Teenage physicist programs her mark

Alison RoethAt 16, most teens are starting their first job or clutching the steering wheel during a driving test. Alison “AJ” Roeth of South Mecklenburg High School would rather learn programming code and conduct physics experiments.

Alison found her passion for physics early in her high school career. She credits her AP Physics-B class with then-South Meck teacher, Chase Martin, as the major push to choose physics as a career path.

Martin now teaches at the Community School of Davidson, but still tries to make physics fun with unconventional methods.

“Probably the most interesting thing we do is Physics Movie Fridays, where we analyze scenes in a movie to see if they’re realistic,” Martin, who also posts tutorials on his website, www.physicsinfive.com, said. His class analyzed movies such as “Die Hard,” “Batman” and “Tangled.” “My students tell me they never see movies the same.”

Alison said Martin’s class showed her the realism behind physics. However, before the summer of 2013, she faced a dilemma.

“I had already taken the highest level of physics (AP Physics B) at school, during my sophomore year, so I wouldn’t be able to take anymore physics classes. … so, I contacted a professor at Duke (University) and asked who I should talk to,” Alison said.

Alison spoke with Dr. Kate Scholberg, a professor of physics at the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke, who introduced Alison to an internship opportunity. After an interview process, she was chosen to participate as a research assistant in the physics department of the university. The teen was the only high school student, bumping elbows with post-doctoral students, graduate students and research assistants from various universities.

She even taught herself the programming language C++ to prepare for the internship.

“It was somewhat difficult, and it’s not something you can just learn on your own. So, I did the best I could to prepare for the internship,” Alison said.

During the six-week internship, she worked on programmed simulations of electron neutrino interactions with liquid argon using CERN ROOT data analysis software. The purpose of the study was to develop an event generator to simulate these events for future studies of the responses of detectors to supernova neutrinos.

Scholberg said the simulation would help her experiment group understand the physics of what happens in the atmosphere when a supernova ruptures.

“She did a project that I would say that she was working at the level of a sophomore undergraduate, and it worked out with my experimental collaboration,” Scholberg said.

Scholberg told the 16-year-old after the internship that she had discovered enough findings to write a formal academic paper. Throughout last fall, Alison wrote and edited her paper, “Simulating the Gamma Ray Signature of Electron Neutrinos in a Liquid Argon Detector,” with assistance from Scholberg, and the paper was ultimately published in the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment Collaboration document library to be examined by more than 450 scientists from more than 80 institutions across the world.

Her findings also gained Alison some professional attention.

“I had been in contact with physicists at Columbia University,” Alison said. “We discussed data acquisition algorithms.”

Scholberg also said Alison presented her findings in a phone conference of a particle physics working group of more than 400 scientists.

“It was a nice contribution and she was able to do some good work,” Scholberg said.

Alison ultimately graduated from South Meck this month with a 4.0 grade-point-average and an increased passion for physics.

“(Physics) is so connected to the real world,” Alison said. “It involves energy, matter and everything you encounter.”

Alison will attend the University of Oklahoma on a National Merit Scholarship in the fall, where she will double major in physics and Chinese/Mandarin.

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One Response

  1. t30dxb

    Courtney, thanks for this very inspiring story. It is refreshing to read stories about women excelling in and succeeding in the sciences. AJ your hard work is really paying off. I look forward to reading more stories about your successes!

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