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March 7, 2018

Adelphi Intern Probes the Subatomic Universe at Brookhaven National Laboratory

Particle physics explores the strange universe of objects and forces at the subatomic level—the science of things so small they are scarcely imaginable. But how these things interact with each other is fundamental to our existence.

Deepsana Shahi, who received her bachelor of science degree in physics in December, is now a seasoned explorer of this universe after her internship in her final semester this fall at the prestigious Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, Long Island.

“It was a great experience,” said Shahi, “because I got to put into practice a lot of the things I had learned in my classes.”

Shahi worked as part of a particle physics “dream team” on the Micro Booster Neutrino Experiment, known as MicroBooNE. The trove of data she helped investigate came from a 170-ton piece of detection equipment called a liquid-argon time projection chamber. The detector looked for evidence of neutrinos, subatomic particles that have practically no mass and no electrical charge, and are known to travel through solid objects with ease. That’s why they’re known as “ghost particles.”

Trillions of neutrinos are flying past us, and through us, at near-light speed every day. Since they interact very weakly with normal matter, we never notice. Only the most highly sensitive machinery can detect them.

Shahi helped process the data coming from MicroBooNE, operated by Fermilab, a national laboratory in Illinois. The purpose of her work, she said, was to become more familiar, not only with the properties of neutrinos but with the extremely difficult process of detecting them.

Assistant Professor Wright, who is assistant chair of the physics department, isn’t surprised that Shahi was selected for such high-level work. He said she always knew what she had to do in order to succeed as a student.

“If she started a class and wasn’t in the top group of performers, she would work extremely hard and very smartly in order to get in that top group,” he said.

That determination led to her internship at Brookhaven, which meant she’d found a place in another top group. “It’s like playing for the New York Yankees,” Wright said. “Brookhaven is the big leagues of scientific research.”

Adelphi physics students take a number of courses that promote hands-on, experiential learning that prepares them for their career. Wright said that many physics students do undergraduate research, which can help them when applying to graduate school, looking for internships, or even when moving into fields other than physics.

“Many of our students become engineers,” Wright said. He explained that an important task for any physicist is designing and building experiments, which frequently requires constructing machinery or other apparatuses. This “tinkering” is the kind of work that engineers do. “So there are a lot of physicists who become engineers,” he said, “and a lot of engineers who need a working knowledge of physics.”

Wright also said the physics program emphasizes hands-on learning not just as job training, but as a teaching tool. “It’s one thing to learn something in a class. It’s another thing entirely when you have to get something to work in a real-world setting.” He said that hands-on experiments help establish the principles and laws of physics in students’ minds in a way that classroom lectures never could.

Shahi, meanwhile, is contemplating graduate school, although she isn’t sure yet what branch of physics she’d like to study. She will either continue exploring particle physics, or she will take on a new challenge and study nuclear physics.

Either way, she said, her coursework at Adelphi and her internship at Brookhaven have prepared her for her next step.


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