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Focus on APS Sections

Four Corners Section Embodies Western Spirit

By Brian Jacobsmeyer

After seeing milk production from his cows dwindle, a farmer seeks out a theoretical physicist at the local university for help. Weeks pass, and the physicist finally comes back with a computer model that should help the farmer boost milk production. “I have your solution,” says the physicist, “but it only works for spherical cows in a vacuum.”

Add some western flair to this old physics joke, and the result is the APS Four Corners Section Spherical Cowboy Award: a student-awarded prize for the best non-student talk at the section’s annual meeting. The joke alludes to the apparent disconnect between theoretical physics and practical applications, and the gimmicky prizes–such as a cowboy hat or stuffed spherical cow–reflect the joke’s punch line. Unlike the physicist in the joke, the awardee is recognized for research that has had an impact on the students’ lives.

“Our section is unique because there are so many national labs,” said Four Corners Chair-Elect John Cumalat of the University of Colorado-Boulder. “Many lab scientists don’t see students often, so our meeting is a good opportunity for them to interact.”

With three national Department of Energy laboratories and several major universities, the section features an eclectic mix of researchers, professors and students. Since the first meeting in 1998, the section has become one of the fastest growing in APS. Total membership for the section rose from 1,500 to 1,700 over the past two years. And student membership has grown even faster–over the same period student members jumped from 377 to 452, a 20 percent increase.

“While we encourage all members to present at the annual meeting, it has evolved into a very student-friendly atmosphere,” said Jean-Francois Van Huele from Brigham Young University-Provo, the section’s treasurer and one of the first meeting’s attendees.

Aside from deciding the Spherical Cowboy Award winner, students frequently present their own research at the section’s meeting. Attendees vote for four separate student awards covering posters and papers for both graduate and undergraduate students.

While presenting research can be nerve-wracking, one of the biggest challenges for some students can simply be making it to the meeting due to the section’s large geographical area. To help encourage student participation, section leaders grant several travel stipends for students and even organize group trips.

“One time, we rented a coach bus, gathering students across Utah for the meeting,” said Van Huele. “It was a great road trip.”

Upon arriving at the meeting, students are exposed to a variety of experts presenting research ranging from physics education to high energy physics. Invited speakers have included top national laboratory scientists, industry leaders and even former astronauts.

The annual meeting has become the main event for the section, but organizers have also focused their efforts beyond the section’s borders. For instance, the section held a joint meeting with the Texas section several years ago. At first, people questioned whether the organizers could bring together people from such a large area. The meeting was a great success though, and the two sections hope to hold a similar joint meeting in the future, said Van Huele.

In addition to organizing meetings, section members have also arranged for students to meet political leaders in Washington, DC every year. The experience allows students to step outside of the classroom and conduct lobbying on science funding.

“It was a really good experience for a graduate student,” said Eric Sorte from the University of Utah, a former Four Corners student-at-large member who travelled to Washington in 2009 and 2010. “The senators and representatives liked to interact with the students as well.”

The next section meeting will be held in the late fall of 2012.


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