Attending Our First Zone 17 Meeting: From the Subzero to the Lower 48

Share This:

SPS Zone Meeting

April 14, 2017 to April 15, 2017

Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA

Meeting host:

Society of Physics Students


Georgeanna L Heaverley

The SPS chapter at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has accomplished a lot in the last two years. When I joined this handful of students as a sophomore physics undergraduate, I didn’t even realize the opportunities SPS would offer. We started by judging science fairs and holding bake sales, but soon we were holding community-wide stargazing parties and auction fundraisers. Our little chapter has tripled its size in less than two years.

When we learned about the Physics Congress last year, we vowed to go and make Alaska’s presence known. We kicked up our fundraising efforts to make sure that happened. We took a dozen members to PhysCon last November and returned home to Alaska with renewed inspiration.

While at PhysCon, our chapter had the opportunity to meet other Zone 17 SPS members. We were welcomed immediately, and I could tell that Zone 17 had been waiting for us for quite some time. There we were told of the upcoming zone meeting at Central Washington University in the spring. We vowed to do our best to send someone to participate, and later, with the encouragement of national SPS, our Society’s vice president Riley Troyer and I had the opportunity to represent our chapter, our university, and the great state of Alaska at the Zone 17 Meeting at CWU in April.

When we arrived, we were reunited with our friends from PhysCon and met many more great people from the Pacific Northwest. First on the agenda was food and science demos. After gorging on pizza, we walked around to check out some cool demos that Julia and the CWU crew had set up. My favorite demonstrated the Coriolis effect. The apparatus looked like a spinning wooden seesaw. One person on each end of the plank tried to throw a basketball back and forth while spinning. Holly and I tried the demo out, and it proved hard to figure out how to aim the basketball at each other. Another fun demo was a hoverboard you could sit on, powered via a leaf blower. This hoverboard required the help of several others pushing you down the hallway to get going. Everyone ended up on the ground after pushing and I did too—from laughing.

Bright and early the next morning we arrived back for “Breakfast with the Scientists.” I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Michael Braunstein, and I learned that by advocating to the Washington state legislature, the CWU professors had obtained funding for the new physics building, a project that had been decades in the making. Dr. Braunstein was a pleasure to speak with and I was reminded how valuable—but often underestimated—a smaller physics program can be.

We also got to hear research presentations, both from CWU professors and undergraduates Dr. Erin Craig discussed how her team is working on modeling the behavior of different molecular transport mechanisms within cells. It was really fascinating to hear Dr. Craig talk about the Brownian motion of the various cell structures in their respective media, and then to see the animations that modeled this motion. It left me thinking how important computational models are in joining different scientific disciplines, like biology and physics.

Dr. Darci Snowden, another professor at CWU, discussed her current work with the Cassini Spacecraft and studying the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Her passion for this work was evident and she mentioned trying to enjoy the little time left until the Cassini probe takes its curtain call later this year.

Next came lunch and the undergrad poster presentations. Riley presented a poster about his research done at the Geophysical Institute at our university. His research involves investigating how different ions in the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, affect neutral winds in the atmosphere above Antarctica. I had the chance to ask Evan from Oregon State University about his poster, and he discussed his research in making computational models of neutrino behavior.

After lunch, everyone headed back into the planetarium for a presentation by Rick Brice, a civil engineer who discussed the importance of having knowledge of physics for engineering. I learned a lot about how much technical planning and consideration goes into building bridges and other structures.

After the presentation, I Skyped in our SPS secretary Chris Eckerson and SPS member Dillon Gillespie back home in Fairbanks. We had arranged this so more of our chapter could tour the new physics building at CWU. In the past, this was the only way we Alaskans had been able to participate in the zone meetings. For the next hour, I carried Chris and Dillon around as we checked out the new building.

We first saw the introductory physics classrooms, where lab and lecture are integrated as one, which allows more hands-on learning for the students. We saw where the physics demos were kept, with shelves stacked tall with equipment, all of which are available to the CWU undergrads, to help provide direction for their research. It was great to get an inside look into a program so dedicated to its undergraduates.

We walked through the many physics labs that included superconductors, biophysics and quantum mechanical experiments, and then finally the acoustics lab. I didn’t have the opportunity to carry Chris and Dillon into the anechoic chamber but we did see some awesome research being done that uses standing waves to levitate dust as well as acoustical mapping on the computer. When the building tour was over, I said goodbye to Chris and Dillon and ran up to the roof for our SPS chapter reports.

As president of our chapter, I got to say a little bit about what UAF had been up to the past year. I mentioned how amazing it was to finally be at a zone meeting and that we wanted to continue our involvement with national SPS in every way we could.

The zone meeting wasn't all business, of course. We also enjoyed socializing over meals—like at the Starlight Lounge in town, where we shared many relatable and ridiculous stories with one another about our undergrad experiences—and on team trivia, where we answered questions on optical science and Star Wars. Thankfully, my lack of Star Wars knowledge was covered by other team members, and we ended up in third place.

After the weekend was over,  Riley and I ran off to catch a very bumpy shuttle ride back to Sea-Tac and then head on home to Fairbanks.

Attending the Zone 17 Meeting this year was a wonderful opportunity. I am proud to be a part of such an active SPS chapter in Alaska and even more proud to be a part of such a kind, welcoming, and inspiring group of people in the Pacific Northwest—and the nation. The field of physics is our passion, we have dedicated years of study to it, and we will bring this knowledge forward with us throughout our lives. The sense of camaraderie we share as physicists should serve as continual motivation for us to make a difference in the world. That’s how you make something great, by working together with respect and encouragement. Attending the Zone 17 Meeting is something I will always look fondly on and I sincerely thank everyone that helped make it such a fantastic experience for all, but especially for two students from a cold little place in Alaska.