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"Alpha" Physicists Bring Academic Honors Full Circle at 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress

Chris Trennepohl poster
Chris Trennepohl '14 took a $1,000 Outstanding Student Poster Grand Prize from the Optical Society of America Foundation for his poster, "Time-dependent upconversion in Er-Yb doped sol-gel silicate glass."

Four Davidson physics majors had a lot to live up to at the recent 2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress. The congress was co-sponsored by the physics honor society Sigma Pi Sigma, which was founded at Davidson in 1922. In addition, the organization's first-ever Congress was held on the Davidson campus in 1928.

As representatives of the organization's historic Alpha chapter, the Davidson contingent wanted to shine-and did!

The Davidson students got involved even before the congress began, and played important roles throughout the event. Jessie Barrick '14, Ashley Finger '14, Jacob Simmonds '15 and Chris Trennepohl '14 helped plan and organize the congress, and prepared and presented an introduction for a world-renowned astrophysicist. They also served as Society of Physics Students reporters for a story about a leading exoplanet research pioneer, presented a service-outreach poster about their work with local middle school students, and brought home a research poster grand prize!

The 2012 Congress, known as "PhysCon," was billed as "the largest gathering of undergraduate physicists the world has ever known," and featured a theme of astronomy and astrophysics. The roster of physics luminaries included Nobel and Templeton prize winners, an astronaut, a distinguished quantum field theorist, NASA astrophysicists, a senior accelerator/collider scientist, a pulsar pioneer, and UCLA Professor of Physics David Saltzberg - physics consultant for CBS's popular science-centric sitcom The Big Bang Theory.

Davidson's Chris Trennepohl '14 of Monticello, Ind., presented a poster titled "Time-dependent upconversion in Er-Yb doped sol-gel silicate glass," detailing his physics research with Professor of Physics Dan Boye and others. From among more than 200 posters submitted, Trennepohl's work took one of five Outstanding Student Poster Grand Prize awards sponsored by the Optical Society of America Foundation. Trennepohl said his jaw dropped when his name was called, and again when he opened the envelope and saw the award amount-$1,000!

Trennepohl credits his high school physics teacher with instilling his love of physics, and Davidson's Boye with solid mentorship from Trennepohl's earliest days in his labs at the Baker-Watts Science Complex.

"He'd stay there with me to make sure I didn't burn down the building with the laser!" said Trennepohl.

Jessie Barrick '14 of Hillsborough, N.C. was elected last summer to the post of associate zone councilor for the National Society of Physics Students, a co-sponsor of PhysCon. She helped plan and organize the congress and introduced guest speaker Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist who discovered the first radio pulsars. Bell Burnell is a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Barrick said she fell in love with physics in her first-year physics class with Boye.

"Everything you learn in intro is applicable to something in real life, even things you would never think to wonder why," she said. "You learn why inclined planes make it easier to get a heavy box into a truck. When you understand torques, you understand why it's easier to open a door by pushing on the edge farthest from the hinge."
(l-r) Jacob Simmonds '15, Ashley Finger'14, Chris Trennepohl '14 and Jessie Barrick '14 flank astronomist John Johnson of Caltech (center), who was their subject for special reporting at PhysCon.

PhysCon group
(l-r) Jacob Simmonds '15, Ashley Finger'14, Chris Trennepohl '14 and Jessie Barrick '14 flank astronomist John Johnson of Caltech (center), who was their subject for special reporting at PhysCon.

Such seemingly simple principles of physics are staples for many Davidson physics students who are involved with educational outreach through the Society of Physics Students chapter and the student organization Davidson Students Volunteer for Science. At PhysCon, Ashley Finger '14 of Long Island, N.Y. and Jacob Simmonds '15, a New Zealander who grew up in the United Arab Emirates and Chile, co-presented a poster about sharing physics through astronomy outreach events and Davidson's middle-school math and science outreach program MOSAIC (originality, science, achievement, imagination and creativity).

Simmonds, a physics major whose father is a hydro-engineer in Santiago, is on a "3-2" track for dual bachelor's degrees in physics from Davidson and engineering from a university to be decided. Simmonds said the hands-on, collaborative focus of Davidson's physics program is good preparation for his trajectory toward a career in aerospace engineering. PhysCon bolstered that collaborative spirit, too, by adding strong professional and business sessions, he said.

"When you actually see physically what you could be doing (in a physics-based career), instead of just reading about it, that's cool," he said. "And the conference gave me more insight into how to get there and what to expect."

Finger said the conference gave her a renewed appreciation for access to professors like Boye and Professor of Physics Mario Belloni, who is advisor to the Society of Physics Students' Davidson chapter and accompanied the Davidson team to PhysCon.

"I'm in professors' offices constantly, whether it's to get help or just to talk," she said.

As a group, the Davidson students applied for the honor of being PhysCon reporters for the Society of Physics Students. They received the assignment of reporting on John Johnson, an assistant professor of astronomy at Caltech whose research is in the detection and characterization of exoplanets. His work, specifically with gas giants, has been featured in popular science magazines like New Scientist and Sky & Telescope.

The trip to PhysCon was just one recent notable element of a vibrant and growing astronomy and astrophysics presence at Davidson. For instance, the astronomy course is currently offered as a laboratory science, which provides broader and deeper resources for student experimentation to study light, gravity and even astrophotography. Belloni has written two papers on the topic of astronomy as a laboratory course for The Physics Teacher magazine, and one of his photos of last summer's transit of Venus across the face of the sun was chosen to grace a recent cover of that publication.

This month, students will be following the progress of Tom Marshburn '82, an astronaut who has visited campus several times and who is scheduled to depart Russia on Dec. 19 for six months on the International Space Station.

Sam Castle '14 has spent the fall semester studying those familiar flashes of light that streak across the night sky-meteors! Read "Sam Castle '14 Goes Shooting Star-gazing with NASA."

Finally, soon after PhysCon, the Physics Department reported that John Mather will be Davidson's spring 2014 Smith Lecturer. Mather, a 2006 Nobel Prize winner for his work on cosmic microwave background radiation, spoke at PhysCon and posed for a picture with the Davidson students there. He is senior project scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope and senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.