Every year, a few Northwest students have the opportunity to co-author physics research papers through a National Science Foundation grant, but this year, a student had the opportunity to be the lead author on a paper that is being considered for publication in a national physics journal.
Senior Dakota Shields is the lead author on “Photoemission from hybrid states of Cl@C60 before and after a stabilizing charge transfer,” a paper that is in the last stages of the evaluation process for publication in Physical Review.
Shields said what drew him in to this research was its theoretical nature and how researchers can get ideas about how the universe works from computer models and virtual experiments.
“This code interacts to make a hollow shell of carbon atoms, and then you put something in between, and you model an electronic structure,” Shields said. “Then you model how it interacts with each other, and then you hit it with light, and then some electrons bounce off away from the shell.”
Shields worked on the paper with adjunct faculty member Ruma De, professor Himadri Chakraborty, Hamad Bin Khalifa University professor Mohamed El-Amine Madjet and Georgia State University professor Steven Manson.
The U.S. Congress created NSF in 1950 as an independent agency to promote progress in science, healthcare, national welfare and defense, according to the NSF website. NSF spends more than $8 million a year supporting scientific research, comprising around 24% of all federally supported research in American colleges and universities.
Chakraborty received his first grant from NSF in 2008 and has renewed funding three times since. In that time, 42 students have worked on research through the grant, 15 of which were lead authors on papers that were published and/or presented at national conferences.
The order of authors on research papers is decided by the quantity of work done by each writer in terms of performing calculations, writing computer programs and interpreting data. If a student is named lead author, they conduct more work on the project than any other collaborator, including faculty.
Shields said he ran most of the computer coding and created graphs from the data, with his other collaborators assisting and Chakraborty creating a publishable paper from their findings.
Shields said his love of physics is based on a desire to learn about the relationships of the universe and how different energies interact with each other. Because physics is such a broad field, he said he chose the smallest possible scale he could study, which is atoms and how they interact.
“These things aren’t intuitive; they don’t make a lot of sense,” Shields said. “But also science is structured and logical, and it builds off of itself, and it’s why we have all this amazing stuff around us.”
Shields said he initially got involved in Chakraborty’s research program through a Phi Delta Theta brother who was graduating and knew Chakraborty would need a student to take his place in physics research.
“It was a challenge for sure,” Shields said. “I’d never done anything of the sort before, never done any computer programming. I was really just getting started in my physics classes, and Dr. Chakraborty took me under his wing.”
After graduation, Shields is looking to pursue a graduate degree in electrical engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
Chakraborty said Northwest is unique in inviting undergraduate students in physics, chemistry and nanoscience to work with faculty and outside collaborators on publication-worthy research in their fields.
The NSF grant also gives the funds necessary to pay undergraduate researchers over the summer, allowing students to complete their research requirements for their degrees on campus rather than seeking research internships with other graduate programs.
Students can continue to work on research beyond summers, which is also unique to a program like Northwest’s.
“It eventually goes into their CV when they go out for jobs or go for higher studies,” Chakraborty said. “This always gives them a good edge compared to other students with the same GPA.”
Chakraborty said while students do not come with the experience and knowledge of their faculty collaborators, he said sometimes their unbiased minds can offer abstract ideas that lead to unique solutions.
“With their computational knowledge, sometimes they will come up with smart, quick, but very effective and efficient programming approach, which probably would not come into my mind,” Chakraborty said.
Chakraborty said the fun of doing science and discovery is what keeps him going in spite of how intense competition for grants can get.
“In that two to three months time when you discovered something until when you told others, you are the only person on this planet who knows something completely new,” Chakraborty said. “You feel like you are the boss of that particular effect.”