Cutting-Edge Collaboration

OWU physics group constructs components for nuclear structure research

Shown visiting the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab at Michigan State University are (left to right): Rob Anthony ’10, Stephen Kuhn ’12 (Earlham College), Alex Howe ’11, and Hengzhi Chen ’12. Professor Bob Kaye, OWU project leader, is in front of the group. Photo courtesy of Bob Kaye.

Nine primarily undergraduate colleges and universities have joined forces to construct components that will be combined to conduct nuclear research in an uncharted territory of the nuclear “landscape”: a region of highly exotic (short-lived) atomic nuclei with an overabundance of neutrons.

The leader of Ohio Wesleyan University’s project team, professor Bob Kaye, Ph.D., says researchers will not know what they will find until they can push the boundaries as far as they can go into uncharted territory.

OWU senior Alex Howe of Norwalk, Ohio, explains that a similar type of research in the 1940s provided a basis for the development of magnetic resonance imaging in the 1970s.

Alex Howe works on some of the newly constructed detector modules. Photo by Linda O’Horo.

The students are building, then testing, 16 complete neutron detector modules. Each module consists of a solid plastic bar with student-constructed components on each end that gather signals produced in the bar after it is struck by neutrons emitted by the exotic nuclei. Construction of the modules should be complete by late July.

Howe and Rob Anthony ’10 of Salem, Oregon, are working full-time on the project this summer under Kaye’s supervision. They are assisted by Stephen Kuhn ’12 (an Earlham College student working at OWU through a Research Experience for Undergraduate Program grant) and Hengzhi Chen ’12 of China. Chen is participating through the OWU Summer Science Research Program.

The group visited the National Superconducting Cyclotron Lab at Michigan State University in May and collaborated with students and faculty from the other project partners.

By March 2011, the modules will be transported to Michigan State, where they will be combined into a large neutron detector array along with those built by the eight other participating institutions: Central Michigan University, Concordia College, Gettysburg College, Hope College, Indiana University-South Bend, Rhodes College, Wabash College, and Westmont College. The entire detector construction project is led by Paul DeYoung, Ph.D., of Hope College.

The Large area multi-Institutional Scintillator Array (LISA) will detect neutrons emitted from exotic nuclei so unstable that the nuclei cannot hold on to them. The resulting signals will be analyzed to determine fundamental structure properties of the nuclei from which the neutrons were emitted. The results could significantly change the way we currently understand how protons and neutrons organize themselves within a nucleus.

“This project also paves the way for future undergraduate students to collaborate on research projects with international teams of scientists at a world-class particle-accelerator facility,” Kaye says. “Ohio Wesleyan students are receiving hands-on cutting-edge research experience while receiving the personal attention provided at a smaller institution. At major research universities, this type of work is often done only by graduate students or faculty.”

Chen says he has thoroughly enjoyed working on this project. “While working with different professors in a world-class particle accelerator facility, I really learned how a big research [project] is accomplished, and the importance of the collaboration in modern science activities. This is one of the most impressive experiences in my life.”

Kuhn says his OWU coworkers have made him feel welcome. “It is amazing that I have the opportunity to build a component that will be used for many discoveries in nuclear physics,” he says.

Here is a close-up look at one of the OWU-assembled components used to gather the signals produced by the detectors. Photo by Linda O’Horo.

In addition to constructing the modules, Ohio Wesleyan physics students will obtain experience in data analysis, publish their research results, and make presentations to the scientific community at national and international conferences.

Kaye will be on sabbatical for the upcoming academic year to study new data analysis and experimental techniques that can be used following the testing phase of the project next year. His research is funded by a New Directions Initiative grant from the Great Lakes College Association.

Ohio Wesleyan students will join Kaye in the summer of 2011 at Michigan State during the testing phase of this two-year project, which is funded by a Major Research Instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation.

Click here to learn more about the project.

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