BHSU student builds cosmic ray detector during Dept. of Energy-INFN internship in Italy

Author: BHSU Communications/Wednesday, October 19, 2016/Categories: Students, Academic Affairs, College of Business and Natural Sciences, Community, Faculty, Sanford

Research at the BHSU Underground Campus at Sanford lab created an opportunity for Rachel Williams, Black Hills State University physical science and chemistry major from Spearfish, to earn an international internship with the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics. Her work at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics, Catania section, included building a detector that is now the highest efficiency cosmic ray detector housed at the Institute.

Williams says she chose to attend BHSU because of the University’s involvement in research with, and proximity to, Sanford Underground Research Facility. In high school, Williams worked alongside Spearfish High School physics instructor Steve Gabriel on his project at Sanford Lab involving measuring ventilation using flow meters.

“I’ve been involved in research at Sanford Lab since high school. I wanted to stay in this area because it’s such active research,” said Williams.

At BHSU, Williams has a new mentor who is helping her find opportunities in eventual pursuit of her graduate degree in nuclear engineering. Enter Dr. Brianna Mount, assistant professor of research and director of the BHSU Underground Campus at Sanford Lab.

“My first physics class at BHSU was with Dr. Mount. Last semester I went underground to work with her once per week at the BHSU Underground Campus,” said Williams.

The BHSU Underground Campus consists of a cleanroom and adjoining workspace nearly a mile below the earth’s surface at Sanford Lab in Lead. The area aids research and education in many disciplines including physics, biology, geology, and environmental physical science.

During her time at the Underground Campus, Williams says she maintained the cleanliness around the detectors enabling them to take data properly. She also changed samples in the detectors with Mount’s supervision.

All this hands-on experience in research benefitted Williams when applying for the Dept. of Energy internship. Mount received the internship information from her contacts at Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy and shared the materials with Williams. Weeks later, Williams landed in Catania on the island of Sicily ready to begin her two month long paid internship.

Working under the tutelage of Marzio DeNapoli and Mariangela Bondia, research scientists at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics, Catania section, one of Williams’ projects was to build a background detector for a small dark matter project.

“For the dark matter project, cosmic background rays are a very huge issue, so you have to have a really good system to filter them out. In Catania, the lab is not a mile underground like the dark matter project in Lead which shields the rays,” said Williams.

As a part of her internship, Williams was tasked with building a whole new cosmic ray detector from scratch, since two panels on the existing detector were not working. The detector Williams created is now the highest efficiency cosmic ray detector housed at the Institute.

“I built it, I tested it, I characterized it, which parts of the cosmic ray veto scintillator detector were the most efficient in detecting background particles and which weren’t,” said Williams, who presented her research results to an international collaboration at the end of the internship.

Reflecting back on her internship in Italy, Williams says she’s more confident as a result of the experience. She knows her work in Italy, coupled with continued study at the BHSU Underground Campus, will help her in the future.

Williams is planning to pursue a graduate degree in nuclear engineering.

“A big part of the research I’m interested in is the very experimental, very hands-on. This experience gave me the opportunity to explore other types of research, a different facet,” said Williams. “It’s given me a different insight into research and the things that I can do.”

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