Friday, July 17, 2009

Crazy (in a good way)


After a month of cramming for finals and living off raw ramen noodles, there's nothing more appealing to a college student at the end of May than a long summer doing nothing, punctuated, if you're feeling really ambitious, by an occasional camping trip or jaunt to the beach.Unless you're Laurie Stephey or Brad Dinardo. In that case you might feel more up to nine weeks of performing cutting-edge scientific research.

Laurie and Brad are two of this summer's Society of Physics Students interns, a group of motivated, physics-lovin' college students who spend nine weeks every summer working on projects ranging from from locating ice under the Martian soil to developing fun hands-on science curriculum. The interns worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the University of Maryland's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Physical Society. Laurie and Brad worked at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology laboratory in Gaithersburg, Maryland, exploring bendable electronics and spray-on solar cells.

"It's huge," Laurie says of NIST. "It took me six weeks to figure out they had a nuclear reactor and particle accelerator." Laurie gushes that she recently toured the lab's cleanroom—after donning a hairnet, clean suit, and booties, of course. "It was so awesome."

NIST is a smorgasbord of physics, chemistry, materials science, and astronomy research. It also boasts a team of full-time mathematicians (what? mathematicians do things?), a laboratory for analyzing pieces of the fallen World Trade Center, and a building out in a far corner of the campus with a small sign reading, "Special Projects."

"I felt like a little kid at Christmas," Laurie says of her first day. "There is just so much cool stuff."

Brad, a physics and math major, has spent the last 9 weeks exploring how you can make a photovoltaic solar cell by spraying organic molecules onto a surface. He said that that diving right into the world of organic photovoltaics was a baptism by fire...or by organic ink, as it were. "The first two weeks I was swamped and just read and read and read all the time," he says. But soon enough, he was mixing solutions in a glove box, airbrushing with semiconductor ink, and learning the mantra of the physicist: "Uh, it's not working."


"It takes forever to get things to work and when they finally do it's such a relief," says Brad, who presented his results—his spray-on solar cells did work—to a room full of Goddard and NIST researchers today. Results (with the capital R) are usually the product of months or years of research; SPS interns have just nine weeks to make a meaningful contribution to a project.

Laurie, who studied how bendable "memristors" switch states, recently graduated from college and was daunted by the huge commitments scientists make to their research. But her summer at NIST, she said, has her hooked. She wants to study oceanography, and plans to apply to the astronaut program as soon as she get's her master's degree. "When I use the glove box, I pretend I'm in space," she confides.

Working with everyone from graduate students to post-docs to salted veterans, Laurie and Brad saw first hand the dedication it takes to be a scientist, and admit it's not for everyone.

"I think all scientists have a little insanity in them, they all have that drive," said Brad, who wants to teach and do research one day as a professor. "They're all crazy—in a good way."

"The kind of crazy it takes to be in science," Laurie explained.
And the SPS interns, it seems, already have that spark of "awesome crazy," as Brad puts it. first night out among new acquaintances usually includes a trip to a bar, but rarely does it end in a heated discussion of wave functions.




"From the very first night when we went out to eat, we were talking about quantum and Schrödinger's cat," Brad recalls, laughing. "You won't get that anywhere else."

Read about summer so far and follow the continuing adventures of the intrepid SPS interns. Just three weeks to go!

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