Rigorous Academics Inspire a Career in Physics

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When he enrolled at Allegheny, Colby Mangini ’04 thought he’d probably major in international studies. He had studied Spanish in high school, and international business and economics sounded interesting. He wanted a college degree but wasn’t exactly passionate about academics.

“I wasn’t challenged that much in high school and could get by doing the bare minimum, so I did,” he says.

During his first semester, Mangini decided to get his science requirement out of the way and signed up for Physics 101 with Dr. James Lombardi, Sr. As it turns out, that single introductory course would change the trajectory of Mangini’s studies, and shape his future career.

Now, a little over a decade since he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in physics, Mangini holds a doctorate in radiation health physics and is board certified in the field, both accomplishments that have helped fast-track his career and allowed him to play a major role in the treatment of children who are battling cancer.

In his current position as radiation safety officer at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Mangini makes sure that patients and their families, along with staff, and members of the local community are safe from the potentially damaging effects of radiation used in medical and research applications within the hospital. He also ensures radiation-emitting material does not escape into the environment and that St. Jude’s programs comply with state and federal regulations.

There are a lot of uses for radioactive materials in a hospital setting. X-rays and CT scans probably come to mind but there are also radioactive materials that are injected into patients so that doctors can capture an image of say, the thyroid gland, and radioactive materials and equipment used to treat cancers. Additionally, at a research hospital, various radioactive substances are being generated and used in laboratories.

It is Mangini’s job to be certain X-ray machines are properly shielded by lead walls. He makes sure patients with a radioactive substance in their bodies do not contaminate other patients or their family members, and that the rooms where they stayed are properly decontaminated. He must see that nothing escapes the lab setting in which it is meant to be contained.

Most hospitals have radiation safety officers, but Mangini’s role at St. Jude presents a unique challenge. St. Jude houses a revolutionary new device, the 230 MeV proton synchrotron, that uses a thin beam of protons to treat tumors. It is one of a few of its kind in the world, and the only unit dedicated solely to pediatric care.

“St. Jude’s proton accelerator uses pencil-beam technology,” explains Mangini. “If you could see the proton beam it would look like a laser pointer.” The device allows doctors to direct a stream of radiation at a tumor with great accuracy, meaning less damage to neighboring tissue and skin. It means tumors near sensitive areas of the body, such as the brainstem can be safely treated with radiation. Less damage to healthy tissues means less recovery time for patients. It also improves outcomes down the road, with fewer patients experiencing recurring or secondary cancers related to radiation treatment.

“When protons hit the patient, it creates a secondary radiation field comprised of neutrons and gamma rays,” Mangini says. “The protons stop at the patient—they destroy the cancer—but the other particles don’t.”

That is where Mangini and his team come in. They make sure the rooms housing the proton beam technology have the proper amount of shielding in the walls and that the secondary radiation is not escaping into the hallway or waiting area where a patient’s family is sitting. They make sure the people working on the floor above the Proton Therapy Center aren’t exposed, and that appropriate staff wear personal dosimeters, which monitor their exposure to radiation.

Mangini also helps to educate St. Jude employees whose work takes them into the proton facility. “People fear radiation,” he says, “because they don’t know a lot about it. I spend a lot of my time communicating to staff members about what is happening inside the proton facility, what they could be exposed to, and what we have in place—the shielding, and safety systems.”

It is a big job with an endless list of responsibilities, which, for Mangini, is both the challenge and the reward. “What they are doing here at St. Jude is cutting edge. If something I do falls by the wayside or I don’t do something correctly or something happens to the safety systems or there’s a regulatory issue, all that work could come to a stop. It increases the importance of everything we do.”

A Student Motivated by Challenges

In order to jump from Physics 101, a course intended for non-majors, into the curriculum for physics majors, Mangini had to get a waiver. He first sought the advice of physics professor Doros Petasis. Mangini left that conversation feeling that the transition into the major would be doable but difficult. “I saw this as a challenge and always remembered that feeling,” says Mangini, who received the waiver. “I was determined to be the top student in every physics class thereafter.”

“Allegheny was a huge step up from high school,” Mangini says. “When it started to become clear—what I could achieve in college, I had more motivation. I was challenged and applied myself a lot more.”

