Young Alum Katelyn Cook Wins 2019 Apker Award

Houghton College alumna Katelyn Cook ’19 has been honored with the highly competitive LeRoy Apker Award in physics. Presented annually by the American Physical Society (APS), this award honors young physicists for outstanding achievements in their discipline. The award is the highest honor undergraduate physicists can earn in the United States. It includes a $5,000 honorarium for the recipient, as well as $5,000 for their undergraduate institution’s physics department.

Only two honorees receive the Apker Award each year: one to a student at a PhD-granting institution, and one to a student at a non-PhD-granting institution. This year’s winners were chosen from a selection of seven finalists, hailing from institutions including the University of California, Santa Barbara; Johns Hopkins University; Texas Lutheran University; and Amherst College. Tali Khain, the other recipient of the 2019 Apker Award, represents the prestigious undergraduate physics program at the University of Michigan.

Katelyn received this award in recognition of her research into inertial confinement fusion (ICF) while a student at Houghton College. She conducted this research through Houghton’s physics department, with collaborators from the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE) at the University of Rochester and the SUNY Geneseo Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Katelyn (right) setting up equipment for the Pelletron accelerator at SUNY Geneseo.

Katelyn’s Research

Inertial confinement fusion is an experimental method of studying low-energy nuclear reactions, allowing reactions to be studied that would be impossible to measure using particle accelerators. By firing numerous lasers at a tiny pellet of fuel from all sides, ICF causes incredible compression, temperature , and density—similar to the conditions inside a star, albeit on a much smaller scale, and for a span of less than a nanosecond.

According to physics professor Mark Yuly, inertial confinement fusion is a significant area of physics research for two major reasons. First, it opens the door for physicists to study nuclear reactions that have never been measured before: for example, the reactions that take place inside stars. This has not been easy to do in the past, since the reaction probabilities are so small that it would take years and years using conventional accelerator experiments. In this respect, ICF offers groundbreaking potential for both astrophysics and fundamental nuclear science.

One might think of the sun as a high-energy place because of how hot it is. In reality, stars generate low-energy reactions that are very difficult to replicate with particle accelerators. Yuly says that while scientists have developed models for, say, the interior of a star, or the beginnings of the universe, these models still contain significant uncertainty. “People talk about these things as if we really understand them,” he says, “but if you think about it . . . there’s not a lot of ways to get information about the inside of the sun.” ICF offers the opportunity to refine and test these models, by measuring reactions in the controlled environment of the laboratory.

Second, scientists engaged in this research are interested in finding a way for ICF to reach ignition. Ignition is a state where nuclear fusion reactions release enough energy for the process to become self-sustaining, continuing until  all the fuel is used up, similar to how a bonfire will continue to burn until it has consumed all of the wood. If the process can be engineered successfully through ICF, it has enormous potential as an energy source.

katelyn cook apker award

Katelyn in the nuclear detector lab at Houghton college, assembling a Phoswich (“Phosphor sandwich”) detector to be used in an experiment.

Physics at Houghton College

While studying physics at Houghton, Katelyn participated in the first-year Science Honors program, as well as Houghton’s Summer Research Institute. Houghton offers these distinctive programs as opportunities for motivated STEM students to gain hands-on research experience as undergraduates.

“Quality undergraduate instruction cannot be confined to the study of well-established theories,” says biochemistry professor Paul Martino, director of the Summer Research Institute. “It needs to touch the frontiers of different branches of science and math in order to provide our students with a clear vision for the future.”

This principle undergirds Houghton’s approach to physics and to STEM as a whole. Science Honors participants begin their undergraduate college career by doing integrated research centered around a pressing, real-world issue. The goal of Science Honors at Houghton is to provide an environment where “students become scientists,” equipped with the tools to apply their knowledge and creativity to the compelling questions of the 21st century.

katelyn cook icf research

Katelyn presenting her research poster at the American Physical Society 2019 Division of Plasma Physics meeting in Waikoloa, Hawaii.

Physics students at Houghton also begin a long-term research project in their sophomore year. As part of this research, students present their work at scientific meetings, and also write a thesis during their senior year. Some examples of past projects include designing a low-speed wind tunnel for aerodynamic testing; conducting experiments on thin metal films to understand their role in computer chip failure; and building a computer cluster to study dark matter.

Katelyn At Houghton and Beyond

Yuly invited Katelyn to join the ICF research team during her freshman year. She worked on the project during all four years she spent at Houghton, and presented her research at numerous conferences.

“Houghton was the perfect place for me to study physics, because I had close relationships with my professors and could go to them without hesitation,” Katelyn says. The opportunity to work on research one-on-one with Yuly, her advisor, has since proved vital for Katelyn’s career.

Katelyn outside the Nuclear Research Building at Florida State University, where she is currently pursuing her PhD.

Katelyn is thankful for the ways her professors at Houghton have helped her to become the scientist she is today. She credits them with helping her learn to communicate her research effectively, a skill that was essential in winning the Apker Award.

“Overall, I am just extremely grateful for the opportunities that Houghton has given me,” Katelyn says, “and I’m excited to help put them on the map so others can see how great the program is!”

After graduating from Houghton, Katelyn went on to do nuclear physics research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. She is now at Florida State University, working to earn her doctorate in physics. She hopes to pursue experimental nuclear physics and high-energy density physics as the focus of her PhD research.

Katelyn will give a talk at the 2020 APS April meeting in Denver, “Quarks 2 Cosmos”, an annual conference bringing together physicists from around the world to discuss current research in their field. This year’s theme is “2020 Vision in Physics Frontiers.” The event weekend will include a program of nearly 200 sessions, as well as an award ceremony where Katelyn and other APS honorees will be presented with their awards.