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Research Profile: Falling in love with nuclear physics

November 8, 2021

Nicholas Walton (UNC ’23, CSS 7) is a physics major from Kannapolis, NC. Through his work in the Free Electron Laser Laboratory, he has discovered a love of nuclear physics and motivation to make a career out of research in that field.

Where do you conduct your research?

I am currently working under Dr. Robert Janssens at the Free Electron Laser Laboratory (FELL) in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

What research questions is your lab working to answer?

When you strike an atom with a high energy beam, the nucleus is ‘excited’ to a higher energy state. Shortly after, the atom goes back down to a lower energy state, releasing energy in the form of photons. By analyzing the characteristic energy of the emitted photons, we can find the energy levels of a specific isotope, as well as a bunch of other fascinating information about each energy state. Understanding these states will help astrophysicists filter out unwanted radiation signals sent from high-energy events (e.g. a supernovae explosion).

Can you tell us about your specific research project?

As of right now, I am not working on my own research project, only assisting Dr. Janssens and his graduate students on their own research projects. However, I do hope to begin my own research project next spring. In recent months, I have been working on multiple nuclear resonance fluorescence experiments to find low energy states of high isotopes such as 96Mo and 112Cd. I am also helping Samantha Johnson, a graduate student working with Dr. Janssens, in understanding the phenomena known as shape coexistence of 68Zn.

How has this research experience shaped your future goals?

At the beginning of the year, I wasn’t entirely sure what area of physics that I wanted to pursue. Even when I began working at FELL, I was unsure if nuclear physics was right for me. But, in my few months of working with Dr. Janssens and everyone else at FELL, it has become clear to me that nuclear physics research is what I want to do with my life. The nuclear physics experiments at FELL are exactly what I had in mind when I said I wanted to do physics research, and the knowledge I have gained from my fellow employees is very fascinating to me. However, even now the idea of nuclear physics is incredibly intimidating, but both the experiments we are doing and the amazing people I work with have shown me that there is nothing to be intimidated by. Even when I struggle, I know that there will be people around me who will support me, and make sure I get back on track.

What has been the most interesting or fun part of your research?

My favorite part of my research is hanging out with the graduate students and other physicists when an experiment is running. During an experiment, FELL will be running all day, and two people are needed to watch the laser and make sure nothing goes wrong. I will often take the evening shift (2pm-10pm) about once or twice a week. During these shifts, I have had so many fascinating and personal conversations with graduate students, post-doctorate students, and even doctors. This easily makes taking these shifts to be some of the most fun I have working at FELL.

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