Mangini says he discovered, while in college, that he is motivated by setting personal goals for himself, which meant, at Allegheny, GPA goals. After college, his goal was to become an officer in the Navy. Mangini realized that this pursuit could also fulfill another of his goals: to explore the love of teaching he developed while he was a physics tutor at Allegheny. Eventually, he became a senior instructor and lieutenant in the Navy.

Teaching in the Navy had its own set of motivating challenges. At first, Mangini wasn’t teaching physics, but nuclear and mechanical engineering, which meant, he had to teach himself the material before he could teach it to his classes. “I had to learn everything involved with how a reactor core takes nuclear fuel and causes a propeller to rotate at the back of a boat,” he says. Mangini again rose to the challenge and excelled. He was awarded “Master Training Specialist” designation by the Navy.

After completing his four-year term in the Navy, while simultaneously earning a master’s degree in health physics from Oregon State University via distance education (he was stationed in South Carolina), Mangini decided to take Petasis’ advice. He and his wife, Kyla Vandree ’04 Mangini moved to Corvallis, Oregon, and he enrolled in Oregon State’s doctorate program.

While there, Colby reworked the code for VARSKIN, a computer program that helps to estimate the amount of biological damage received by skin when it comes into contact with radioactive material. VARSKIN’s ability to produce an accurate estimation was poor under certain conditions. Mangini spent many nights awake in bed thinking over the problem. He had to figure out where the weakness was in the code, then how to write a better code.

“I developed a new physics model that could be used to more accurately estimate the biological damage from high energy electrons,” he says. “I incorporated that model into the computer code itself, so the latest version of that code uses my model. I still consult and trouble-shoot that code.”

Throughout Mangini’s academic career, Professor Petasis has continued to inspire him to excel. The professor’s initial hesitation about Mangini’s promise as a physics student quickly changed to enthusiasm. He “took me under his wing,” says Mangini. Petasis encouraged him to do undergraduate research and to pursue an academic career in physics. “Him having that belief in me, that I was capable of a Ph.D., was always in the back of my mind as my career progressed.”

Rachel Mangini wrote this story. She is a freelance writer in Warren, Pa.

Photo courtesy of Colby Mangini

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Society of Physics Students Named Distinguished Chapter

The National Council of the Society of Physics Students has named Allegheny College’s chapter a Distinguished SPS Chapter for 2014-2015. Based on an assessment of the chapter’s breadth and depth of activities, the award recognizes Allegheny’s physics students for their efforts to build community and propel students into professional careers.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Petasis Co-authors Chapter in Methods in Enzymology

Professor of Physics Doros Petasis co-authored a chapter, titled “Quantitative Interpretation of Multifrequency Multimode EPR Spectra of Metal Containing Proteins, Enzymes, and Biomimetic Complexes,” with Professor Michael Hendrich of Carnegie Mellon University. The chapter is part of a volume of Methods in Enzymology titled Electron Paramagnetic Resonance Investigations of Biological Systems by Using Spin Labels, Spin Probes, and Intrinsic Metal Ions, which was published in October.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Allegheny Researchers Publish Paper in “Physical Review E”

A paper by Professor of Chemistry and Physics David Statman, Ariel Statman ’14, Kaitlin Wozniak ’11 and Christopher Brennan ’13, “Comparison of photoinduced reorientation of ortho-, meta-, and para-methyl red-doped nematic liquid crystals on rubbed polyimide,” has been accepted for publication in Physical Review E.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Professor Petasis Invited to Co-author Book on EPR Spectroscopy

Professor of Physics Doros Petasis was invited by De Gruyter Publishers (Berlin) to be a co-author of a book on Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) Spectroscopy. The book, part of De Gruyter’s graduate series program focused on graduate students and beginner scientists in industry, will cover EPR theory, instrumentation and data analysis methodologies with applications in biological and synthetic systems. The book is scheduled for publication in 2017.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Allegheny College Senior Receives Honors from National Science Foundation and Stanford University

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April 9, 2015 – The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Allegheny College senior Erin Brown an honorable mention in the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which provides fellowships to individuals selected early in their graduate careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering.

Additionally, Brown, a physics and mathematics double major with an English minor, has received the 2015-16 Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education–in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (EDGE-STEM) Doctoral Fellowship at Stanford University. She was nominated for this award by the Stanford School of Engineering based on her record of extraordinary academic accomplishment and her potential to contribute to the diversity of her program and academic field.

