For Hannah Weaver ’14 (Whitefish, Mont.), hundreds of hours spent making highly precise measurements in an atomic and molecular physics lab have paid off. Guided by Andrew Kortyna, associate professor of physics, her research in Hugel Science Center is being published in Physical Review, a leading international peer-reviewed journal.
Their work involves using high-resolution laser spectroscopy to study the structure of several excited states of atomic cesium. In June, Weaver will also present the research at the annual meeting of the American Physical Society’s Division of Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics in Quebec.
“Cesium is a technically important atom for many reasons, including its use as our time standard,” says Kortyna. “For example, GPS would not work without the high-precision timing available from cesium clocks. Understanding the structure of cesium better would translate into more accurate timing.”
After a summer of working with Weaver as an EXCEL Scholar, Kortyna praises her “stick-to-it attitude” and notes it is a huge achievement for an undergraduate student to get published in a top international journal.
“Physical Review requires that the results being reported be new, significant, and relevant to active research fields,” says Kortyna. “What we do in the classroom is really just preliminary work designed to get students ready to participate in this kind of research.”
For Weaver, a typical day in the lab meant spending the morning aligning everything on the optics table and looking for a signal—this is, if something like a thunderstorm didn’t disrupt her measurements. Working with the instruments was a “test of patience,” says Weaver, who credits Kortyna for keeping her on track and reassuring her that working in atomic physics requires much trial and error.
“I had to learn to keep persevering. When I came to an obstacle, I had to be innovative in the way I solved the issue,” she says.
Then there was the reality of dealing with expensive equipment on a daily basis—more than $100,000 worth of resources are used to study a droplet of cesium. High pressure, but highly rewarding.
As for her future in physics, Weaver claims that the “possibilities for exploration and questioning seem endless. I never feel like I understand everything, but that I am barely scratching the surface.”
Her minor in classical civilizations is a “refreshing break” from the rigors of physics, but Weaver is looking to pursue a career in the lab.
“Right now, I’m thinking about fields like atomic physics, plasma physics, or solid state physics, but this could change in an instant,” she says.
“This summer taught me that even though the ideas behind research are fascinating, it takes a lot of grunt work, time, and doing things incorrectly before you get it right to make advancements in the field,” says Weaver. “I’m glad I got a taste of ‘real’ physics this summer. It will help me keep the things I learn in class in perspective.”