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Summer program draws undergrads for research experience

How do you determine the age of pottery? You simply extract the quartz from the piece, heat it up and watch it glow, as 21-year-old Sarah E. Zaranek of Erie, Penn., did this summer at the University of Connecticut.

Under the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, Zaranek conducted age and composition experiments on three pieces of pottery dated 600-800 years old from Mashantucket Pequot land with physics professor Cynthia Peterson.

Zaranek does not have the opportunity to get hands-on research at her school, Indiana University in Pennsylvania. Unlike UConn students, many undergraduates in colleges and universities across the country learn science only through lectures. The NSF's eight-week program enables some of these students to go to excellent research universities to get real research experience working with professors.

The UConn physics department has participated for three years and has more than a dozen participants each year. The NSF provides half the funding for the program, the rest coming through other grants in the physics department and the Photonics Research Center.

"There are some very smart students who have never been able to conduct research," said William Stwalley, head of the physics department. He added that the program also helps the University. "The research is an obvious benefit. But there is also the hope that the students will come here for their master's or doctoral degrees."

Rebecca Jarvis, 22, did just that. She was one of the program's first participants in 1994 while she attended the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. Under physics professor Moshe Gai's tutelege, she helped a graduate student with his research on stellar helium burning, one of the processes in understanding the evolution of a star. She also built a gamma ray detector as a side project.

"The program had a great impact on me. I was very interested in astronomy before I got here and it gave me a great opportunity to get involved in hands-on research," she said.

While pursuing her master's degree in physics at UConn, Jarvis is continuing to help with studies on stellar reactions and how often they occur. She also helped with this year's REU program, which ended on August 1.

In addition to the program's research component, participants learn every week about cutting-edge technology by attending lectures, as well as about career opportunities through discussions with professors and scientists involved in business and industry.

Zaranek, who will be a senior this fall, said she appreciated all the aspects of the program.

"I enjoyed it a lot, especially being able to meet people from different schools and seeing how other schools do things," she said. "I learned a lot of new ideas. People told us how they got into physics and where they started. They didn't just take one road."

Zaranek was one of 13 participants in this year's program, which ended with a poster session detailing all of the research projects. She described how she ground up the pottery to extract quartz with magnets and acid. She then heated it up to see how it glowed. How the glow changes with artificial radiation determines the age of the piece.

Another participant, Benjamin Whitehouse of Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., worked with physics professor Niloy Dutta, who is associate director of the Photonics Research Center, on the possible use of plastic fiber optic cable in transmitting cable television.

Plastic fiber optic cables are capable of fulfilling the requirements for typical cable TV and broadband applications, Whitehouse said. It's a cheap, efficient way to transport both digital and analog signals over short distances instead of the silica or glass-based fiber that is used today.

"The program was a lot of fun," said Whitehouse, of Hamilton, Mass. Not a lot of people get the chance to do this kind of research or interact with these kinds of professors."

Renu Sehgal-Aldrich