Never far from Fermilab
By Steven Powell, email@example.com, 803-777-1923
Tyler Alion may attend classes in Columbia, but the USC junior is in daily communication with his colleagues at Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory, one of the world’s centers of high-energy particle physics located in Batavia, Ill., near Chicago.
Since the summer of 2012, Alion has been writing software to support the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment (LBNE), a collaboration between more than 60 research institutions aimed at determining some of the fundamental properties of neutrinos.
His work for Fermilab is a direct result of an immediate immersion in undergraduate research at USC. Just a week after arriving on campus, the freshman physics major from Charlotte, N.C., had joined Professor Sanjib Mishra’s research group, based in the Jones Physical Sciences Center.
“I was a McNair Scholarship finalist,” said Alion. “Jan Smoak (the associate director of the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs) is wonderful – she asks every student about research interests and then hooks them up with professors to help get us into research. That’s how I met Dr. Mishra.”
And just a couple of years after joining Mishra’s research group, Alion found an important role for himself in the particle physics community, working closely with USC postdoctoral researcher Jae Kim and undergraduate Kevin Wood. “It’s an amazing opportunity, and I don’t want to stop,” he said. “It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.”
Alion, Wood and Kim are writing code for the new neutrino detector – a massive vault of cryogenically cooled liquid argon – that is planned for construction in a mine in Lead, S.D. It’s the size of the detector that has necessitated the recent work. “The largest argon detector having taken data is ICARUS, in Italy, but it’s still not large enough for LBNE. We need to upscale it,” Alion said. “But upscaling liquid argon technology introduces all kinds of problems.”
“For the past year, I have spent a significant part of my life writing code to adapt the software – the substantial and wonderful software – that was written for the more standard liquid argon configuration and generalize it to handle the new, more sophisticated configuration,” said Alion.
It’s a highly collaborative process. “I’m in daily communication with anywhere from four to 10 people from Fermilab – phone meetings, phone conferences, email,” said Alion. “If I don’t understand something, I ask the right people, and they’ll just spill out everything they know, and I soak it up.”
Learning science and developing programming skills is just one source of satisfaction for the undergraduate researchers. “Tyler and I have had a really good opportunity to actually contribute, to work with real scientists on a project that matters,” said Wood. “And that’s so valuable where we are right now, as rising physicists.”
This past spring, Alion attended a meeting of the LBNE collaborators at Fermilab. “The site is awesome,” said Alion. “It’s not gorgeous and elaborate and ornate, but it’s just awesome. It’s literally awe-inspiring to be sitting up on the 12th floor writing code, and you look out a window and see the Tevatron. It was exciting.
“But it was even more exciting to be at the convention with hundreds of people, all of us focused on LBNE. Everyone was there.”
Carolina has given Alion everything he hoped for academically.
“I came to USC because of the great research opportunities and a great scholarship,” said Alion. “I was actually offered more money at Appalachian State, but USC just has incredible research opportunities. At USC I could focus, I was told over and over, on research. And I have found that to be true – to my joy.”
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