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Physics students, faculty participate in landmark research

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Next Lab
It's not unusual for ACU engineering and physics students to be cited in scientific journals. These students are at work in the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) Lab.

“Surprising Result Shocks Scientists Studying Spin,” the headline from a Brookhaven National Laboratory news release shouted.

What isn’t surprising or shocking is that five people associated with ACU were among the authors of a paper on that scientific finding that was published in the Physical Review Letters, which, according to ACU physics professor Dr. Rusty Towell (’90), is one of the most prestigious journals in the field of physics.

Seeing five names of ACU people, including two students, isn’t surprising to Towell because he has seen it so many times before. It is a hallmark of the the university’s Department of Engineering and Physics. ACU routinely sends undergraduates to the nation’s top laboratories to work alongside graduate students, professors, and the most acclaimed research scientists in the field. That is a rare opportunity for undergraduates – except for ACU undergraduates, who have been doing it for years.

“It’s been something that’s really set us apart for decades,” Towell said.

The five ACU authors were faculty members Towell, Dr. Donald Isenhower (’81), and Dr. Michael Daugherity (’01) and students Cecily Towell, a senior, and Hannah Hamilton, a 2017 graduate. They did more than just write a paper about the findings – they helped with the discovery.

“Our group helped build the detectors used to make this measurement,” Rusty Towell said.

A news release from Brookhaven described the surprising finding using billiard balls to fill in for protons and atomic nuclei. A cue ball spinning counter-clockwise would deflect to the right as it strikes another of the billiard balls. But, if the counter-clockwise spinning cue ball struck a bowling ball instead of a similar-sized billiard ball, it would deflect even more strongly, but to the left.

The Brookhaven news release explained the connection: “That’s similar to the shocking situation scientists found themselves in when analyzing results of spinning protons striking different sized atomic nuclei at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider…” at Brookhaven, one of 10 labs in the country operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

As exciting as it was to see the names of the ACU people on the prestigious paper, it has happened before, numerous times. In 2015, four ACU names were on research related to the discovery of gravitational waves – wrinkles in the very fabric of space-time. The discovery confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and opens an unprecedented new window on the cosmos.

Involved with the discovery were Dr. Josh Willis, associate professor of physics at ACU; Hannah Hamilton, then a senior; Andrew Miller, a 2014 ACU graduate; and Marissa Walker, a 2011 ACU graduate.

Willis explained why the discovery was so significant: “The big announcement is that it’s the first time we’ve seen gravitational waves, but we’re at least as excited about what else we’ll see – how many systems like this are out there, how far away they are, how massive they are, things like that.”

Even though Rusty Towell has seen his name – and other ACU names – in numerous prestigious physics publications, he knows how important it is to the students.

“Nothing sets you apart like having something published with your name on it,” he said.

Towell is an ACU alumnus himself, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1990, so he is doubly proud of the success of the university’s undergraduate physics program. Adding to that pride is that his daughter, Cecily Towell, is one of the students collaborating on the physics projects. Cecily, who is on track to graduate in May, has been working alongside her dad and other ACU folks at national laboratories for several years, something that makes Dad happy.

“It’s been really neat to be able to do that,” Rusty Towell said.

Rusty and his wife, Amy, are the parents of five children. Two of the children who are older than Cecily were either a physics major or minor – Ramsey, Class of 2015, and Marshall, Class of 2016.

Towell and three of his children, Cecily, Ramsey and Marshall, contributed to a paper that was published in 2016.

”While it is always good to get a paper published,” Towell said, “it was a real joy to be able to do that with three of my children.”

Cecily Towell thinks so, too. Having the lab research and contributions to the prestigious papers to add to a resume can only help. The work that Cecily has done during summers at the national labs is tedious, but necessary.

She has worked as a data monitor, working eight-hour shifts with others in the lab. Cecily understands how rare it is for undergraduates to be working alongside graduate students and respected scientists at the national labs. She is proud of her own participation and the respect that her university has earned in the eyes of top researchers who assign the work.

“ACU has quite a reputation,” Cecily said. “They know it will get done and done right.”

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