BYU-Idaho physics students benefit from collaborative relationship with INL

August 1, 2013

Writer: Spencer Allen

Evan Hansen, a faculty member in the Department of Physics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, was preparing for an upcoming semester teaching computational physics when a surprising source reached out to help: Dr. Michael Tonks, a computational nuclear engineer at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL). Tonks offered his expertise and that of his colleagues as a resource for helping students learn about specific computational techniques they would focus on in the class. 

Wanting his students to appreciate and understand how professionals go about their work, Hansen accepted the invitation. Although the initial plan was to simply learn by observation and discussion, Hansen and his students received much more than they bargained for. 

At first, the students were assigned to study the research publications of scientists at the INL. As the group progressed in their research, another INL scientist, Derek Gaston, came to speak to the students and the department. Shortly afterward, his visit raised student interest and excitement around the INL computational work. 

Not long after the seminar, Dr. Tonks invited the group to tour the INL and set up an opportunity for class members to hear seminars from and to speak with some of the top scientists in computational nuclear engineering in the country as well as see INL supercomputing facilities. 

Shortly after the group of students visited INL, Aaron Butterfield, a senior studying physics, received an offer to intern with the organization. During his internship, he worked closely with Tonks. The duo worked on ways to improve the efficiency of nuclear fuels. At the end of his internship and with the aid of Tonks, Aaron's work deduced that some standard assumptions of how nuclear fuel and its materials age are wrong. As Butterfield was finishing his summer work, Tonks surprised him with a continuing position at INL.

"This was a huge boost for us in the department," said Hansen. "You're always hopeful that someone will be land an internship. But to have guys not only get internships, but to really impress these incredibly successful scientists, is huge."

The following year, the department experienced another wave of encouragement as two students from the next computational physics class landed internships at INL. Joe Carmack, now a recent graduate, added to the computational work BYU-Idaho students are doing at INL while physics senior, Derek Anderson's experimental work is poised to forge new links between computational and experimental work there. 

"Joe's work with molecular dynamics as well as Aaron's internship the previous year have put us on the map with the nuclear fuels computation group," said Hansen. "Some scientists at INL are now calling the department a 'gold mine' due to the dedication of the students and their ability to work with INL scientists to master difficult concepts."

The connections at INL have opened excellent opportunities for computational work in graduate school. In particular, two students are making the move to Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas with Dr. Paul Millett, an INL scientist who recently accepted an assistant professor position at the U of A. His first concerted effort to build his research group at the university has been to personally recruit students from the BYU-Idaho computational physics class and offer them generous funding to do their doctorate work with him. 

"These past few years have been incredible for the students in the class. A primary contributor to our students' recent success is the BYU-Idaho Learning Model," said Hansen. "Before coming to class, the students do everything within their means to understand the material. When class begins, they are anxious to share and learn from both their peers and the instructor. Not only does this help the students excel in the classroom, but it makes them really stand out as they employ the same pattern at INL."