Beam Me Up, Scotty: My role in Dr. Boyd’s lab
As I have mentioned in an earlier blog, I was allowed to select a project from five options. Essentially I am living out a ‘choose your own adventure’ this summer. The adventure I chose was exploring a ‘fast light’ material called alexandrite.
What is “fast light?”
By claiming alexandrite is a fast light material I am not suggesting that it can make light travel faster than c (the speed of light in a vacuum). What I am saying is that, under proper conditions, it should be able to make the group velocity of light exceed c. More importantly, my research is attempting to demonstrate a negative group velocity. This is known as ‘backwards light.’ Ultimately, the front of a light pulse continues to move at c while the bulk of the light packet appears to travel in the opposite direction. This should be possible using coherent population oscillation.
I know it can be confusing because, honestly, even I don’t quite have it down after these few quick weeks.
At any rate, I am enjoying myself. The first day I actually worked in the lab itself was exciting. I was sitting at the table in the main conference room reading more papers about photon drag (slow and fast light) when Andreas Liapis, one of the grad students in Dr. Boyd’s group, sat in a chair on the opposite end of the table and peered over at the publications. With a coffee cup in his hand and his hair in a ponytail as always he smiled and remarked, “those look familiar.” I assumed he meant he recognized the documents because Dr. Boyd was one of the authors. I looked up at Andreas in the hopes he would clear my confusion. “Mohammad told me I’ll be working on the alexandrite project with you,” he said with his quintessential Greek accent after pausing a moment. “Are you ready to go into the lab?” With cautious excitement I responded “yes” and rose from my seat.
The lab was cold and the optical elements on the table seemed cluttered. Andreas handed me the lab notebook and patiently guided me on the proper procedure for turning on the Argon ion laser with which I would be working. I felt like I was in one of my beloved Nancy Drew computer games as I opened the valves to the water pipes, turned the key on the laser’s controller, and pressed the big round ‘ON’ button with my thumb. I learned which eye protection to wear, and flipped the aperture to ‘OPEN.’
This beautiful blue light (or megalaser as my dad would say) has been both my friend and adversary. For the first two weeks my work was very hands-on. Either Andreas or Mohammad (another grad student who is very involved in my project) would help me – depending on who was in – to adjust and align the experiment. My first big task was to minimize the wobble of the output. I was to accomplish this by painstakingly manipulating the 7 screws in the crystal housing. It was decidedly tedious, but I was able to find joy in it. I think these sorts of tasks often go unnoticed or unappreciated in the research world. However, it is this care that allows for clear results and worthwhile progress. Plus, I find I have a knack for withstanding tiresome activities.
Most of my days involve identifying the issues with the experiment and trying to fix them, which is more time-consuming than it sounds. I also record and analyze data. It makes me wonder about the long-term effects that standing for hours on end will have on my body. My mom has to do this regularly as a pharmacist, and I can finally empathize with her about it.
This past week has been mostly data analysis, modeling predictions, and discussing the effects we expect different variables to have. All of these require much less standing, for which I am grateful.
For the record, I just met Dr. Boyd for the first time on Saturday (6/14/14) at the going-away party for our post doc, Joe Vornehm. Dr. Boyd is wonderful. He is enthusiastic and positive and tries to speak Spanish with me for practice, but he ends up mixing in French, and I always respond in English. Even though he is brilliant, Dr. Boyd (or ‘Bob’ as he is known around the lab) maintains a child-like glee whenever he talks.
I am learning a lot about not just light, but also the research process as a whole. Being in this group is a phenomenal experience. The grad students are so fun and helpful, my fellow undergrads are also excited about the opportunity, and the research is interesting. This REU program is such a gift.