BHSU physical science and chemistry major completes nuclear physics research experience in Louisiana

Rachel Williams, physical science and chemistry major at Black Hills State University, presents her final research poster at Louisiana State University during the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Fifth from right: Rachel Williams, physical science and chemistry major at Black Hills State University, visits the LIGO-Livingston, a large-scale physics experiment used to detect cosmic gravitational waves, in Louisiana along with other students from across the U.S. who completed research at Louisiana State University this summer.

In the summer of 2016, Black Hills State University student Rachel Williams built a cosmic ray detector in Italy. This summer, Rachel, a physical science and chemistry major, resided stateside where she dove deeper into nuclear physics through a partnership with Louisiana State University.

Rachel completed her research experience in Louisiana with financial support from the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. In addition to completing 10-weeks of intense scientific research, Rachel and her peers attended weekly workshops by research professors in the LSU Physics and Astronomy Department, professional development seminars, and ethics training.

"This program allowed me to extensively delve into applied nuclear physics," said Rachel. "This has been one of the most fruitful summer programs that I have been a part of in my career."

While at LSU, Rachel worked with Dr. Scott Marley, assistant professor, and graduate students Sudarsan Balakrishnan and Sergio Lopez to characterize a detector used in beta-delayed neutron emission. The overall goal of the research is to better design safety standards for nuclear power plants as well as to understand r-process heavy element Nucleosynthesis, which is still largely misunderstood.

"Specifically, I designed the mechanism that is used to hold the radioactive source over the scintillator detector and rotate to characterize all areas of the detector," said Rachel.

As Rachel prepared to finish her research experience and return to BHSU for the fall semester, she began to collect the initial data of the scintillator response using the mechanism she had designed.

Rachel credits her LSU mentor Dr. Marley and the two graduate students she worked with for being "invaluable in her career." She said she looks forward to their continued guidance as she completes her degree at BHSU.

This semester at BHSU Rachel is expanding her research interests by working with Dr. Eric Clapham, associate professor of psychology. Psychology is one of Rache's minor areas of degree concentration, in addition to physics and math.

The proximity of BHSU to Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead was the reason Rachel chose to complete her degree at BHSU. Last year she worked nearly a mile underground at Sanford Lab helping to maintain the low-background detectors at the BHSU Underground Campus.

Rachel is the founder and a member of the BHSU Physical Sciences Club, a member of Women in STEM, and the Psychology Club at BHSU.

This summer, BHSU also hosted a 10-week REU program similar to the one Rachel attended. The BHSU program centered on underground science at Sanford Lab. Students from across the U.S. were on campus for the program and were paired with BHSU faculty mentors for research.