Undergraduate Research: Physics Helps Protect the World

Lena Korkeila
Lena Korkeila holds a jar containing gadolinium sulfate.

Lena Korkeila, a UC Davis undergraduate from Placerville, California, is gaining real-world experience through physics research while helping to improve monitoring of nuclear reactors.

As an undergraduate research assistant for the UC Davis Neutrino Group, Korkeila is testing different plastics and metals that will be used to build the WATCHMAN (WATer CHerenkov Monitor for Anti-Neutrinos) detector. The UC Davis Neutrino Group, led by physics professor Bob Svoboda, is part of an international collaboration working on WATCHMAN. The main purpose of WATCHMAN is to develop technology and data analysis techniques to demonstrate the ability to monitor nuclear reactors from a distance as part of nuclear non-proliferation treaties. 

Hands-on Experience Outside the Classroom

The WATCHMAN neutrino detector will hold 3.5 kilotons of water and gadolinium sulfate. Korkeila’s research helps to ensure the materials used to build the detector are compatible with the gadolinium, and won’t contaminate the gadolinium and water. She is proud to be a part of an experiment that pushes the boundaries and knowledge of particle physics. “It really opens your eyes to the possibility in the field,” she said.

For Korkeila, a third-year physics major, her hands-on experience in Svoboda’s lab has helped her gain insight into whether she wants to pursue this work in the future. “It really confirmed for me that I was in the right place in physics. It’s easy to lose sight of what you're actually doing when you're just taking midterms all the time,” she said.

Identifying your interests is one of the most valuable outcomes of doing research as an undergraduate, said Svoboda, who works with a large number of undergraduate research assistants each year. “Professors and graduate students can play a key role in helping students explore their career interests throughout their time at UC Davis,” he said.

Finding Your Path

Korkeila said the opportunity to be part of new research opportunities is an exciting aspect of her undergraduate experience at UC Davis. "I felt really fortunate to end up here, where I have access to all these amazing experiences and opportunities,” she said.

Tejas Sharath
Tejas Sharath

Tejas Sharath, a fourth-year physics student, also works as a research assistant with the Neutrino Group and plans to pursue a graduate degree in physics. Not only does he find research fun, Sharath also said the work has helped him get accepted into graduate schools. “Undergraduate research is helping me get there by allowing me to network with people in the field, as well as giving me experience,” he said.

Sharath encourages all students to try research, regardless of their experience level and especially if they want to attend graduate school and pursue a career in research. Research may seem intimidating, but students only need to be willing to put in the effort and reach out to professors and graduate students to learn more about the opportunities that are available, he said.

“The easiest way to get started is to talk to a teacher or anyone whose research seems interesting to you,” Sharath said. “Most professors are welcoming to people who are interested in their work.”

— Jeanette Yue, undergraduate intern in communication and marketing in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science