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Passion for Plasma

Alumni connections help a student prepare for a future in physics

Instead of spending the summer shoveling rotten soybeans at the grain elevator near his family’s Haven Township, Minn. farm, a Drake alumni connection afforded Mike Meyers, a senior physics and mathematics double major, the opportunity to ponder plasma at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

“I get to drive a forklift and all that,” Meyers says of his hometown work option. “But I think as far as helping me become a professional, working in a national lab was a lot better and I enjoyed it a lot more. “

Mike Meyers, senior physics and mathematics double major from Haven Township, Minn.

Meyers’ internship experience as a research assistant at a premier national security research institution was hands-on, challenging and meaningful. Ultimately, the type of computer simulations of plasma that he helped design could be applied to develop a type of very compact particle accelerator for use in radiation therapy.

Connecting undergraduates with opportunities in the sciences 

Drake University strives to connect students with opportunities for hands-on research. Initiatives such as the Drake Undergraduate Science Collaborative Institute (DUSCI) promote a culture of scholarship among students and faculty in science and math.

Consistent with Drake University’s mission, DUSCI actively supports collaborative student-faculty research experiences, strives to increase scientific literacy, and provides opportunities to engage the larger community in science and math.

Activities promoted and supported by DUSCI include:

  • Summer and academic year undergraduate research activities
  • Drake Science Colloquium lecture series, which features Drake faculty and invited external speakers
  • Life After Drake lecture series, which brings in successful alumni to celebrate their accomplishments, offer the students the opportunity to obtain advice in different fields and develop a relationship with alumni
  • Drake University Conference on Undergraduate Research in the Sciences (DUCURS), which provides a forum to showcase scientific results of faculty/student collaborative research in math and science.

“I got to meet a lot of really smart people from around the country and I got to experience what the life of a professional physicist is like,” Meyers says.

The opportunity arose thanks to a connection with Brian Albright, AS’92, a scientist in the Computational Physics Division at LANL. Meyers took Albright up on an offer to connect him with a LANL internship the summer after his sophomore year and was asked back the summer after his junior year.

Last year, Albright returned to campus as the Life After Drake featured speaker.

“Several of my professors are still at Drake and I maintain my connections with them in order to get an ‘inside track’ on who their best students are, who I can invite to the Laboratory,” Albright says.

“Only by getting a glimpse into our world can students be in a position to make informed decisions about their careers. I know that I benefitted greatly as a student by working with one of my professors while at Drake University, Prof. Klaus Bartschat in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. I credit the successes I’ve had in my career to his mentorship and I am delighted that we could give back by providing Mike a similar experience.”

Meyers says the Drake faculty’s approach to physics instruction prepared him to do the original research required by his internship. He worked with Dr. Albright and Dr. Chengkun Huang on novel ways to model on the computer the dynamics of a plasma flowing at nearly the speed of light. This was a challenging problem involving complex physics (Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), difficult mathematics and the development of new computer algorithms.

Brian Albright, AS'92
Brian Albright, AS'92

“In order to do this work, Mike had to work very hard to master a lot of new material — and then go beyond, to help our team discover something new,” Albright says. “He showed great teamwork skills, integrating well into our group and contributing to what turned out to be a very hard problem. Though we didn’t solve the problem entirely, we made substantial progress and — I believe — are nearing a solution.”

Meyers says he thinks the curriculum at Drake prepares students to make a theoretical-based career.

“It helps you develop an analytic thinking process instead of just memorizing formulas. In science, you have to memorize a few things and then you must be able to do math and reason through to derive the rest of the theory. Those skills allowed me to have success at Los Alamos. “

Meyers says he first decided to pursue a physics degree at Drake after taking the Drake Physics Test in high school. Although he didn’t win the physics scholarship, Meyers said the test made him aware of opportunities at Drake, and when he earned other scholarships he decided to attend.

Exciting opportunities aren’t isolated to summer experiences, either. Meyers is currently carrying out other original research on campus with Athanasios Petridis, associate professor of physics and astronomy.

This fall, he flew to Salt Lake City, Utah to present a poster from his LANL project at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Plasma Physics. There he received the Outstanding Poster Award, which is presented to the best of the 76 undergraduate and high school participants in the meeting. Meyers beat out students from Princeton, MIT, Harvard, University of Chicago, University of Texas—Austin, Virginia Tech, University of Wisconsin, and UCLA, to name a few, for the award.

“This level of preparation and professionalism is a credit to Mike and his institution,” Albright says. “I am delighted that he was able to make it to our meeting and represent Los Alamos National Laboratory and Drake University in this fashion.”

For Meyers, the mentorships he received at Los Alamos and at Drake are preparing him for a future in pursuit of discoveries with plasma — the most abundant form of matter in the universe.

“My next step is to go to graduate school for theoretical plasma physics and then I someday would like to end up working for a national lab,” he says. “That would be the dream.”