Augsburg News

News Archives - 2003

Summer in the Physics Lab

September 2003

Eight scientists are gathered round a conference table for a regular weekly meeting. As they begin reporting their research to the group, the talk is of variations in ULF and VLF waves, compilation of PE and QP/PE data, progress on papers to be presented at professional conferences, etc.

This would not sound unusual until it's realized that the meeting is taking place on a small, private college campus, and five of the eight participants have only just completed their first or second year in college.

Each summer, as part of the funding Augsburg receives from the National Science Foundation, NASA, and others, physics professor and department chair Mark Engebretson selects promising physics and pre-engineering students for research projects in the physics labs. Engebretson says that the department tries to provide all physics majors with research opportunities—the experience helps physics and pre-engineering students with graduate school admissions and helps them compete for national fellowships.

Geoff Shelburne, who is beginning his junior year, began working last year with Augsburg physics senior Alexa Halford ’03 on a paper titled "Latitudinal and Seasonal Variations of Quasi-Periodic and Periodic ELF-VLF Emissions." The paper, a statistical study of extremely-low-frequency (ELF) and very-low-frequency (VLF) waves using data from several stations in Antarctica, including the South Pole, won Halford a top student award last year when she presented it at the spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union. This was one of two such awards to Augsburg students in the last three years, who competed against mostly graduate students, some of whom were presenting their Ph.D. work.

Shelburne's work has focused on identifying, tabulating, and plotting occurrences of various types of these waves as a function of the time of day for an entire year at four different stations in Antarctica—a time-consuming and tedious job.

Engebretson points out at the meeting, however, that Shelburne has made a valuable contribution with his meticulous work, because of surprising variations that can be observed only when studying the data in the detail he plotted.
Shelburne is working with Engebretson to complete the paper and ready it for publication next year. The final author list will include Halford, Engebretson, assistant scientist Jennifer Posch ’94, as well as researchers at the British Antarctic Survey and at Stanford University. Engebretson points out that all the department's funded research is done in collaboration with physicists at other schools and institutions, part of the educational process for the students.
Shelburne has put in his time learning the detailed, routine task of collecting data. Next summer, he hopes to gain additional research experience at another school or research laboratory—something that Engebretson encourages most of his students to pursue.

Jon-Erik Hokenson, who just completed his sophomore year, is teaching three first-year research students in the space physics lab how to run and plot the routine data—the same kind of work he did last year as a freshman. Part of their work involves comparing the data recorded daily by an orbiting satellite with data recorded at the same time at the ground stations to see if the same events are observed. It requires using a computer program to translate numerical data into spectrograms, or colored charts, that show wave activity.

Hokenson is a physics and math major, and also has a computer science minor. The computer program familiarity comes in handy when students must write their own programs in order to run the data they want. Computer science and physics students have been collaborating over the past couple of years on new programs in the physics labs.
Back in the meeting, first-year research student Erik Lundberg reports to the group on the difficulties he faced with such a computer program while trying to run the data requested by a researcher at another institution. When the printer refused to spit out any data beyond 1999, Lundberg wrote a new program to eliminate the problem. Engebretson asked him to install it on all the lab computers.

Lundberg recognizes that science is a lot of routine. "Sometimes you run the numbers several times and it doesn1t work; but one time it works ... and it's exciting."

Heather Greene ’04 reports to the meeting that her paper is completed and will be presented at a McNair Scholars conference the following week. The paper studies the activity recorded by satellites during a geomagnetic storm to help understand its effect on communications systems as well as human health.

Greene's summer research was funded by both the McNair Scholars program and the National Science Foundation. The McNair program seeks to prepare students for doctoral studies and to increase the number of graduate students from underrepresented sectors. Through the summer experience, Greene says, "I am starting to learn the process of research and what I need to network with others."
To prepare for her conference presentation, Greene was able to build confidence with presentations to her two physics professors, Engebretson and Professor Ken Erickson ’62, as well as to the McNair Scholars staff and students.
Augsburg's physics department has a long history of both involving students in ongoing, original research and of collaborating with other scientists literally around the world. Hokenson said that he had just sent three CDs of data to a researcher in England who had requested it. Some of Shelburne's data came from Stanford University and the British Antarctic Survey. Recent physics graduate Jesse Woodroffe is still comparing data from four European satellites, obtained from a researcher in Germany with data from Augsburg's own instruments.

After graduating from Augsburg, Erickson returned in 1970, to teach space physics at both the University of Minnesota and Augsburg. Following the example of his faculty mentor at the university, he began involving students in interesting projects and research. When Engebretson came to Augsburg in 1976, he began to seek grant funds to cover the student activities. Today, after more than 30 years, and with the addition of Professor Ambrose Wolf's research in solid state physics, there are few small, private colleges that provide the depth of undergraduate research in physics found at Augsburg.

The meeting continues with an announcement that Olga Kozyreva, a visiting physicist from the Institute of the Physics of the Earth in Moscow, would arrive the following week for a month's stay. Her visit, along with regular semester-long visits by Russian physicist Slava Pilipenko, continues collaborative research and teaching with Engebretson, funded by a recently-renewed National Science Foundation grant.

In addition to the 10 students working at Augsburg during the summer, other students are at universities around the country. For the physics majors attending the meeting, getting experience that helps them gain an edge in their field and getting paid for it is ideal. And, as Hokenson puts it, "you couldn't ask for a better employer than Professor Engebretson."