Physics undergraduate Alec Josaitis (B.S. winter ’17) will arrive in Chile in July to carry out his research topic, “Understanding the Origin of the Universe through Scientific Diplomacy” due to a University of Michigan (U-M) International Institute Individual Fellowship award. Alec is working with U-M Physics Department Associate Professor Jeff McMahon on the Atacama Cosmology Telescope, collaboration who is supervising his work.

"As a first-generation college student, I feel particularly compelled to benefit from my collegiate experience; the best way I can conceive of doing this is to travel abroad and apply the research skills I've gained in the United States to a scientific and educational endeavor which turns the pursuit of knowledge into a vehicle for global peace and understanding,” Alec explained. “High in the Atacama, research teams such as ACT, with staff from a diverse range of backgrounds convene to study the evolution of the universe through measurements of the oldest light in the universe, called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The International Institute Individual fellowship will not only prepare me for a career in experimental physics, but also afford me the unique opportunity to travel abroad and promote shared advances in science and education.”

Alec explains that understanding the origin of the Universe is an undertaking that has long motivated humanity, and the field of cosmology seeks to resolve this mystery in a scientifically-consistent manner. The cosmic microwave background (CMB), relic thermal radiation released in the early universe which is now the oldest observable light in the universe, provides unparalleled support for the hot big bang theory, which predicts the state of the universe until the first fractions of a second after its inception. Many scientific instruments have been, and continue to be, built to more precisely measure the properties of the CMB; these instruments require cameras with resolutions that push the limits of our current technology, and so are routinely upgraded.

In the month-long role as a visiting scientist at the Atacama Cosmology Telescope,
Alec will help upgrade the telescope's camera while also giving a public lecture on cosmology and scientific diplomacy with local high school students, and collaborating with a Chilean professor and the professor’s research team at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Alec is eager to assist with the ACT camera upgrade because, in a broad sense, he is interested in optical systems which are used for cosmology experiments. The camera used in these systems require a resolution so high that their precision is limited by diffraction, a basic physical principle describing how waves of light can propagate through a system. Achieving such a high level of optical resolution requires careful characterization of the diffraction patterns caused by all optical system components. For his thesis, he will measure the diffraction patterns of different optical components in an existing optical system of the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) and then use these measurements to make recommendations for the designs of cameras which will be used in next-generation of CMB experiments. Alec has worked with Professor McMahon on the ACT-related project for three and a half years.

Individual Fellowships support U-M students who are enrolled in a degree program and wish to participate in internships or conduct research abroad.

The International Institute (II) and the Rackham Graduate School at the University of Michigan awarded $639,996 in support of research and internships to 175 students through 11 funding opportunities. Students will travel abroad between May 2017 and May 2018 to conduct research or serve internships in 80 locations.

The Rackham International Research Awards, which support doctoral and master’s students conducting degree-related research outside the United States, is over $279,000 in grants for research in a broad range of disciplines. The 10 different types of fellowships and grants offered by centers and programs within the II awarded a combined total of over $360,000 to undergraduate and graduate students.