For this FSU Physics undergrad, particle physics research and a cutting edge teaching experience on the road to a career in patent law

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Austin Skeeters is having the sort of undergraduate experience you’d expect a first-rate physics major to have at one of the leading university physics departments in the southeastern United States.  He is involved in a research experience in which he is helping to design an upgrade for a half billion dollar detector at the world’s leading particle physics facility – the LHC at CERN.  He had an experience as a “learning assistantship” instructor in the department’s studio physics program that transformed his notion of the nature of teaching and learning.

But his career goal may come as a surprise to many:  Patent law.

Austin is using computer simulations to find a new material to replace the Lead Tungstate crystals in the CMS detector.  The present crystals have sustained radiation damage from the experiments that have been run so far – the experiments that identified the Higgs Boson.

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Austin also tried his hand as a learning assistant in the Spring of 2014, an experience in which he learned not to see students as “blank slates that I had to approach like robots to be programmed.”  Instead, Austin realized “that we are all simply people, and in order for either party to benefit, effective communication is a must, regardless of who is ‘in charge’.”  He will serve as a learning assistant again in the Fall of 2014.

Austin’s intended career in patent law isn’t that uncommon.  Another recent FSU Physics grad, Jared Doster, is in law school preparing for the same career.  To qualify for the Patent Bar exam, a candidate must have an undergraduate major in science or engineering field.

And according to the American Institute of Physics, physics majors rank among the leaders on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).  The average score of 162.1 among physics majors is only a smidgen behind the average for math majors (162.2) and is significantly ahead of the 3rd highest major, economics (159.1).

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39.5% of the students taking Florida’s Algebra 1 end-of-course exam this spring were in middle school. If you are one of them, read this.

If you are in middle school and took Algebra 1 this year, then you should be preparing for a career in engineering or the physical sciences, even if you are not sure you want such a career.  

Why?

Because even if you don’t think you want to be an engineer or physical scientist now, you might change your mind later.  And if you’re not prepared, then it will not matter – you will have lost the option.

How do you prepare?  Keep going on the Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – AP Calculus AB sequence.  Don’t let anyone divert you from that.  And make sure you take biology, chemistry and physics in high school.

Maybe you’ll be a novelist, or an actor, or a lawyer, or even a marine biologist.  But at some point you might decide you want to be a computer engineer or even an astrophysicist.  Make sure you can do whatever you want by working hard on math and science.

Undergraduate improves the performance of FSU’s internationally-recognized superconducting linear accelerator facility

If you work really hard, maybe you’ll be able to do something this cool when you’re an undergraduate physics major.

FSU’s internationally-recognized nuclear physics laboratory had a problem:  The lab’s most sensitive measurements were being hindered by slight imperfections in the operations of two devices called a “buncher” and a “chopper”.  These devices manipulate atomic nuclei that are zipping through the John D. Fox Superconducting Linear Accelerator Facility at about 5% of the speed of light.

Undergraduate physics major Drew Blankstein fixed them.

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To fix the buncher, Drew worked with the device’s control software, a commercially-available package called Labview that is widely used in high tech settings.  He built and installed new control circuits for the chopper.  While most engineers specialize in either hardware or software, Drew – in classic physics major form – does both.

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What every university-bound student should take in high school to keep career options open

Summer is the time of year I advise new FSU physics majors about their academic programs for their first semester here and beyond.  It’s a good time to reflect on the advice that I give high school students when I have the opportunity.

Every new student at FSU and the other state university system institutions should be prepared for the full range of majors offered so that she or he can make an informed career decision.  To be prepared to select a major in engineering, physics or meteorology, a student needs the equivalent of the first semester calculus course, Calculus 1, by the time she or he graduates from high school.  The most common way to earn that calculus credit is through the Advanced Placement Calculus AB course.

This is something that students and (more importantly) their parents should be thinking about in middle school.  About one-third of Florida’s K-12 students take Algebra 1 in middle school.  Every one of these students is in a position to take a calculus course by senior year of high school, as long as they stick with the standard math sequence, which is Algebra 1 – Geometry – Algebra 2 – Precalculus – Calculus.  Parents should stay on their kids to keep going on this track.  And if a guidance counselor suggests that the student should not take Calculus because the student earned a “B” in Precalculus (and this happens often), the parent should call the school and demand a seat in a Calculus class, anyway.  If necessary, the parent should call the Principal, Superintendent or Board members.  It’s that important.

Here’s a statistic that parents, counselors and teachers should find shocking but too often do not:  About one-quarter of the engineering and physics majors in my classes did not take a physics course in high school.  For many of these students, that is a fatal omission.  Take physics in high school.  Period.

For more details, take a look at the Future Physicists of Florida page on high school course selection.

Return of the Native: From Orlando to Chapel Hill for a bachelor’s degree in physics, but home to Florida for a Ph.D.

When Danielle Simmons graduated from Orlando’s Edgewater High, she headed to North Carolina’s premier university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to earn her bachelor’s degree in physics.

But when it was time to earn her Ph.D. and begin her research career, she came back to Florida.

simmons3But Danielle’s travels aren’t done yet.  This week, the FSU physics graduate student is heading to China with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Danielle works on the fabrication and characterization of “spintronics” devices.  Danielle explains that spintronics devices “utilize the spin property of electrons similar to the way that electronics use the charge property of electrons.”  She is traveling to China’s Institute of Physics in Beijing to perform measurements of how external pressure, temperature, and magentic field affect the resistance of europium hexaboride, a semicometallic ferromagnetic crystal that is a focus of Danielle’s work.

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