Sutherland conducts undergraduate research at Harvard

Robert SutherlandRobert Sutherland, a junior in COSAM who is majoring in physics, spent the summer at Harvard University’s Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory conducting undergraduate research with experts in the field of X-ray astronomy. The program was an internship where Sutherland worked under the guidance of Randal Smith, an astrophysicist in the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the observatory.

A highly competitive program, Sutherland capitalized on the opportunity to hone his research skills and make new connections in a field where he hopes to build a career.

“It was an internship doing exactly what I want to do for the rest of my life at one of the most prestigious places I can possibly

do it,” Sutherland said. “While I was there, I was doing analysis on an electron-cooling function. I was trying to determine which elements are most important to the cooling function and how we can go about improving the atomic data that goes into the cooling function...which boils down to a bunch of physics words that most non-physicists have no reason to understand.”

While the research might be beyond the realm of the average person’s understanding, it is clear that Sutherland has made the most of his time while an undergraduate student at Auburn. For the last two years, he has worked closely with Stuart Loch and Connor Balance, both faculty members in the Department of Physics, receiving hands- on research experience. It was Loch who encouraged Sutherland to apply for the internship.

“He originally worked on some joint projects with me, Connor, and the plasma physics group here at Auburn. His main project was to predict the light given off from a high temperature plasma experiment called the compact toroidal hybrid device,” said Loch. “He did a very nice piece of work on this, which is our first attempt to model the atomic physics of this experiment. Robert’s work provided a very useful link between the atomic and plasma groups at Auburn.”

Sutherland was also involved in the design and implementation of a new computational physics course taught by Connor Balance for the first time last fall. The course aims to give students the programming skills they need to solve physics problems using a computer.

“Robert also took the computational physics course, which allowed us to give him a project where he had to do more fundamental programming,” said Loch. “He moved on to work on a project modeling supernova remnant plasmas. Supernovae are exploding stars and turn out to be very useful objects to help us understand what is happening to the universe. The supernova project is a very exciting project that he is doing jointly with two other undergraduates, Taylor Hall and James Schloss. They are writing their own computer codes to model what happens to the atoms in the plasma just after the supernova explodes and the shock wave hits them. During the research that we have done with Robert, we have found that he asks excellent questions, he is very interested in understanding the bigger picture of the project, and he shows a lot of initiative.”

Following graduation, Sutherland hopes to attend graduate school.

“I’m not really sure what grad school yet. As of right now, my plan is to go to the best place that will take me, but I plan on making that more specific in the near future. After grad school, I would like to be a professor and do physics research,” Sutherland said.

For more information on the Atomic Physics Group at Auburn, visit research/atomic.htm.