The final results of research in any field are usually presented in the form of a cut-and-dry, matter-of-fact manuscript published in a scientific journal.  This gives an air of finality which belies the fact that the research process takes place largely in a gray area of following hunches, reevaluating assumptions, and not being certain what the data will show.  My experience as a University Honors Summer Scholar opened my eyes to the challenges involved in conducting research.

            The brain is complicated.  At the beginning of the summer, I thought that I had a pretty good understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in stress regulation.  But after powering through my reading list of 45 articles, I realized that I had barely scratched the surface.  Conducting research requires substantial background knowledge of a diverse web of phenomena and how they relate to one another.  As I enhanced my knowledge base, I found it necessary to research many more topics in order to thoroughly understand my project.

            Another major challenge was the enormous amount of time required to collect the self-report, , and physiological data from each participant.  Data collection alone consumed five to eight person-hours per participant – that is, when a main experimenter, a camera operator, and a participant could all make it to the lab at once.  Many more person-hours were spent waiting for participants to arrive, which taught me another important lesson:  always bring a book.Neuropsychology

            Working on this project also taught me that it is harder than it looks to get a group of about 30 people – mostly undergraduate students – to stay organized and on-task.  Dr. Bridgett’s laboratory analyzes a very large amount of data from each participant, and individual research assistants are responsible for each step in the process of collecting, organizing, and interpreting that data.  This means that everyone involved must be on the same page, whether that page is using the same code to enter questionnaire data into the computer or inputting all leftover data by a certain deadline.  Confusion about these expectations typically meant that my weekend would involve a lot of entering, correcting, or tracking down data.

            These challenges would have been far more stressful without the help of my faculty mentors, Dr. David Bridgett and Dr. Angela Grippo.  Their experience with similar hindrances allowed them to guide me as smoothly as possible through the research process.  I have also been able to share with them the experience of finding significant results.  For instance, it was exciting to discover with Dr. Bridgett that the laboratory’s new physiological equipment was working properly and that our measurement of cumulative stress was producing the expected results.  Although my main hypotheses have not yet been confirmed, I have found some interesting results that I hope to present at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science this summer.



Overcoming Challenges

By far the most challenging portion of my research centered on the troubleshooting of the straw tube tension test. Before delving into the difficulties in running this portion of the experiment, along with the techniques that I eventually used to overcome these hardships, it is best that I share some of the physics background regarding what exactly I was trying to accomplish.PastedGraphic-5

Technical details aside, the primary purpose of this portion of my research was to design a non-contact setup that would register the tension in one of the straw tubes used in the muon g-2 drift chamber. Considering that the tension could not be measured by a simple force meter once the straws were glued into a place, a process was devised in which a straw was made to vibrate inside of a magnetic field with a loudspeaker and the resulting generated EMF signal digitized by an oscilloscope, thus providing the necessary information to measure the tension.

While the aforementioned process seemed pretty simple on paper, things began to break down during the phase of data collection (i.e. I wasn’t getting a noticeable signal). This issue was fairly serious considering that without any worthwhile data, I would effectively have nothing to show for my entire summer of research.  Increasing the gravity of the issue, the lack of signal from my electrical circuit made diagnosing the problem even more troublesome (dead circuit aside, the possible causes for error were many).  Finally, making the task seemingly impossible, the lack of a lab manual or previous research to cross-check my setup made things all the more difficult.

Now, considering that this is a blog entry and not a short novel on my many failed attempts to getting my experiment to work, I will skip over the trial and error portion of this story and state that I eventually got the signal and data that I was looking for. None of this, however, would have been possible without the trouble shooting lessons that I picked up along the way.

First, and foremost, speaking to my peers and seeking help from my adviser were instrumental in diagnosing the problem. Although I used to think that working alone was something to be lauded, I quickly learned that in the laboratory setting it is very ineffective.  Receiving a different outlook on a problem can be very rewarding even if it doesn’t yield an answer right away as it helps to mitigate the tunnel vision effect that can occur when working alone.PastedGraphic-3

The next troubleshooting practice was more of a lesson in hindsight, but nevertheless a good practice when performing an experiment. When going through the possible causes of your problem it is always helpful to have duplicate parts to check for component malfunctions. As it turned out, the one part of my setup that I did not have a duplicate of (a signal amplifier) had burned an internal battery and was not working properly. Had I acted with a bit more diligence and built my own amplifier (I had the spare parts to do so), as opposed to relying on the fact that the amplifier was working before, the defect in my setup would have been diagnosed much quicker.

Finally, this ordeal further convinced me to the importance of taking proper lab notes. Maintaining a good record of one’s procedure is not only a good organizational tool to conducting an experiment, but also an excellent method of giving insight to other contributing members of the project.

My Connection to the Muon g-2 Experiment

photoAs a student pursuing a degree in physics, the decision to involve myself in the Muon g-2 Experiment was driven by several key factors. Among these components that connected me to my research, the aspiration of attending graduate school was definitely a motivating factor. Given that a certain level of research experience is required to even be considered as a suitable candidate for an RA position, it was almost an obligation, rather than a choice, that I would seek to obtain some form of undergraduate research. In this sense, the invaluable opportunity provided to me by the Summer Scholars in the g-2 Experiment was a chance I could simply not pass up on as it would serve as an excellent introduction to the world of particle physics and allow me to increase my odds of becoming a future research candidate.g-2A (2)

Another reason why the g-2 project caught my eye was because of its connection to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Having lived in Kane County for the majority of my life, I had always been drawn to the allure of Fermilab due to its reputation as one of the leading particle physics research facilities in United States. Having gone on tours of the Tevatron (particle accelerator) and attended Saturday Morning Physics seminars as a high school student, I had long held the fantasy of one day walking through the revolving doors of Wilson Hall not as a visitor, but as a collaborating physicist. Thus, by committing myself to the Muon g-2 Experiment I understood that I would be one step closer to someday achieving this goal.

Finally, and perhaps the fundamental connection to why I chose to work on the g-2 project, was my desire to finally test my physics knowledge that I had gained in the classroom and apply it to real world situations. Although my laboratory classes at NIU had given me a glimpse of what research might be like, I had always wondered as to how things would change when dealing with experiments that were at the leading edge of scientific discovery. The Muon g-2 Experiment will grant me the unique opportunity to test this knowledge and gain even more insight from highly qualified scientists and professors. I can only hope to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity as I am positive that it will shape the outcome of my future career.