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Physics students conduct research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Kansas State

JACKSON, Tenn.Sept. 17, 2012 – Union University physics majors Betsy Olson and Michael Lam spent the summer before their senior year conducting research at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

They each said their experiences directed them toward applications of physics they would be interested in pursuing after graduation.

Physics professors at Union encourage physics majors to earn the required one credit hour of research through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program or through a summer research program at a hospital, said Bill Nettles, department chair and professor of physics.

Nettles said the internships are crucial because through them students often learn what they like or dislike about areas of research and get a sense of what to expect in graduate school.

Lam, a physics and chemistry major with biology and mathematics minors, knows he would like to enter the medical field, but is not yet sure what profession. He said speakers and field trips hosted by the internship program at St. Jude exposed him to career paths he would not have considered otherwise.

"Being in the hospital setting definitely enforced my medical ambitions,” Lam said.

Lam participated in research at St. Jude to determine whether a relatively new cancer radiation treatment — proton therapy — causes any damages to healthy cells. Proton therapy can treat cancer cells with the same effectiveness as conventional radiation — photon therapy — but is more precise at targeting the cancerous cells, killing fewer of the cells surrounding a cancer tumor, he said.

Lam’s job included categorizing and filing thousands of images that showed water diffusion throughout brain tissue of patients who had undergone proton therapy. By looking at the slides Lam could determine whether or not the tissue had been damaged by the therapy. His work contributed to an ongoing research project.

The opportunity to find out if she enjoyed research was Olson's primary motivation for taking her internship at Kansas State in physics education research, a field of study that combines physics, cognitive psychology and learning sciences.

Much of each week involved tracking college students' eyes using an infrared light eye tracker as the students solved physics problems on computer screens. She then examined students' gaze patterns to discover the different ways in which individuals solve physics problems.

Before the internship, other areas of physics research had not intrigued her, mainly because they did not include a teaching element. Her summer research was different. Even though the work was sometimes more tedious than she had anticipated, Olson said she ended the internship knowing she would be happy to work in physics education research.

"God has made me a person for whom the joys of life are enjoyable, but even more enjoyable if I can share them with someone else," Olson said. "I've always wanted other people to see at least a little bit of the beauty of physics that I see."

Olson submitted a paper proposal about her research findings to the National Association for Research in Science Teaching. If it is accepted, she and her colleagues will expand the paper, and she may have an opportunity to present it at the organization's spring conference.

By Samantha Adams (’13)

Media contact: Tim Ellsworth, news@uu.edu, 731-661-5215

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