Midway through my second semester of upper-level physics coursework, I began searching for an opportunity to do actual hands-on physics – a welcomed change from the many hours spent working problem sets I had been accustomed to. Experimental physics research covers not only a broad spectrum of topics, but a large number of experiment types as well, from mega-projects with billion dollar budgets like the Large Hadron Collider, to smaller experiments run by a handful of people that can be contained on a single table. In my search for a potential project, I chose to look for the tabletop type since it would allow me to become intimately involved with all aspects the experiment. I asked to work with Dr. Karen Sauer since her type of research not only fit that description, it had direct practical applications as well. The apparatus pictured next to me shrouded in an aluminum box is one of the most sensitive magnetic field detectors (magnetometers) in the world, capable of sensing fields well over a billion times weaker than earth's magnetic field, and could have future practical applications in a variety of areas, from illicit substance detection to medical imaging.
As far as my career goals are concerned, I'll be starting a Ph.D. program in the Fall and although it's unlikely I'll be working specifically on a radio-frequency optical magnetometer over the course of my graduate work, the skill set I've acquired as a contributor this project is invaluable. Over the course of my work I've had exposure to programming, control systems, data acquisition, electronics, modeling and simulation, experimental apparatus design and construction, laser operation, and optical alignment to name several; all of which I will need to use and build upon over a career in experimental atomic physics. On a given day I could be doing any one of those things.
This past week was an exciting one for me as I had the opportunity to visit a physics department at a university I'm considering attending in the Fall. A ubiquitous theme I noticed there was that despite their complexity and sophistication, each lab I visited had at least a few improvised, homemade pieces of equipment – quite similar to things I've built here at GMU - performing an integral function in the experiment. I learned that nothing has better prepared me for future success in experimental physics as well as my work on this project.