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  • Four Evansville students take research to hands-on, higher levels at radiation center

    Gina Duwe, Janesville Gazette staff

    EVANSVILLE-Ask these four Evansville students about projects they just completed using high-tech equipment at a UW-Madison lab and you might need to brush off your high school-or college-science books.

    "I looked at how the energy edges relate to nuclear charge," senior Laura Stamm said.

    "(I studied) the calibration of the machine to see if it was reading things accurately compared to the standards on a Web site," recent grad Elise Larson said.

    "I found the edges of three elements-boron, carbon and oxygen," senior Laura Alt said.

    "My project focused on different photo absorption levels," recent grad Carly Andrew said.

    As high school students, the young women got the rare opportunity of conducting research at the university's Synchrotron Radiation Center near Stoughton and presenting their findings to scientists from around the world.

    Their teacher, Rick Cole, first started taking students to the center a few years ago. They were the "guinea pigs" when the university wanted to start an outreach program for advanced high school and undergraduate college students.

    Cole used to work at the center, designing and building the equipment on which his students ended up working. Now he takes a small group of students each spring from his advanced placement science courses and other advanced students interested in the research.

    "It gives them something to do when you get to the end of the trail with all the science courses," Cole said.

    The project starts with a trip to the Synchrotron Radiation Center to explain the technology, which allows researchers to use light as a tool. At the lab, light is produced by hurtling electrons at near the speed of light around a circular track, according to its Web site.

    The students used the synchrotron as a giant light bulb to produce light in ultraviolet and soft X-rays, Cole said. Each student designed her own experiment and was able to run test scans remotely from computers in Evansville.

    "It's usually something that college students see in their junior year," Stamm said. "It's a unique opportunity to see how a synchrotron works and how you can run experiments from your home."

    A basic love for science and a chance to use the skills learned through all her courses attracted Andrew to the project.

    "You know everything you do, you're in charge of," said Andrew, who plans to major in anthropology at UW-Madison in fall. "You choose what you want to do. This isn't for a grade; it's for your own benefit. It's a great chance to take everything we've learned and truly apply it to something."

    Then came presenting their findings.

    "We stuck them up in a conference room, invited all the staff and visiting scientists to come and see what they learned," Cole said. "They were all nervous as could be."

    The experience was "very nerve-racking," Alt said, but she learned a lot during her conversations with them.

    It was Larson's second year working at the lab, which made things easier.

    "I understood more of what was going on. Still, they (the scientists) know what's going on, and they're just testing you to see how much you understand," she said.

    The connections Larson made with people at the lab will benefit her as she begins her study of astrophysics at UW-Madison in the fall. She plans to do job shadowing at the lab this summer.

    Andrew recommends the project to students willing to do the work and extra effort.

    "It's such a phenomenal place to be able to go," she said.

    Reprinted with permission from the Janesville Gazette.
    Copyright, the Janesville Gazette (2007).
    To see the story at the paper's website, go to