The EDGE-STEM fellowship will provide Brown with a stipend and research and travel funds when she begins Stanford’s Ph.D. program in Computational and Mathematical Engineering in the fall. She hopes to someday teach and conduct research at the university level. 

“Receiving these recognitions is a great honor. Allegheny allowed me to become involved in research during my freshman year, which I believe helped me get all the opportunities I’ve had,” says Brown, who has researched “Mathematical Sciences – Computational and Data-enabled Science,” meaning she uses math and theory to develop new computational techniques, particularly for understanding the brain. “I’ve also benefited from active mentorship in the physics and math departments. I believe the College has prepared me well for my next chapter at Stanford.”

These are not the first honors for Brown. In 2014, she received a Goldwater Scholarship, which is awarded to only 300 students annually, from an applicant pool of 1,200 to 1,500. The prior year, she received a Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention.

“Erin’s accomplishments say it all; she clearly has a first-rate scientific mind,” says Patrick Jackson, Allegheny national fellowships adviser and visiting professor of religious studies and history. Jackson works with students who are applying to external fellowships.

Brown, from Gainesville, Ga., has served as president of the Allegheny Society of Physics Students. She has worked on research projects with professors in the Allegheny physics department and at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program.

In addition, Allegheny class of 2013 graduate Douglas Barber of Austin, Texas, received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. Barber, who is studying geology at the University of Texas at Austin, was one of 2,000 individuals chosen for the Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program from among 16,500 applicants in 2015. He was a geology major and economics minor at Allegheny.

Allegheny class of 2013 graduates Colleen Friel and Michael Vlah also received NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program honorable mentions. Friel is studying biology at Michigan State University, and Vlah is studying environmental science at the University of Washington.

With its emphasis on support of individuals, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program offers fellowship awards directly to graduate students selected through a national competition. The program provides three years of financial support within a five-year fellowship period ($34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 cost-of-education allowance to the graduate institution) for graduate study that leads to a research-based master’s or doctoral degree in science or engineering.

Former NSF Fellows include numerous individuals who have made transformative breakthroughs in science and engineering, become leaders in their chosen careers and been honored as Nobel laureates. A complete list of those offered this fellowship for 2015 is available on the NSF website. For general information about the program, go to nsfgrfp.org.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Headed to Stanford

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Faculty mentorship, research and fellowships help prepare Allegheny senior for the next chapter

With not one but TWO senior comps to finish (one in physics and one in math) before becoming an official member of the Bicentennial graduating class, one would think Erin Brown had enough on her mind at the end of the semester.

But in March, Brown, a physics and mathematics double major with an English minor, also learned that she had received two prestigious honors.

The National Science Foundation awarded Brown an honorable mention in the prestigious Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which provides fellowships to individuals selected early in their graduate careers based on their demonstrated potential for significant achievements in science and engineering.

Shortly after receiving that news, she learned that she had received the 2015-16 Enhancing Diversity in Graduate Education–in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (EDGE-STEM) Doctoral Fellowship at Stanford University. She was nominated for this award by the Stanford School of Engineering based on her record of extraordinary academic accomplishment and her potential to contribute to the diversity of her program and academic field. This fellowship will provide Brown with a stipend and research and travel funds.

But these are not the first honors for Brown. In 2014, she received a Goldwater Scholarship, which is awarded to only 300 students annually, from an applicant pool of 1,200 to 1,500. The prior year, she received a Goldwater Scholarship honorable mention.

Brown, from Gainesville, Ga., has been accepted to Stanford’s Ph.D. program in Computational and Mathematical Engineering and will attend in the fall. We recently spoke to her about these honors and how Allegheny helped to shape her future:

How does it feel to receive these prestigious recognitions?
It is a great honor. Allegheny allowed me to become involved in research during my freshman year, which I believe helped me get all the opportunities I’ve had. I’ve also benefited from active mentorship in the physics and math departments. I feel like Allegheny has put me on an equal footing with larger schools and has prepared me well for my next chapter.

How did Allegheny help to prepare you to apply for these recognitions?
One thing I’ve benefited from at Allegheny is the ability to become involved in research early on. I started research during my freshman year with Assistant Professor Adelé Poynor in the physics department. I think that helped me get all these other opportunities I’ve had.

