The Researcher’s High: Building an Undergraduate Research Group

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Building Blocks - Undergraduate Research and Outreach Projects

The Researcher’s High: Building an Undergraduate Research Group


Arian Dovald, SPS Chapter President, Southern Adventist University


Students work with Dr. Vola to unload the Faraday cage for the ion source. Photos courtesy of the Southern Adventist University SPS chapter.

I arrived, alone, at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL). My classmate Tim Suzuki and our professor, Dr. Vola Andrianarijaona, would be arriving soon. As I tried to figure out which building to enter and who to contact, my nervousness grew. What was I doing here? I was no researcher. 

Professionally dressed experts walked from building to building, important members of the science machine that is ORNL. I felt that slight sense of estrangement that plagues undergrads everywhere, the feeling that maybe science wasn’t for me. Did I belong in this place, surrounded by real scientists? Having finished only my second year of physics, I was certain I wasn’t prepared for this summer internship. Fortunately, my worries wouldn’t make it past that day.

Tim and I were tasked with preparing an ion beam line—which had various issues after being moved from one lab to another—for experiments. It was up to us to get things running again and improve the system. 

Over the summer we tested the massive beam line for leaks, achieved ultrahigh vacuum, replaced faulty gaskets between anodized steel tubes, developed better beam-chopping control, and more. Every task moved us closer to a greater goal, every solved problem a step toward making science happen. During the daily drives to our hotel, we talked about how fun, interesting, and fulfilling our day had been. You may be familiar with the runner’s high—the feeling of calm euphoria after a good workout. Tim and I were experiencing the researcher’s high, and we couldn’t get enough.


Engineering and physics students put together supports for vacuum chambers. Photo courtesy of the Southern Adventist University SPS chapter.

As summer ended and the semester began, Tim and I looked for a way to satisfy our desire to do more research. This was, fortunately, not difficult. Dr. Vola had begun getting the parts to build an ion beam line on campus for student research, and we were on board with making it happen. The research goals were, and still are, broad. They vary from measuring the energies of molecular hydrogen ions to antimatter production. Getting the beam line ready for experiments would be a long process, requiring weeks of theory and construction. We would need the help of many students to get there. Tim and I saw this as an opportunity to use our SPS leadership positions to share the joy of research.

After some discussion with Dr. Vola, we made a plan to start a research group. First, we set a specific time to work on the beam line: every Friday at 2 PM, since most people would be done with class by that time. Then we told friends, SPS chapter members, and classmates about the amazing research we were working toward. If they expressed interest, we invited them to join us. Everyone was welcome, regardless of their major or background. After two weeks, only five or so students had expressed a desire to participate. I was afraid we wouldn’t have enough help.

When the day came to unload, open, and organize boxes of high-end equipment, Tim and I showed up early. To our surprise, there were over a dozen physics, engineering, chemistry, and computer science students waiting to help! Dr. Vola couldn’t believe we had so many eager people. A job that would’ve taken a couple of days instead took two hours. Our plan to share our excitement was a success, and we now had a powerful group of students engaging in research. 


The current beam line at SAU. Two large vacuum chambers are connected to an ion source at the far left. Two floor pumps and three turbo pumps create the ultrahigh vacuum. Photo courtesy of the Southern Adventist University SPS chapter.

The group continued to meet every week, making consistent progress and building community. At one point only paperwork was holding us back (making me truly feel like a scientist). Now, over a year later, we have received and inventoried all our equipment, had an entire wall torn down, and built a large portion of the beam line. Having achieved ultrahigh vacuum, we are a few components and troubleshooting sessions away from making measurements and progressing physics research.

We are often asked how we managed to form our research group. There are various factors we believe led to its success: We created a low-pressure, comfortable environment, with no expectations for participants beyond a desire to explore and learn. We invited students to show up when they had time and ask questions without the pressure that’s often present in the classroom. To build a strong group of undergraduate researchers, we’ve found that it’s critical that they don’t feel overly burdened or pressured by the commitment. Some group members show up every two weeks, others once a month, but there have always been a few that feel the researcher’s high and seek more involvement. It’s also important to have good communication and be consistent. Every Friday we send out an email to all who want a reminder, and we make sure to let people know when plans change. And finally, it’s important to build a space where students feel comfortable connecting with others and are able to grow as individuals in a community.

As a result of this project, many students have gained valuable experience and made connections that will benefit them throughout their careers. More have done internships, written research papers, and conducted experiments than before we had the beam line. Group members have participated in the APS March Meeting and other physics conferences. As a bonus, we’ve seen our SPS numbers grow as more people have joined in our SPS chapter’s activities. Most importantly, students have learned not to be afraid of physics research—that it’s something to be excited about and share with the world. I believe every SPS chapter should find ways to participate in research, sharing its joy with others and growing stronger as a result.


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