The Department of Physics is honored to have helped to forge the paths of many undergraduate students over the years. These alumni have done amazing things after leaving UMass. This week, we spotlight one fairly recent graduate, Dr. Kelly Malone. Kelly graduated in 2013 and recently defended her Ph.D. in Physics at Penn State University. We recently caught up with her for this spotlight.
What brought you to the University of Massachusetts to study Physics as an undergraduate?
Originally, I didn't really want to attend UMass. I’m from Massachusetts so it was naturally my safety school, but I agreed to visit it once my family realized how expensive all the other schools I had gotten into, would be. Once I took a tour of the school I was sold on all the exciting things happening on campus. There’s a really great atmosphere on campus that I miss.
Physics was also not my first choice for a major either. I went into college as a chemistry major with a physics minor. I very quickly realized that I was enjoying the physics classes more so I switched pretty early on.
Did you have a second major in addition to Physics? What was it? Why did you decide to double major?
Yes, I also majored in astronomy. I took an astronomy class and liked the ways you could apply physics to outer space. Most of my last two years at UMass was spent taking astronomy and astrophysics electives.
Did you do research when you were an undergraduate at UMass? If so, with whom? What was the topic? Were you an author on any publications?
Yes, I worked in Andrea Pocar’s lab for almost all of my undergraduate career. I worked on the Enriched Xenon Observatory (EXO), which is an experiment looking for neutrinoless double-beta decay. I did not author any publications, but I did write an honors thesis. I also did the LabVIEW programming for part of a radon filter that was taken to the EXO site in New Mexico and incorporated into the experiment, so that was cool.
I typically spent summers working on research outside the Physics Department. This was extremely useful because I got to figure out what kinds of research I liked. One summer was spend in Amherst where I participated in the internship program the Five College Astronomy Department runs. I spent another doing an REU where the school (the University of Rochester) sent me to Fermilab, which is a giant national laboratory in the Chicago suburbs.
What was your favorite class from the Physics major?
I remember so many good ones; there are a lot of great professors in the department! I remember the Junior Year Writing class to be super helpful. So many physicists have no idea how to actually convey the science they’ve done.
Did you do other hobbies, sports, activities, or other student organizations while at UMass? If so, which ones?
Yes, I certainly kept busy. I was fairly involved in the Astronomy Club and was also a member of SPS. I also worked at the library and did a fair amount of random once-in-a-lifetime things, like going skydiving with the Skydiving Club!
After graduating from UMass, what did you do next? Is that what you do now? Please tell us about your career path and how you got to where you are now.
I decided to attend grad school at Penn State because they have a strong particle astrophysics program and I wanted to do something that combined both of my majors. I just finished my PhD last fall. I work on an experiment called the High Altitude Water Cherenkov (HAWC) Observatory, which is located on a mountain in Mexico (actually just down the road from the LMT, which UMass plays a big part in!). HAWC is currently mapping what the sky looks like in TeV gamma rays. These gamma rays come from very extreme environments – supernova remnants, gamma-ray bursts and active galactic nuclei are just a few.
HAWC looks very different from a traditional telescope. It is made up of giant (4 meter x 7 meter) water tanks with photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) in the bottom. PMTs can detect light in the ultraviolet/infrared/visible portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. When a gamma-ray hits the Earth’s atmosphere, it interacts with molecules in the air and initiates an electromagnetic cascade of charged particles such as electrons. When those electrons reach the mountaintop and go through the detector, they give off a kind of radiation called Cherenkov radiation – this causes a blue glow that is picked up by the light sensors.
On a day-to-day basis, I spend most of my time programming to analyze the data coming out of our detector. Since our collaboration is somewhat large (~100 people spread across the US, Mexico, and Europe) I also spend a fair amount of time on conference calls sharing results and planning our next steps. A few times a year I get to travel, either down to Mexico to go to the observatory or a meeting, or to a conference somewhere.
I just accepted a postdoc position at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and will be moving there in March. I’ll still be working with data from HAWC but will be switching gears to a slightly different science topic.
Was there any aspect of your time at UMass that really helped you on your career path? If so what? Was the department helpful to you on your path?
I’m really glad I went to such a large university for my undergrad. I was exposed to so many different areas of research and I think it was really helpful in figuring out what I wanted to do. I also got to take a lot of classes that weren't offered at smaller schools. A lot of my friends in grad school did not have the chance to take any astronomy classes past introductory astronomy or graduate-level physics classes while they were undergrads, and I was able to do both of those things at UMass.
I also think that the physics department did a good job encouraging us to help each other on problem sets, etc. I made a lot of friends in my physics classes this way, including several people who I still regularly talk to today.
What advice would you give to current UMass undergrads that you wish you knew when you were here?
Talk to your professors and TAs! I went to office hours sometimes but probably not as much as I should have. They can help you understand anything you’re struggling with in class but they can also talk about their research and help you figure out your path after grad school.