Westmont Magazine His Research is Out of this World
What’s the best way to get students interested in science? Physicist Warren Rogers believes he knows the answer: involve them in meaningful experiments with real scientists. Westmont students have participated in his research since he joined the physics faculty in 1994.
For the past 11 years, Rogers has also organized the Conference Experience for Undergraduates at the annual meeting of the Division of Nuclear Physics of the American Physical Society. About 110 students from across the country will attend the event this year, presenting their work, talking to representatives from graduate schools and meeting the larger professional community. Most of the Westmont students who participated in past conferences have gone on to pursue graduate work. “It’s helpful for students interested in careers in physics to have this kind of capstone conference experience,” Rogers says.
In January 2007, Rogers became interim academic dean after Provost Shirley Mullen left Westmont to become president of Houghton College. While his administra- tive duties don’t leave time for teaching, he continues his scholarly work with the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University on a project funded by the National Science Foundation.
Faculty and students from 10 colleges and universities work with the Modular Neutron Array (MoNA) at NSCL, which has its own You Tube video (“MoNA: user- focused rare isotope research at NSCL”). Rogers appears in the eight-minute segment, explaining the nature of the research and the focus on student participation.
Eight of the 10 institutions enroll mostly undergraduates, and the project seeks to involve students in the kind of basic research usually reserved for graduate school. In 2002, students built the individual MoNA detectors at their various institutions and traveled to Michigan State to assemble the array. The instrument detects neutrons, the neutral particles in the core of atoms, measuring both the speed and direction that result from the interaction of a rare isotope and the target. Scientists then have the opportunity to observe how nuclei behave in extreme conditions such as those that occur during supernovae or other astrophysical explosions.
Not only did Westmont students help build MoNA, but they also constructed the Westmont College Cosmic Muon Detector Array (CMDA), using MoNA as a model. After developing, testing and calibrating the array, they continue to use it for research, tracking the flux of cosmic muons over a wide range of the sky. Muons are particles produced in Earth’s upper atmosphere through the interaction of high- energy cosmic rays and nuclei in the air.
“As far as we know, the CMDA repre- sents the first wide-angle camera designed specifically to study muon flux distributions throughout the sky,” Rogers says. “It also forms an excellent training ground for students preparing to work with MoNA.”
Each summer, Westmont students return for several intensive weeks at Michigan State conducting experiments and analyzing data. Rogers himself spent two weeks at NCSL this summer. Back at their home campuses, students continue to collaborate thanks to the Internet and the ability to participate in teleconferences.
“Studying neutrons and muons constitutes basic research that helps us understand the abundance of elements in the solar system,” Rogers says. The work may have practical applications as well; medical resonance imaging (MRI) grew out of similar experiments. Also, Homeland Security could use arrays similar to MoNA to scan shipping containers and trucks coming into the country for explosives and radioactive materials.
Stepping into an administrative role for a few years has given Rogers a new perspective on Westmont. He continues to work with his faculty colleagues, but he supports them in a different way, seeking to equip and empower them to do their best. The highlight for him has been spending time with President Gayle Beebe and his executive team. “I’ve learned how to help programs function well by being a good steward of the college’s resources,” he says.