching some of the workshops herself. The workshops had a cumulative attendance of more than 120 people interested in learning more about computing skills.

Tali Khain

Tali Khain, another NSF GRFP winner, graduated from U-M in 2019 with a double major in Honors Physics and Honors Mathematics. Her proposed GRFP project focuses on Kuiper belt objects (KBOs), or rocky bodies that orbit the Sun beyond Neptune. The movements of these objects can be used to predict the existence of a large, undiscovered planet twenty times farther away from the Sun than Neptune, referred to as Planet Nine. The orbits of KBOs can be in resonance with Planet Nine, meaning that their orbits are influenced by Planet Nine’s gravitational pull. When the KBOs are also perturbed by Neptune’s gravitational pull, they can change from one resonance to another, a phenomenon called “resonance hopping.” Tali’s project considers advances in understanding of resonance hopping and proposes to apply similar ideas to other solar systems in which planetary orbits are close to resonant.

Tali has studied the outer solar system at the University of Michigan with Professor David Gerdes, Professor Fred Adams and Dr. Juliette Becker. She also spent a summer at California Institute of Technology studying KBOs and Planet Nine with Professor Konstantin Batygin and Professor Mike Brown. Her work led to ten peer-reviewed papers, and it was recognized with the American Physical Society LeRoy Apker Award earlier this year. This fall, Tali began work towards a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, studying soft matter physics.

Outside of research, Tali is passionate about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) outreach. She has served as an event supervisor for the Washtenaw Elementary Science Olympiad and president of the Women in Math club at U-M. Tali has also coordinated activities for Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and the Sciences (FEMMES), an organization that works to inspire middle-school girls to explore science through hands-on activities, as well as for the Math Majors of America Tournament for High Schools (MMATHS) competition, an exciting full-day math tournament for local students.

Noah McNeal

Noah McNeal, another 2019 U-M graduate with majors in Physics and Mathematics, is the fourth NSF GRFP winner. For his NSF project, he proposed to continue working on the KOTO collaboration in Tokai, Japan, which was also the subject of his undergraduate research at U-M with Professor Myron Campbell. KOTO searches for the decay of a particle called a kaon into a pion and a neutrino. Kaons and pions are each made of two quarks, and quarks and neutrinos are both fundamental particles of the Standard Model, our current description of particles and their interactions. This particular decay is of interest because it could place new constraints on the Standard Model or lead to the discovery of new physics not described by the Standard Model. One challenge of the KOTO experiment is the rarity of the decay; only one in 30 billion kaons undergoes this process. This means that analyzing the background, or the measurement signal that does not come from the desired process, becomes extremely important. Noah has worked on analyzing aspects of the background for this experiment to ensure that it is understood properly. In addition, he worked on designing and building hardware for the experiment, including travel to Japan to help upgrade the detector. Noah also worked on aspects of KOTO during a Summer Undergraduate Lab Internship (SULI) through the Department of Energy at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Outside of research, Noah has been involved in recruiting underrepresented minority students to study physics. As part of this effort, he was a member of the Department of Physics Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion committee, where he worked on outreach projects to encourage middle school students to study physics. In addition, Noah served as president of the U-M Society of Physics Students for 2018-2019, as well as its advocacy chair for 2017-2018.

Noah will spend the next two years in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar. During his first year, he will study science policy at the University of Sussex, and during his second year he is interested in pursuing a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. Noah plans to start a Ph.D. in high energy theoretical physics at Harvard University in the fall of 2021. 

Robert Weinbaum

The final NSF GRFP winner is Robert Weinbaum, a 2019 graduate with majors in Honors Physics and Honors Mathematics. His GRFP project focuses on understanding the plasma that forms when an electron interacts with light from a high intensity laser. When the electron first interacts with the laser, a photon, or light particle, is produced. When multiple photons interact with each other, they can undergo pair production, or the creation of an electron and its opposite, a positron. This new electron can then repeat the process, resulting in a cascade of electrons and photons that create a plasma. Robert’s project would study this plasma using a new numerical method developed at U-M, with the goal of predicting interactions that can occur in new, high intensity lasers like the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) in Europe. Robert became interested in laser science through his undergraduate summer research at the Institut d’Optique Graduate School outside of Paris, France. The program is connected with U-M’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS), and Professor Alexander Thomas, a member of CUOS, helped Robert develop his GRFP proposal. Robert will begin graduate school at the University of Chicago this fall, studying theoretical physics.

Outside of academics, Robert has devoted time to improving access and education for young students in STEM. He served as president of the STEM Society, which aims to encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to learn about STEM topics and skills. Also, he worked with Professor Sarah Koch to develop a new volunteer program aimed at increasing student proficiency in mathematics. The program has been implemented at Ypsilanti Community Middle School.

In addition to these fellowship recipients, three physics students have been recognized with Honorable Mention for the NSF GRFP. Due to the competitive nature of this fellowship, Honorable Mention is a significant achievement. Huy Nguyen, a third year student of Professor Alex Kuzmich, was recognized, as were undergraduate seniors Kristin Dona and Arun Nagpal.