Nov. 2, 2007
By Andrea Gibson
Nuclear physics is a tough and competitive field, especially for new grads hoping to land a tenure-track faculty position or research job at one of the top labs in the country.
But Deepshikha Choudhury, a recent graduate of Ohio University's nuclear physics program, has a leg up on her peers in the job market. That's because the American Physical Society selected her dissertation as the best in the nation for 2008.
Choudhury, who tied for the honor with a Stanford University student, has developed a new theory for how scientists can measure important properties of the neutron, a basic building block of matter. Neutron properties can be difficult to determine experimentally, because a neutron is only stable when paired with at least one proton. Solitary neutrons have a lifespan of just 877 seconds.
A scientist at Duke University will test Choudhury's theory by blasting high-energy gamma rays at a sample of Helium-3, which contains one neutron and two protons. Information from the gamma-ray-Helium-3 collisions will be used to isolate the elusive neutron's properties, explained Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Daniel Phillips, Choudhury's faculty mentor. The researchers published their predictions for these experiments this summer in top physics journal Physical Review Letters.
"What's notable about her dissertation is that it opens up a new set of experiments, which I think will help us significantly better understand the structure of neutrons and protons," Phillips said.
Choudhury credits Phillips, who specializes in research on photon scattering and neutrons, for directing her to the dissertation topic. A Student Enhancement Award from the Vice President for Research also allowed her to purchase a computer and travel to Duke University and the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory, where the experiments will be conducted. Choudhury became acquainted with Haiyan Gao, an experimental scientist who provided motivation and support as she worked on the dissertation.
Choudhury, who is working as a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University until August 2009, says the American Physical Society award will get her some attention in the field. "I think my research will be recognized and that this will lead to many collaborations," she said.
The award provides $2,000 and an allowance for travel to the April meeting of the American Physical Society, where Choudhury has been invited to talk.
The competition is open to any doctoral student in nuclear physics in North America who has completed a dissertation within the last two years. In recent years, the winners have come from the University of Washington, Columbia University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Caltech. A recent winner from SUNY Stony Brook was advised by Madappa Prakash, now a professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio University.
Though competition for the award is stiff, Phillips said Choudhury stood out for her innovative theory and oral presentation skills.
"Deepshikha has a mature vision of the field," he said. "Her ability to identify these as important experiments and what experiments are best to do to get at the questions she's interested in – that's an unusual talent for someone at her stage of the career."
The theoretical nuclear physics group at Ohio University already has some clout in the field, Phillips noted, as it's one of the top 10 in the nation for research funding. He hopes that Choudhury's high-profile award will interest more students in the program.
"It shows prospective students that they can come to Ohio University and have a graduate education that's as good in the field as places that perhaps are better known," he said.