Undergraduate Physics Students Meet With Senate Staffer, Promote Potential Research Impacts at DNP Meeting

By Tawanda W. Johnson

Undergraduate physics students who attended the Division of Nuclear Physics (DNP) meeting in Pittsburgh were elated to discuss the potential impacts of their research with a staffer representing U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. The APS Office of Public Affairs partnered with DNP to coordinate the meetings between students and Elizabeth Fishback, regional director for Casey’s office.

“This opportunity was surprising. Usually, the only people who ask me about my research are other physics majors, graduate students and professors,” said Morgen Benninghoff, a junior at Duquesne University whose research on detectors could impact proton therapy treatments. “It gave me a chance to improve my ability to explain my research to those who aren’t in the field of physics.”

While the students featured their research during a poster session at the meeting, Fishback queried them about their work. It’s crucial for students and scientists to communicate the possible impacts of their research to members of Congress who make decisions about federal funding that support scientific research.

Morgen Benninghoff talks to Elizabeth Fishback

Morgen Benninghoff ("left" - student at Duquesne University) talks to Elizabeth Fishback (regional director in Sen. Bob Casey's office) about her research.

Lauren Duhamel and Xiaoya Song, sophomores at the University of Pennsylvania, are conducting research on whether the neutrino is its own antiparticle.

“Determining characteristics of the neutrino can help the field of physics gain a better understanding of the fundamental questions in physics, and ultimately, help us achieve our goals of developing technology using particle physics,” said Duhamel.

She added, “It was extremely rewarding to be able to explain my research to Senate staff, and to see them genuinely intrigued about what we are doing.”

Song echoed her classmate’s comments: “I really appreciated this opportunity, as our research is funded by DOE (Department of Energy). As an undergraduate student, I value this great opportunity to work in a cutting-edge research lab.”

Jared Gdanski, a junior at Drexel University, explained that his research could lead to insight into the masses of neutrinos, as well as the difference in the amount of normal matter versus antimatter.

“Speaking with a Senate staffer concerning the importance of my research was valuable as it allowed me to get across the message that, without funding, my research would not have happened,” he said.

Communicating with Congress is key to promoting a better understanding of nuclear physics research, said Rosi Reed, assistant professor at Lehigh University who had two of her students participate in the poster session.

“I think this sort of interaction is important and is the only way we will have a vibrant nuclear physics program in the U.S., as it is not clear to the average person what our research is all about. People think bombs and power plants, and we need to show how much more our research is.”

APS OPA looks forward to coordinating similar congressional visits in the future with DNP and other Society groups at meetings, said Greg Mack, government relations specialist.

“This event was a win-win for everyone involved with the endeavor. Students had a great opportunity to communicate the importance of their research to a Senate staffer. The Senate staffer gained a better understanding of why federal funding is crucial to the work taking place at our national laboratories and universities, and APS OPA and DNP had a strong partnership to make it happen,” said Mack.