University of Wisconsin-Madison

A summer of Antarctic research at UWRF

The Physics Department of UW–River Falls hosts summer internships for young college students that allow them to engage in IceCube and other polar science projects. Over the 10-week internship, they become a member of the team, where they learn to program and to tackle challenging scientific questions. And, as you will read here, they also get a chance to share their experience.

Undergraduate students enrolled at several UWRF summer programs during a Saint Paul Saints game. Image: James MAdsen/UW-River Falls.
Undergraduate students enrolled at several UWRF summer programs during a Saint Paul Saints game. Image: James MAdsen/UW-River Falls.

Joe Wagner:

I was born in Edina, Minnesota, to parents who were key in fostering my curiosity about the world. After three years of classes at UW–Madison learning to become a mechanical engineer, I came to realize that it was the wrong field for me. Engineers ask “how?” I always asked “why?”
Later on, I heard about the physics program at UW–River Falls and decided to transfer to UWRF for a major in applied physics. Dr. James Madsen introduced me to IceCube during a tour of the department and I expressed my interest in working with his team during the summer, even though I was certain I would be in over my head.
And I was, at first. My project involved revamping an instrument designed to identify subatomic particles known as muons. Getting the so-called muontaggers working again, with my novice computer programming and nonexistent electronics knowledge, was a real learning experience. We realized quickly that it would be easier to modernize and update the taggers rather than fix the 10-year-old setup.
I was put in charge of everything involved in the update, including replacing the microcomputer, porting the old program to work with the new hardware, and soldering and installing new LED connections while making sure not to fry any sensitive electronics. Throughout this process, I became very familiar with Linux directories, the C programming language, basic circuits, and serial communication.
Joe and Justin taking a break during a working day at UWRF. Image: James MAdsen/UW-River Falls.
Joe and Justin taking a break during a working day at UWRF. Image: James MAdsen/UW-River Falls.
The plan is to complete two taggers and test them this January at the South Pole. And I will be accompanying Dr. Madsen down to Antarctica to perform this test, something I am extremely excited about.
The next two years will be spent finishing my degree, after which the plan is graduate school. For what, I’m not sure. What I do know is that this internship has shown me that research could very well be where I end up. It helped in developing independent learning and study skills, and it required an internal drive different from any other job I’ve had. As for future opportunities with the IceCube Collaboration, sign me up!

Justin Diercks:

I grew up just over the border from River Falls in Red Wing, Minnesota. I graduated in 2009 from UWRF with a B.S. in psychology and went on to work in criminal investigations for several years. But I decided to return and pursue my passion. And here I am, currently triple majoring in applied physics, computer science, and aerospace engineering and mechanics.
I first got introduced to the IceCube internship while taking scientific programming with Dr. Seunarine last fall. I had a burgeoning interest in astroparticle physics previously, so the opportunity to apply was too good to pass up!
I've been working on the proposed layouts for an IceCube extension and exploring how well we can reconstruct events, specifically, isolating high-energy cascades. It's been a very code heavy project, and there have been a few hiccups while working with the simulations. But things have come together nicely.
I worked on this project on my own, although all UWRF interns were available to help bounce ideas off for our various projects. The breadth of our diverse backgrounds really lent some great insight to each of our challenges.
As far as what's next? Realistically, I'm not sure. I know I want to look into some sort of industry internship in the future to help me better chart my future, but that doesn't preclude future work with the collaboration!

Samantha Pedeck:

Nestled in the cornfields and dairy farms of southwest Wisconsin lies the tiny town of Muscoda. After spending the majority of my life there, I decided to move north in the fall of 2014 so I could attend UW–River Falls to major in physics. Within the first few weeks of the semester, I learned about IceCube and that River Falls has undergraduate students doing research.
After hearing other students share their experiences, I began to really entertain the idea of applying for the internship. At the time, I had Dr. Suruj Seunarine for introductory physics, and knowing that he was involved in the project, I expressed my interest.
Samanth Pedeck and Rober Zill working with cDOMs at UWRF. Image: Kathy M Helgeson/UW-River Falls.
Samanth Pedeck and Rober Zill working with cDOMs at UWRF. Image: Kathy M Helgeson/UW-River Falls.
This summer, I have spent ten weeks working on different properties of the 12 LEDs in a cDOM. A cDOM is just like a regular DOM within IceCube, but it has four types of differing wavelength LEDs. I worked closely with Robert Zill, an undergraduate student from the College of DuPage, on this project. Under the guidance of Dr. Lowell McCann, Robert and I found the peak intensity and the angular distribution profile of the LEDs in the cDOM. We ran into a few issues with the sensitivity of our spectrometers, but we eventually found a way to manually calibrate one of the spectrometers through a long and tedious process. Because I have only one year of college under my belt, specifically only one year of physics, I had a lot to learn. I learned not only how to use the optical equipment, but also how the research environment works in general. It has been wonderful working with people from all over with different backgrounds. Even though my colleagues are working on separate projects, everyone expressed interest in each other’s work.
In the future, I plan to continue studies on the cDOM LEDs. After that, I will hopefully start a new project, preferably one that has more computer programming involved so I can develop those skills. I have had an amazing experience and I look forward to continuing to work with IceCube.
Nick Kulacz, right, with Nick Jensen and Jim Madsen learning about IceCube with the new LED display. Image: Kathy M Helgeson/UW-River Falls.
Nick Kulacz, right, with Nick Jensen and Jim Madsen learning about IceCube with the new LED display. Image: Kathy M Helgeson/UW-River Falls.

Nick Kulacz:

I grew up in Menomonie, Wisconsin, and I am going to be a junior in physics at UW–River Falls. This summer has been a wonderful experience and a great motivation to continue down the path I've chosen.
During my internship, I have been working on a project inspired by a specific event in IceCube, where a long track of light had come out of what appeared to be a neutrino event. I have been running simulations and doing work to find out the possibility of it being a high-energy muon. By learning how to simulate neutrino interactions in ice, I also have gained a better handle on particle physics and what the IceCube detector is capable of.
I worked on this project alone, but I should also say that without all the help from fellow researchers and mentors, I would have not been able to get to where I am now. Being able to freely talk about various projects amongst ourselves may have been one of the most fulfilling experiences I've had this summer.
As for where I will be going from here, I will definitely still be pursuing a degree here for physics and hopefully go to graduate school for particle physics. As for this summer's research, I will be simulating more interactions to better understand the processes that go into neutrino interactions and hopefully I will be able to really flesh out the results of my original project.

The internship hosted two more UWRF students, working on a neutron monitor project to study solar storms in Antarctica. These six students worked in collaboration with six other students from several universities in the Midwest enrolled in a Research Experiences for Undergraduate (REU) program. Jim Madsen and Suruj Seunarine, both physics faculty at UW–River Falls and members of the IceCube Collaboration, lead these internships programs.