Notre Dame Physics REU program celebrates 35 years

Author: James Gilman

Around 300 undergraduate physics majors from across the country apply to the Physics REU program at the University of Notre Dame every year, hoping for a 5% chance to be selected.

Now in its 35th year, the Notre Dame Physics Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program welcomed 32 students, 15 funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), to campus this summer. The 10-week program is the longest-running continuously funded REU program and aims to provide realistic research experience and opportunities for the next generation of physicists, according to Umesh Garg, director of the Notre Dame REU program and professor in the Department of Physics. 

Joseph Forchetti physics REU
Joseph Forcetti

“The fact that our program has been renewed over and over again for the last 35 years shows how much the NSF values our unique program,” said Garg, who has directed the program since 2000. “We are grateful for their continuous support and for the opportunity to foster a community surrounding physics.”

The REU program emphasizes recruiting students from smaller institutions that lack physics research opportunities. Without such a program, the scientific potential of students from those schools cannot always be fulfilled, according to Badih Assaf, assistant professor in the Department of Physics. The program introduces students to a broad range of physics, and gives students the chance to experience the realities of research. 

The program was recently renewed for another five years.

“Doing scientific research is so unlike what students encounter in their class work: it is messy, with lots of dead ends and sometimes no conclusive answers,” said Chris Howk, professor in the Department of Physics. “It is difficult for students to know if they can really work in that way without doing it, so an REU is an important experience for students.”

Notre Dame faculty and graduate students work to prepare students for success in graduate school and beyond. Along with guiding students through research projects and presentations, the program offers seminars, ethics courses, scientific courses, and graduate school admission workshops. Maxime Brodeur, Ortenzio Family Associate Professor of Applied Medical and Nuclear Physics, considers the REU program to be a pipeline for successful graduate students.

While much of the success of the Notre Dame Physics REU can be attributed to the variety of physics research projects offered, the wide range of provided activities, and the active involvement of faculty, Garg is adamant that the students are critical to the prosperity of the program.

“Our REU students are extremely enthusiastic and impressive. They come here to learn, and in the process, significantly advance our research program and keep the department dynamic,” said Garg. “Many even become co-authors on research papers.”

One such student this summer is Olivia Bruce, a rising junior at Spelman College who works with Brodeur. The pair worked on transporting ions using radio-frequency carpets, research that will likely lead to two publications, according to Brodeur.

“This program has opened my eyes to see that the more you immerse yourself in a project, the more confident you get talking about that topic,” said Olivia. “I now know I want to pursue a career in nuclear physics research.”

Another student, Joseph Forchetti of Wabash College, said that his experience has been very impactful on his future career in physics research.

“I was pretty amazed when I first saw the Nuclear Science Lab and the accelerators and even more amazed when I found out I would be helping on an experiment that used them,” said Joseph. “Anyone studying physics or engineering should absolutely apply to this program as it is a great way to get hands-on research experience and has endless activities that make for a great summer.”