IMSA mentors teach students a physicist’s approach at Fermilab

IMSA student Laura Napierkowski, who worked with Fermilab’s Brendan Casey and Mandy Rominsky, assembles straw detectors for the Muon g-2 project. Napierkowski eventually went on to present her work at the annual conference of the American Physical Society. Photo: Mandy Rominsky

The Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy has always had a close relationship with Fermilab. Former Fermilab Director Leon Lederman was its cofounder and inaugural resident scholar, helping shape the next generation of scientists. His legacy continues today as many IMSA high-school students come to Fermilab to do research.

IMSA’s Student Inquiry and Research program allows students to work on actual research projects once a week at a variety of institutions in Chicagoland.

“When I heard there was this program, I thought, ‘If I had this opportunity in high school, it would’ve been awesome,’ ” said Fermilab postdoc Marcelle Soares-Santos. She worked with physicist Huan Lin to co-mentor a student last year.

In a letter to Fermilab Director Pier Oddone, IMSA President Glenn W. “Max” McGee and Coordinator Judith Scheppler thanked Soares-Santos, Lin and 27 other Fermilab scientists, graduate students and postdocs for their work over the past year.

“SIR is a world-class program that ignites and nurtures creative ethical minds that advance the human condition in mathematics, science, technology, engineering and other fields,” McGee and Scheppler said in the letter. “We could not have done this without Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory as an esteemed partner.”

Students work on a variety of projects during their time at Fermilab. Scientists Brendan Casey and Mandy Rominsky have advised a pair of students for the past three years, designing parts of the Muon g-2 detector.

“As an advisor, you have to refine your project,” Rominsky said. “You want them to be able to have a project that’s all theirs at the end.”

That means breaking down the projects and making every work session self-contained.

“The students are extremely intelligent, and they have the raw talent to accomplish anything we ask them to,” Casey said, “but it reminds you that you have to put things in the language of someone who doesn’t have a Ph.D. in physics.”

That is a good exercise for any physicist, said Tengming Shen, who also mentored a student last year.

“We teach the students a physicist’s approach to cutting a problem open,” Shen said. “It’s difficult but that’s the beauty of what engineers and physicists are doing.”

At the end of their SIR experience, students write a peer-reviewed paper – Casey said the referees “can be as tough as those of Physical Review Letters,” a prestigious physics journal – and give a presentation at a special colloquium called the IMSAloquium. Casey said a former student of his has also presented at the conference of the American Physical Society and that he and Rominsky regularly hire former students to work over the summer.

On Aug. 29, 16 new students arrived at Fermilab to begin working on their projects for the 2012-13 school year.

“These students have a very broad spectrum of options for their SIRs,” Casey said. “They could go to hospitals, Argonne, different corporations. We’re fortunate that some of them choose to come here.”

Joseph Piergrossi