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Academics Student Features

Summer research program provides CSB physics major first-hand experience

Helping enhance a camera system sweeping the night sky, constructing an attachment to regulate temperature and building and testing a plasma device.

That’s how Rickia Hanna, who will be a junior at the College of Saint Benedict this fall, is spending her summer.

It’s part of a research position made possible through the Clare Booth Luce Scholars and the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at CSB and Saint John’s University, and the engineering physics major could not be more excited to be taking part for the second straight year.

“I love being able to break down stuff and analyze things,” Hanna said. “I also really like working on my own. Being able to take the information I’ve learned in the different classes I’ve taken and apply it to different projects is really exciting.

“I enjoyed doing it last summer, and it was something I definitely wanted to do again. I had no intention of going back home or finding some other job. I knew I wanted to be back here doing research.”

Hanna is one of 60 CSB and SJU students taking part in undergraduate research programs this summer in departments ranging from chemistry to theology and nutrition to psychology.

“A research experience allows students to take initiative by generating ideas that expand their existing knowledge and skills,” said Lindsey Gunnerson Gutsch, the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholars at CSB and SJU. “It helps them become good problem solvers and get comfortable facing challenges that they might encounter during a project. They’re becoming innovative thinkers when they propose a new research question that will contribute new knowledge to their field.

“They’re learning how to develop meaningful, strong relationships with faculty mentors who are experts in their fields. And research provides the opportunity for our students to think holistically about how (it) connects to other experiences in their lives – like their coursework – and ultimately helps them deepen their understanding in their own field of study while also broadening their own perspectives … which is what we really love to see at liberal arts and sciences institutions like CSB and SJU.”

Last summer, Hanna worked on the All-Sky Camera system, which is located in the observatory at SJU. The system tracks flashes of light in the night sky in an effort to discover more information about meteors and other phenomena. Jim Crumley, chair of the CSB and SJU physics department, said more than a dozen students have worked on the project, which began in 2010, during both the school year and the summer.

“Originally it had just one camera with a fish-eye lens that had stopped working,” Hanna said. “Last summer, we replaced it with a system that has seven cameras on it. I spent most of the summer putting it together and making sure it was working properly. I also worked on a website that has a little bit of information and displays the live feed.”

While Hanna will again work on the camera system this summer, she is also working with physics professor Dean Langley to develop an attachment that can be hooked onto other devices to regulate their temperature.

“We do a lot of experiments with different materials and various devices, and if their behavior depends on temperature, we’d like to develop a device that can control that fairly easily,” Langley said.

“I knew she’d taken a course in electronics. But in the course, all the labs were predetermined as teaching exercises. During the summer project, she’ll be putting the things she learned in class into more of a real-world situation where she has to trouble-shoot and redesign. Getting experience doing research is different than doing what you’re told to do in a laboratory. We’ve had employers tell us our approach to research is very helpful for students when it comes to preparing them for what they’ll be doing in their future careers.”

Indeed, Hanna said the project requires critical thinking to independently solve issues as they arise.

“In regular labs, you get a pamphlet that tells you how to conduct it and what to expect,” said Hanna, one of four CSB and SJU physics students involved in research projects this summer. “In comparison, during research, you really don’t know what to expect. You know what you want to achieve in the end, but when you come across little problems like I am now with the temperature controller, there isn’t a pamphlet to refer to telling you how to correct it. So critical thinking skills and all that kind of stuff comes into play.

“You have to trust yourself when it comes to knowing what to do next.”

Later this summer, Hanna will begin work on the plasma device – using an electronic current to separate gas in a glass tube and study its properties.

“The objective of research varies from student to student depending on the project,” Crumley said. “But what we hope they all get out of it is a greater familiarity with real-world research skills so they have a better idea of what to expect in their future careers.”

After her time at CSB and SJU, Hanna plans to attend graduate school and hopes to one day work as an electrical engineer. She said having the chance to take part in research projects like these is not only preparing her for her future career path, but confirming what she’s chosen is right for her.

“I think back to when I first came to this school,” she said. “I got into the whole physics thing because I’d taken physics courses during my senior year in high school. But I can honestly say I wasn’t 100 percent sure I wanted to stick with physics, or that I wanted to pursue engineering as a career.

“But by being able to do research both this summer and last, it made it clear that this is something I can see myself doing in the long run. Working on my own, analyzing and breaking things down, using all the different topics and items we learn in our physics courses in a real and practical way – it’s all been incredibly valuable experience for me.”

Rickia Hanna

Rickia Hanna