Researchers dream about projects that go perfectly – protocols that work on the first attempt, equipment that doesn’t break, and results that are statistically significant. The project that Felix Cormier, Marcel Georgin, Stephen Koelbl, and Robert Oda undertook was not this kind of project. Fraught with dangers including explosions and radiation, full of soldering, and immensely frustrating, this gamma ray detector certainly did not put itself together.
On the bright side, they did get a peer-reviewed paper in the McGill Science Undergraduate Research Journal (MSURJ) out of it.
The gamma ray detector they built was based on earlier designs used in Professor David Hanna’s lab. Their design, though, was slightly different. Previously, the detector they used was shaped like an octagon – a symmetrical shape along two axes. The problem, Georgin notes, is that “your gamma ray is going through two faces if you have something that is symmetrical, right.” This symmetry can make it difficult to find the actual location of a source of radiation. The octagon was previously chosen to balance two needs: the need to have as many faces as possible and to keep substantial angles between the faces to allow the radiation to deflect well. A post-doc had designed a new circuit for a photodetector that mimicked a commercially-available circuit board. After the group had built the first one, they acknowledged that “if we need to build six more of these, it’s going to take us until the end of forever.” After that, they worked their way around the problem, simplifying the circuit so there was only one amplifier. While the circuit was simpler, the design still made more than enough trouble.
As with any research, mastering the techniques required for the work was a challenge. When asked if they got frustrated during the construction, Cormier quipped, “Every step of the way.” The construction was very involved and required soldering a lot of small electronic devices. “And we did all the soldering ourselves,” Cormier mentioned. “It took a long time,” he added. Their project involved a lot of soldering “particularly because you are doing the soldering yourself-” “and you don’t know how to solder,” Oda concluded. If the technical challenges weren’t enough, the safety concerns added another layer of difficulty to the project. During the interview, Oda asked, “Didn’t we blow a resister at some point?” Georgin replied: “Oh yeah, that was me. We were trying to take data, and one of the data acquisition stopped working.” One of their scalers – a device that counts the number of photons that hit the gamma ray detector from a given side – had ceased function. This part is crucial. Georgin recounted, “I’m in there with a voltmeter […] and all of a sudden – phwhoosh – explosion, I blew one of the capacitors because the voltmeter tips are metal, and I shorted the capacitor.” “Quite violent,” Oda added. Additionally, the use of radiation increased the level of risk involved, but, as Georgin noted, “we weren’t really – it wasn’t that bad.” “If it was actually serious we wouldn’t be joking about it,” Cormier added.
Ensuring that their work was fully documented presented one final challenge. In total, their report required about 60 pages; Oda noted that Koelbl essentially wrote “a novel of a MATLAB script.” However, their struggles certainly paid off. While the initial stages of the project were exceptionally difficult, their results were exactly what they expected. Oda had run simulations with a computer that could model particle physics experiments to determine what they should be observing with their real-life detector. The simulations lined up beautifully with their actual results. The group was just happy to get data and see their source of radiation, but they could also determine where the source was – as long as the source was relatively close.
Now that the project is done, the group is beginning to consider their futures. Oda is planning on taking a year off and applying to medical school, and Georgin and Cormier plan to go to graduate school. However, all of the authors agreed that their research was a valuable part of their undergraduate experience. “It’s nice that we were given the opportunity to have a research experience,” Cormier said. Oda agreed, saying “in the summer, I did a research project in a med lab, and now I love research.” When asked about advice for aspiring undergraduate researchers, the group agreed that pushing past any discomfort or uncertainty. “Don’t be afraid of trying things you aren’t sure you are ready for,” Cormier noted. “And you can get so much help from people.” They especially noted that their supervisor, the grad students, and the post-docs in their lab were essential to their success. “They want to see you succeed,” Georgin added. While getting a first research experience can be difficult, it clearly can pay off. “It’s not the actual research that matters,” Oda noted, citing problem-solving and teamwork and essential skills that can be developed by research. “And it’s really awesome when you get good results.”
With files from Blair Jia.
Read the original article here*.
*The link to the original paper will be provided as soon as the journal is uploaded to msurj.mcgill.ca.