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2012 News Releases

Two physics students take part in prestigious summer research program

September 12, 2012

John Blalock '13 tracked cloud movement over the North Pole during his summer research internship at Hampton University. Above is an example of an image that formed once he processed raw satellite data.
John Blalock '13 tracked cloud movement over the North Pole during his summer research internship at Hampton University. Above is an example of an image that formed once he processed raw satellite data.

Two Longwood University physics students have already gotten a taste of graduate school, and they just started their senior year.

Seniors John Blalock and Liz Bartlett studied in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program funded by the National Science Foundation. REU is a seven-week program that puts students into research roles to prepare and encourage them to pursue graduate degrees. Students receive a stipend for their work.

For John Blalock, the work was on the cutting edge of cloud tracking. Blalock worked at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.

Blalock tracked high atmospheric cloud movement at the North and South poles using satellite data. He worked with raw data downloaded directly from the satellite, which he had to synthesize into a readable form. There was no current program for this operation, so Blalock produced his own computer code. Once pictures of the clouds emerged, Blalock analyzed them for evidence of movement.

Blalock said the skills he has developed studying astrophysics at Longwood-including writing code and solving complex mathematical problems-laid the foundation for success in the REU program.

"Whatever I faced, I knew I could do it ... because I've already done research at Longwood," he said. "REU showed me what graduate school would be like. I know now I want to go to graduate school."

Bartlett '13 was similarly involved in original research. She enrolled in the REU program at the College of William & Mary, and worked directly with the Norfolk, Va., company CIRS, which produces "phantoms," synthetic materials that act like human tissue. Phantoms are used in medical imaging, radiation therapy and procedural training.

When subjected to ultrasound waves, most phantoms can only handle a small range of low-frequency waves. Bartlett's research centered on developing phantoms that could stand up to more high-frequency ultrasound waves. Over the course of her summer program, she created new chemical compounds that more than doubled the ultrasound capacity of phantoms.

"I was able to create a new phantom that responded to ultrasound waves up to 17 megahertz, where all of the previous ones could only be tested between 3 and 7 megahertz. It gives medical professionals more flexibility when running tests," she said.

Bartlett said she definitely wants to go into the medical physics field and plans to pursue a graduate degree in that area.

Bartlett and Blalock will present a research talk this year about their experiences, partly aimed at encouraging other students to participate in the REU program.