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October 06, 2017 10:00 PM

Gaining Momentum, Augie Physics Grants Create Student Opportunity

When a curveball curves, when ice floats, even when you breathe; you are witnessing physics. Understanding the science of energy and motion takes research, and that is what students at Augustana University did last summer thanks to nearly $300,000 in grants.  These opportunities do not just happen on their own. 

Some of you may have a Newton's Cradle on your desk.  You probably also do not think much about how the silver balls are able to hit each other and create the back and forth clacking. 

"The idea is you're transferring energy through each ball," Shannon Dancler said. 

In other words, for Newton's Cradle to work, someone needs to set it in motion. 

"They seem simple, but then -- once you think about it -- there's a lot that goes into it," Dancler said. 

This is a very basic lesson Dancler and Darwin Garcia have learned over the years.  The drive to know how things work set them both on a course to major in physics at Augustana University. 

"I'm the kind of person who likes to find the explanation of things and the reasoning behind them," Garcia said. 

Over the summer, both students did a research project in this lab.  They built and worked with what's called a Silicon Photomultiplier. It is a complex machine that has many, many, MANY purposes.  To save us some time, simply put, it can be used for radiography, mammography, and other photo imaging in the medical field.  Studying this machine is giving Dancler and Garcia unique opportunities they would not typically get as students.

"From textbooks, you for sure understand the concepts and the theory.  But once you actually carry it out yourself, you actually try it out and see how everything works," Garcia said. 

"You learn things you didn't expect you would learn and you also gain in the experience.  It helps you with building your résumé and distinguishing you from other people," Dancler said. 

Summer research opportunities do not just happen, though. 

"I think we all think this is wonderful," Drew Alton, Assistant Professor - Physics Chair, said.

The Augustana Physics department received $294,000 in grants from the National Science Foundation.  That is thanks to the professors in the department who spent hours, weeks, and even months to applying for three separate grants.  That includes the department chair, Drew Alton. 

Brady: "Do you drink coffee? Red Bull?"
Drew Alton: "I don't drink coffee.  I drink Pepsi.  It's taken some caffeine and some late nights," Alton said. 

That must have worked, because the NSF approved all three applications for this department.  That may not sound like a big deal, but it is.  Alton says the NSF is highly selective and only grants about ten-percent of the applications it receives. 

"Having all three of us having applied and all succeed at the same time means this is sort of less than one in 100 type of opportunity," Alton said. 

All of that energy Alton and his colleagues spent working on securing this money, directly transfers to these students, and allows them to have a more well-rounded education. 

"Just having that summer experience has helped me in my classes at being more confident in what I do at the lab," Garcia said.

Dancler and Garcia are both looking forward to grad school, and eventual careers when they leave Augustana University.  They both know they wouldn't be able to achieve those on their own. 
"Definitely very grateful, because if we didn't have this money, then none of the students would be able to take part in research like we are and there's a few students that do and then we wouldn't gain experience we have," Dancler said. 

In other words, for students to gain momentum toward future success, it often takes caring professors to set them in motion. 

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