Empowering Women to Explore Nuclear Physics

Women in Science and Engineering students got a glimpse into life as a scientist at BNL

As part of an ongoing collaboration between Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and Stony Brook University, students in Stony Brook’s Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) program spent two Saturdays at BNL completing hands-on activities with scientists from the lab’s Physics Department and the Nuclear Science and Technology Department, and engaging in conversations with scientists about the passions, triumphs, and difficulties that come with a career in STEM.

Shohini Bhattacharya, who was a research associate in the RIKEN BNL Research Center and the Nuclear Theory Group of Brookhaven’s Physics Department at the time and is currently a Distinguished Oppenheimer Fellow at DOE’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, worked with the students and provided insight into the fundamental questions of nuclear physics and the life of a theoretical nuclear physicist — someone who employs mathematical tools to predict nuclear reactions and unveil patterns in experimental data.

Students also explored the engineering applications of nuclear physics with Andrea Mattera, an associate physicist from the National Nuclear Data Center (NNDC), which is part of the Nuclear Science and Technology Department at Brookhaven. Mattera studies the products of reactions, like nuclear fission, to better understand how they affect the operation of nuclear reactors. He then catalogs these properties and shares them with members of the broader nuclear physics community who are working on applications of nuclear science in medicine, energy, and national security.

“Events like these are excellent opportunities to address some commonly held prejudices and preconceptions about radioactivity and nuclear science,” Mattera said. “But at the end of the day, we volunteer because we love our careers. Getting to share our work with students is just as meaningful for us as it is for them.”

The students dove into simulated data from the future Electron-Ion Collider (EIC), a particle accelerator at Brookhaven that will collide two beams — one consisting of polarized electrons and the other of polarized protons or other atomic nuclei. These collisions will enable electrons to “shine light” onto protons and atomic nuclei, so that physicists can discern the intricate distributions of quarks and gluons within these composite particles and ultimately gain insight into their overall properties. Bhattacharya generated a set of simulated experimental data so the students could better understand what physicists can infer from such “real world” data.

“In college courses, the students are often provided with perfect data sets that don’t reflect potential experimental uncertainties, but this is not the case when conducting research,” Bhattacharya explained. “I felt it was crucial for the students to understand that experimental physicists meticulously account for such uncertainties when collecting data. Then, as theorists, it is imperative for us to acknowledge and comprehend how these experimental uncertainties influence our predictions — and how our predictions are tested by experiments.”

Read the complete story at the BNL website.

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