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Physics Down Under

07/13/2011

Physics major Caroline Bartlett '13 of Northbridge, Mass., is studying wave velocity differentials in Canberra, Australia, this summer as she serves an internship through the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"It's really a whole lot of fun," she said.

In December, Bartlett will present her research at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, Calif., the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences. The event attracts nearly 20,000 Earth and space scientists, educators, students and policy makers, and showcases current scientific theory focused on discoveries to benefit humanity and ensure the planet's sustainable future.

Bartlett later will publish her work in a geophysical journal.

 "This experience has given me the opportunity to understand what research really is. It isn't reading books and writing a paper; it's actual data analysis, and a lot of creativity goes into it. Thinking outside the box has really been my strength here," Bartlett said.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, she studies seismic waves, called P waves and S waves, as well as PcP and ScS waves. Propagated by a source, the waves hit the core-mantle boundary and go back up to the station where she can sample what the core-mantle really looks like.

"The differences in their times can show the differences in densities at certain parts of the boundary," Bartlett explained.

Over the past two decades, the seismic network has been too limited to gather enough data to confirm scientists' beliefs concerning the waves, she said. "Now we have seismic stations everywhere, including Antarctica."

Before heading to Australia, Bartlett went to New Mexico with the 14 other NSF interns for a week of orientation. There, they worked in the field, deploying seismometers and doing active-source studying of a fault in Socorro.

"The interns are now spread over the United States. One is doing his project in Puerto Rico," Bartlett said. "We keep up with what each other are doing via a blog on the IRIS internship site."

In Australia, Bartlett lives in Watson, a suburb of Canberra, with three Chinese Ph.D. students. In addition to her research, she has had the opportunity to explore Sydney, as well as Canberra. Throughout this experience, she's meet people from all over the world, including backpackers from France, England and China.

Bartlett, whose minor is in mathematics, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in either geophysics or astrophysics.

"Ultimately, I want to become a physics/mathematics professor at a liberal arts college like MCLA because I really enjoy teaching," she said. "At MCLA, I tutor introductory physics and a few math courses, and the experience has been truly rewarding. I love the feeling of convincing someone that math is not as hard as they think it is. I really want to teach non-majors physics and math, because I feel I can do the most good by doing so."