The Physics Research Journey: Upper-Level Students Offer Words of Wisdom

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Pathways - Advice from Experienced Voices

The Physics Research Journey: Upper-Level Students Offer Words of Wisdom


Pavani Jairam, SPS Chapter President, Duke University

When starting their physics journeys, students who wish to pursue research may be daunted by questions of how to get started and what field to pursue. To ease these anxieties among students at Duke University, five of our upper-level undergraduates presented their research and offered advice to fellow physics students.

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The speakers pose for a photo after their presentations. Photo courtesy of Chris Vilorio.

1 | Get started—you don’t have to know everything

First up, senior Elliott Kauffman discussed his research projects in high-energy physics. He walked us through the basics of the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), then summarized his Duke research on emerging jets at ATLAS. He also told us about his off-campus experience using machine learning to predict the origin of particle collisions in LHC experiments. 

To inspire audience members to start their own research journeys, Kauffman talked about how and why he got involved. He explained that research is a good way to develop more skills and that students may be compensated for their work. Among his recommendations for finding research opportunities, he suggested emailing professors with a request to join their labs. 

2 | Be independent, but ask questions!

Next, senior James Shen dove into supernova neutrinos by talking about his research with Duke’s High Energy Physics Group and Fermilab’s Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. Shen studies the directionality of supernova neutrinos, which reveals where supernovae are located in the sky. As a physics undergraduate, Shen focused on classes and developing skills during his first two years, along with small-scale personal projects. He learned how to code, which became especially useful when he started doing research his junior year. Notably, he also spent time getting to know his professors and later reached out to those connections to find research opportunities. 

Along the way, Shen learned the value of communicating with professors. It’s important to ask questions, he said, but conducting research also requires personal responsibility and independence. As Shen summed it up, “Learn how to learn by yourself!”

3 | Be passionate

Following Shen was senior May Mei. Mei’s research with Duke’s Neutrino and Cosmology Group involves working with the Supernova Early Warning Systems (SNEWS). SNEWS is a network of supernova neutrino detectors that, when it sees early signals of a supernova, alerts the astronomy community and advises them where to look. In her current research on power electronics, Mei studies the control and optimization of lattice converters. As this is more of an electrical and computer engineering project, she showed us that physics skills can apply to research projects in different areas!

After presenting her research, Mei provided links to current research opportunities. A student with a passion for research, she said, will be able to find a professor to work with. She suggested reaching out to many people—advisors, deans, mentors, and even other departments. When it comes to preparing for research, Mei said to “learn, learn, use.” She advised attendees to absorb as much as they can from classes so they can utilize that knowledge later, in research.

4 | Try different fields

Senior Ari Bechtel presented his research on three different projects. In the first, he studied methods for detecting supernova neutrino event rate signatures with the Neutrino and Cosmology Group. Currently, he’s researching 129Xe hyperpolarized gas MRI, which falls under the medical physics umbrella. In addition, he has an independent research project that entails establishing a hemoglobin correction and structural limit for the RBC:barrier metric. 

As Bechtel explained, his research journey didn’t follow a straight path. He started doing research in oceanography before college, then went on to study neutrinos, and finally ended up doing research in medical physics. This served asa valuable lesson for those who may not know what they want to pursue. “Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Try new things,” he said. 

5 | Venture outside of your university

The final presenter was junior Pavani Jairam, who has had multiple research experiences. With Duke and the Neutrino and Cosmology Group, she currently studies the black hole formation stage from core-collapse supernova neutrinos. She has also worked on applying deep learning computer vision techniques to Dark Energy Survey (DES) data. Working with another undergraduate student and a master’s student on the DES project, Jairam utilized two methods to flag transient artifacts in the data. She has also analyzed high-energy physics data with the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. 

Her advice to underclassmen echoed that of previous presenters, but Jairam added that students could and should look for opportunities to work with people and institutions outside of Duke.

After the presentations, students asked about which classes to take and how to prepare for research, requested tips for sending cold emails to potential research advisors, and learned about labs they could join on campus. The speakers each chimed in to provide advice. One message was clear: The research journey at Duke is an exciting one, filled with support from fellow students.

SPS Research Awards and Opportunities

Get money for chapter research 

SPS Chapter Research Awards provide up to $2,000 for physics and astronomy research projects deemed imaginative and likely to contribute to the strengthening of the SPS program. Applications are due November 15. For details visit

Present your research 

SPS Travel Awards offer partial travel support for SPS members to attend and present their research at a national meeting of an AIP Member Society. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. Learn more at

Publish your research

The Journal of Undergraduate Reports in Physics (JURP) is a peer-reviewed publication of the Society of Physics Students that consists of papers by undergraduate physics and astronomy researchers. Manuscripts are accepted on a rolling basis but must be submitted by March 15 for print consideration. Learn more at

SPS Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Research

These awards recognize exceptional physics or astronomy research by an undergraduate. Winners receive $1,800 in travel funding to present their research, $500 for themselves, and $500 for their SPS chapter. Applications are due March 15. Learn more at

SPS-AAPT-ALPhA Undergraduate Award for Outstanding Laboratory Development

These awards recognize physics undergraduates for outstanding work on developing a lab apparatus or experiment. Awardees receive an invitation to present at an American Association of Physics Teacher’s meeting, travel funding, and both a personal and departmental honorarium. Applications are due November 15. For details see  


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