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DE-SC0022037: Nuclear science research training at Virginia State University, a member of the MoNA Collaboration

Award Status: Active
  • Institution: Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA
  • DUNS: 074744624
  • Most Recent Award Date: 09/27/2023
  • Number of Support Periods: 3
  • PM: Bryson, Tasia
  • Current Budget Period: 09/01/2023 - 08/31/2024
  • Current Project Period: 09/01/2023 - 08/31/2026
  • PI: Redpath, Thomas
  • Supplement Budget Period: N/A

Public Abstract

A 2019 consensus study report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine entitled Minority Serving Institutions: America's Underutilized Resource for Strengthening the STEM Workforce underscores the clear connection between “the STEM readiness of students of color” and “the nation’s economic growth, national security, and global prosperity.“ As the United States population grows more diverse, investments in educational opportunities at all levels are essential to ensuring that the nation’s STEM workforce also reflects this growing diversity in order to maintain global competitiveness. As a subset of the STEM workforce, the nuclear physics community realizes the need for a diverse community of researchers and students to drive advances in fundamental and applied nuclear science. One challenge to cultivating a diverse workforce is recruiting students of color into career and academic pipelines that, historically, have not involved a large fraction of participants that reflect the students’ racial and/or ethnic identities. One approach to overcoming this challenge is to involve students in hands-on research to help them develop a sense of belonging and envision themselves on a career path in the field. A key finding from the aforementioned report is that “exposure to undergraduate research experiences remains a predictor of successful outcomes for students of color in STEM.” This project aims to provide an entry point for undergraduate students from Virginia State University to get involved in cutting-edge nuclear physics research by continuing a research traineeship program that mentors students as they work on projects related to science at the new Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB).

Virginia State University (VSU) is a Historically Black University founded in 1882 and located 25 miles south of Richmond, Virginia. The VSU Nuclear Science Laboratory works on detector development and data analysis as a member of the Modular Neutron Array (MoNA) Collaboration which maintains and operates an array of 288 plastic scintillator detectors for experiments at FRIB and the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center. Over the past two years, three VSU students have worked in the Nuclear Science Lab on two projects to (1) develop a new target system for MoNA experiments at FRIB and (2) investigate the application of machine learning techniques to analyzing data from MoNA experiments. Currently, three students are continuing this work. The current project will recruit two student trainees and introduce them to basic principles of nuclear science research including radiation detection and measurement and data analysis techniques. To accomplish this, trainees will be guided through advanced lab exercises dealing with radiation detection, and they will present their results at the VSU Undergraduate Research Symposium. After completing these introductory exercises, trainees will shadow student researchers working on detector development and data analysis projects with the goal of taking over these projects as the senior students graduate. Through establishing and supporting a cohort of student researchers, meaningful research experiences will be provided to help students develop a sense of belonging and envision how they can contribute to nuclear science and broader STEM communities.

Modern efforts to study the atomic nucleus have reached an exciting juncture with the construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). At the heart of this facility is a linear accelerator that will boost long-lived nuclei to high speeds after which they will be directed onto a target where nuclear collisions inside the target atoms will fragment the beam nuclei into lighter, short-lived, exotic nuclei. These reaction products are still moving fast enough to be directed via magnets to any of several different experimental setups in less than a millionth of a second.

The Modular Neutron Array (MoNA) and the Large multi-Institutional Scintillator Array (LISA) will be incorporated into one of the experimental stations. These arrays together consist of 288 bar-shaped plastic scintillator detectors, each measuring 200 centimeters long, 10 centimeters wide, and 10 centimeters high. These detectors are used in experiments to measure a special type of exotic nucleus: neutron-unbound systems. These systems are produced in nuclear reactions between high-speed exotic nuclei produced from the accelerator and nuclei in a second target positioned a few meters from the MoNA/LISA setup. They decay as soon as they’re produced by emitting one or more neutrons, and MoNA/LISA is designed to detect these neutrons. Careful measurements of the neutrons and residual nucleus help scientists reconstruct information about the original, quickly decaying neutron-unbound system. Measuring the properties of various neutron-unbound systems is important for understanding how nuclear properties change and evolve from stable to exotic nuclear systems. This understanding is crucial to building a coherent picture of the dynamic system that is the atomic nucleus.

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