From College Student to Scientist

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From College Student to Scientist

One thing can lead to another when you start down the path of research


Nicole Johnson, Class of 2015, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA

Coe College

The CALICE tungsten calorimeter prototype at CERN uses a resistant plate chamber with conductive glass. Photo courtesy of CERN.

A few weeks into my freshman year at college, two of my professors talked to me about working on a project for Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois. The project might take many years, they told me. Its goal was to develop a conductive glass for particle detectors.

I, of course, said yes. Thus began a new path in research, a path that I have followed ever since. It has led me to internships and conferences and academic journals and other things I never would have imagined a few years ago.

Coe College is known for its research on glass, so this project was a perfect fit. I started right away, working over the summer to develop a glass to use in a prototype. I even had the wonderful experience of seeing the prototypes tested. My prototypes weren’t just tested in any ol’ lab; they were tested at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland.

The author takes a selfie with a quadrupole magnet at the CERN museum near Geneva, Switzerland. Photo courtesy of Nicole Johnson.Thanks to my research, I got to travel to Europe and spend two weeks at CERN. I had the chance to control the particle beam and monitor the health of the prototypes throughout testing. The most important part of the experience was working with my collaborators face-to-face and seeing their points of view as high-energy physicists, which were much different than my perspective as someone with a materials physics background. Being at CERN inspired me to continue my education and pursue a career in research.

After my trip to CERN, I continued my project during the school year and a second summer. My advisor and I developed another glass using what we learned from the first prototype. The second prototype was successfully tested at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, just in time for me to present my work at a professional conference.

It was my first conference. I wouldn’t call myself a nervous person, but for a few minutes before I gave my first oral presentation I had butterflies. For the first time I was speaking to a room full of professors and professionals who all studied glass. The conference was a joint meeting in Aachen, Germany, between the Glass and Optical Materials Division of the American Ceramics Society and the equivalent society in Germany. Once I started speaking, it was exciting! It went off without a hitch, and I went on to meet experts from around the globe who were attending the meeting.

On the strength of my glass research at Coe, I applied for and was awarded a summer internship at Corning, Inc. Right after the conference, I flew straight to New York to start the internship. Corning is one of the world’s premier glass companies and has developed products such as Gorilla Glass and optical fiber. (See Ethan Lawrence’s story on page 20 for more details about what it’s like to work at Corning.) While I was there, I had an inspiring supervisor who challenged me to ask questions and not be afraid to seek out experienced staff to find the answers I needed. Along the way, I had some wonderful mentors who helped me with everything from finding the bathroom to preparing for graduate school. My experience that summer solidified my desire to become an industrial research scientist.

The author adjusts an oscilloscope in her laboratory at Coe College. Photo by Steven Feller.

When I came back for my final year of college, I learned that I had received the Alfred R. Cooper Scholars Award for outstanding undergraduate work in the field of glass science. Then there was more traveling! I went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to present my work at a professional conference that was even larger than my first one. Once I returned home, I started writing up my work for publication. My first paper will appear in the International Journal of Applied Glass Science in a few months.

Perhaps, after reading this, you are thinking to yourself, “This could never happen to me.” Let me assure you that I never thought this could happen to me. I didn’t even become interested in physics until my last year in high school. I didn’t apply to Coe College because of physics. It just happened to be the case that Coe had a thriving physics program. I didn’t even know that program existed; I applied only because I had taken a calculus class there, and the application was free.

I got my start in physics only after I told one of the professors there how interested I would be in summer research. He asked if I wanted to shadow a student researcher for a few weeks during the summer before my freshman year.

Don’t ever think that research is too big, too difficult, or too demanding for you. Seek the answers to the questions that inspire you. If you accept this challenge, you will find a way to rise to the occasion. //

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