Sam Blitz earns awards for undergraduate work on ORKA

Arizona State University physics major Sam Blitz (right) was nationally recognized for his work on Fermilab’s ORKA beamline. Professor Joseph Comfort (left) recommended he visit Fermilab to work on ORKA in 2012. The ORKA beamline design appears on the monitor. Photo courtesy of Joseph Comfort

Two years ago, Arizona State University sophomore Sam Blitz joined Fermilab’s ORKA experiment for the summer. Taking on an assignment traditionally reserved for students at the graduate level, he started not by getting his feet wet, but by diving in head first.

“I just sat down and read the manual,” said Blitz about his first days. He and a fellow student charged through two tomes on simulation software totaling 450 pages.

Now a junior, Blitz has been recognized nationally for his work on ORKA. The competitive Barry Goldwater Scholarship program conferred him with an honorable mention. His project also won the ASU Physics Department undergraduate symposium, earning him a $1,000 award.

“He’s done a tremendous job at the level that someone far more advanced would be asked to do,” said ASU physics professor Joseph Comfort, who recommended Blitz go to Fermilab to work on ORKA in 2012.

Blitz’s task was to help design the ORKA positive-kaon beamline. The kaon beam that arrives at the detector must be as pure as possible. Producing a pure kaon beam is a nasty problem, one scientists have been working on for decades using simulation programs.

Blitz improved on those programs. He got cozy with the simulation tools, learning the software languages and becoming conversant enough to develop techniques for modeling ORKA’s beamline magnets. His contributions, by any standard, were substantial.

His work culminated in a publication, a technical memo, which he co-authored with ASU student Riley Molloy.

“In the old days, the graduate student would go to school, take one or two years of classes, then finally get around to doing research. Sam was doing it as a sophomore,” Comfort said. “He’s the expert in the collaboration for this particular beamline design.”

Blitz returned to Fermilab again in the summer of 2013, continuing his research at ASU during the school year.

“It’s a very nice thing when an undergraduate becomes part of the effort and stays with us long enough to become part of the team,” said Fermilab scientist Doug Jensen, Blitz’s advisor at the lab. “Students can learn their way into the world of research, which is outside the textbook. Sam’s been part of that. He’s one of us now.”

Blitz has wanted to be a scientist for as long as he can remember, he said. Now he’s improving the beamline for an important particle physics project that he also happens to enjoy.

“It’s a problem-solving task that doesn’t seem to ever finish — I always have problems to solve,” Blitz said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Leah Hesla