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By David Barnstone
The APS LeRoy Apker Award recognizes up-and-coming scientists who demonstrate great potential in physics based on outstanding achievements in undergraduate research. The award is presented annually to two students: one from an institution that grants doctoral degrees and one that does not. Each recipient receives $5,000 for themselves, $5,000 for their undergraduate institution's physics department, and an invitation to give a talk at an APS meeting.
The 2021 Apker Award recipients Caelan Brooks (Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) and Joseph R. Farah (University of Massachusetts Boston) were among seven finalists to present their work to a panel of esteemed physicists in August. APS News recently caught up with Brooks and Farah, who are now pursuing their PhDs at Harvard University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, respectively. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about your experience presenting your research to the selection committee.
Brooks: The biggest challenge in the preparation process was to craft a cohesive presentation that conveyed a complete picture of my undergraduate research, which spans two fairly different subfields: AMO physics and biophysics. Advice and feedback from my research mentors were very valuable. When it came to presenting, I was incredibly nervous but also confident in my research and preparation. The presentation evolved into a conversation about my research with clarifying questions and new ideas which brought new perspectives. Looking back, I find myself very lucky to have discussed my small contributions with some of the best physics minds.
Joseph R. Farah
Farah: I enjoyed presenting my research to the Apker selection committee. I’m very passionate about my research, so to have an opportunity to discuss the nitty-gritty details with the eminent physicists of the day was an amazing opportunity I am incredibly grateful to have received. Though the following questions period was relatively short, the inquiries and ideas brought up had a serious and lasting impact on my research. Additionally, most of the committee remembered me from my finalist presentation the previous year, which was awesome. Several of the committee members even recalled the details of my research and asked questions connecting my previous project to this one, which led to some unexpected and fruitful discussion.
Why is it important for APS to recognize achievements in undergraduate research?
Brooks: Undergraduate research provides this unique opportunity to introduce students to the world of scientific research who might otherwise never consider such career pathways. This introduction to research is about discovery, and it encompasses a large degree of novelty which makes the process exciting and at times scary and very challenging. APS, by recognizing undergraduate research, places value in this discovery process and celebrates the persistence of young scientists in a world that can feel very foreign to them. Recognitions such as the Apker award give confidence and encouragement to new physicists like me.
Farah: APS awards provide important context and opportunities to develop skills that will be critical for a career in STEM. In preparing for the LeRoy Apker Award, I learned how to properly prepare and present years worth of work to a technical audience in only a few minutes. Preparing for, competing for, and receiving the award gave me the opportunity to interact with and learn from many accomplished and experienced scientists as well as giving my research substantial exposure to interested groups. Overall, APS awards help students develop as scientists by providing a goal to strive towards and motivating interaction with a diverse network of professionals.
What is the significance of this award to your undergraduate institutions?
Brooks: Kutztown University is a public school focused primarily on teaching and education, and is part of a larger conglomerate of 14 Pennsylvania state schools. As far as I know this is the first national physics prize for undergraduate research awarded to any school in this system. Within this context, I am still completely in awe to have been awarded the Apker Award. Many students at KU, like myself, come to college without any knowledge of what scientific research is. To go from that beginning to being nationally recognized for my research is a testament to my mentors who have invested so much in my growth as a physicist without ever expecting any return on their investment. It is these professors who I hope are able to see the impact they have made and the significance this brings to Kutztown University and their work.
Farah: The award will inspire future generations of students at UMass Boston to be actively involved in research as undergraduates and to compete for prestigious national awards. UMass Boston is one of the most diverse public higher education institutions in New England with 60% students of color and 61% first-generation college students. The national recognition of their efforts will inspire UMB students to work towards future careers involving research in STEM fields. Many of my classmates and closest friends within the department have also gone to success in grad school and beyond. For example, Jonathan Delgado has gone on to pursue a PhD at UC Irvine, and another student (Sarah True) from UMB Physics was awarded the Barry Goldwater Scholarship in 2021. This pattern of success is a consequence of early identification of good students and the ability to focus on their development that comes from being a small department at a university that highly values teaching.
Why did you study physics in college?
Brooks: I chose to major in physics because I really enjoyed the objectivity of math and the ability it gives us to explain the universe. Through taking more courses in college, it was the small aspects of the material that kept me hooked. The introduction to the quantum world through class and research allowed for me to develop a physical intuition for objects that I could not physically see. My research in biophysics taught me how far the applications of physics can reach. For me, the beauty of the accumulation of physics knowledge and physics research is the ability to look at something we do not understand in a different light. These new perspectives open up new questions and interpretations. That fuels the flame of curiosity.
Farah: I’ve always loved physics. There’s something almost scary about being able to make claims about the universe the way we do in physics. For example: the Universe is expanding. That’s such a cool and terrifying fact. It makes me think about the universe like it's a living thing, and then that just makes me want to carefully classify every single thing inside of it and understand how it all works on micro scales and macro scales and everything in between. I also like working with equations and data and learning things from a wide array of fields, like chemistry and geology, and physics gives me that opportunity.
What research questions are you pursuing in graduate school?
Brooks: My first semester of graduate school at Harvard has awarded me the time to wrap up my undergraduate research work and present it. Completing my undergraduate degree in three years left me with my research projects unfinished. In addition, the pandemic, spanning half my college experience, prevented me from presenting my work in person. This semester has allowed me to finish writing some of the papers from my undergraduate work which are soon to be published and also attend a conference in person to present my biophysics research. These experiences, as well as adjusting to graduate school have made me excited to start graduate research work as well as be a part of this vibrant academic community, within which I will continue to explore to find the kind of research that will be the best fit for my doctorate.
Farah: I am interested in helping establish better theoretical foundations for astrophysical processes to facilitate more precise and informative measurements. I particularly enjoy projects that use novel or recent theories to derive observational signatures, then look for those signatures in data using rigorous modeling. At UCSB, I hope to apply this pipeline to the study of supernovae and dark energy and help bring scale to our understanding of the universe. In addition to studying supernovae, I will continue my work with the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration, helping produce images and movies of black holes, constructing methods for recovering rotational dynamics, and testing general relativity in the strong gravity regime.
The 2021 Selection Committee members were David Gross (Chair), Philip Bucksbaum (Vice-Chair), Nima Arkani-Hamed, Charles Conover, Yuliya Dovzhenko, Shelly Lesher, Geoffrey Lovelace, and Theodore Yoder. For more about the award or to find out how to apply, visit the LeRoy Apker Award page.
The author is APS Head of Public Relations.
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