Also, I think that my English minor has helped me. A lot of academia and research is grant writing, publishing papers, etc. Plus I just love literature and the English department.

What kind of research have you done?
I had the opportunity to work on research projects with professors in the Allegheny physics department and at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. I started off studying the interaction between water and hydrophobic surfaces with Dr. Poynor. I’ve also worked with Professor Shafiqur Rahman on studying magnetic materials.

In addition, I have studied “Mathematical Sciences – Computational and Data-enabled Science,” meaning I have used math and theory to develop new computational techniques, particularly for understanding the brain. I really love this line of work. I initially wanted to do very pure theoretical physics, but my interest has morphed. I’m now really interested in complex systems and the brain, particularly.

How challenging was it to be a double major in math and physics?
I think any double major here is ambitious, but math and physics go together really well. It’s been a great combination for me. I’ve had such a positive experience with the physics and math departments. There’s some really impressive work going on there.

How do you balance it all?
It’s important that everything I’m doing is stuff I love to do. I’m really cut out for academia. I love learning. I love research.

What other organizations were you involved in at Allegheny?
I served as president of the Allegheny Society of Physics Students. Last semester, I worked on instituting events to incorporate students in the major early on. For me, being involved in research at an early stage was so formative. I’d really like everyone to have that opportunity. We set up a series of lunchtime presentations where students who have done research came and presented. We tried to bring in people from physics, math and other departments. I think that early involvement in research is key to assimilation.

Why is it important for women to become involved in the sciences?
Throughout history, women have had a huge influence on the development of math, computer science – all the sciences, really. I think any kind of unequal representation is unnatural.

What is your goal after Stanford?
I want to stay in academia. I’d really like to be a professor. I’ve had some amazing influences and faculty mentorship while I’ve been at Allegheny. I’d like to carry that on.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Cole and Willey Give Invited Presentation at Geological Society of America Conference

Professor of Geology Ron Cole and Professor of Physics Dan Willey gave an invited presentation in an educational strategies session at the national Geological Society of America conference in Vancouver, BC. The title of their presentation was “Enhanced Diversity and Retention of Undergraduate STEM Majors at Allegheny College: Outcomes of a National Science Foundation S-STEM Program.” Cole also presented results of NSF-funded scientific research including new hypotheses on volcanism in southern Alaska with contributions by Marie Takach ’16 and colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, National Taiwan University, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Bucknell University, and Lehigh University.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Ben Burtt brings the force to film

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Star Wars sound editor inspires future filmmakers

By Katelynn Long, Contributing Writer
November 20, 2014
The Campus

Two production classes gathered into the small screening room in the Vukovich Center to listen to Benjamin Pickering Burtt speak on Monday, Nov. 10.

Burtt is a four-time Academy Award winner for his sound editing skills. He graduated from Allegheny in 1970, where he received his undergraduate degree in physics.

Assistant professor of communication arts John Reilly and professor Michael Keeley took a break from their typical lectures and let Burtt run their classes.

“[Burtt]’s talk was immensely important for the introductory production students because it allowed them to witness the creative measures he took during his early filmmaking days with limited means and rudimentary equipment,” said Reilly. “At the same time, it also allowed them to hear how he still considers the very basic components of effective storytelling even though he now has unlimited production resources and technology at his disposal.”

Read more.

Photo by Joe Bruch

Source: Academics, Publications & Research

Healthy Skin for a Happy Life as green as it gets

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By Rebekah Zook
October 13, 2014
Business & Tech News, Health
NEXT Pittsburgh

Note: Aaron Conner is an Allegheny College graduate from the Class of 2012.

Aaron Conner

Aaron Conner

Aaron Conner makes light of his career choices, right on his own website. “I am a college graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Physics. Learned about stars exploding, now I make shampoo.”

Conner’s job involves more than just making shampoo. He built an almost entirely waste-free business from the ground up.

He is the founder of Healthy Skin for a Happy Life, a holistic company making bath and beauty products out of Wexford. Not only are their products entirely natural, but the process for their production is highly eco-friendly.

Conner says that it’s a combination of his collegiate experience, his many interests, and his desire for an innovative workspace that inspired him to forge his own business. And it’s his belief in their cause that keeps their products– and their process– pure.

Read the full story.

Source: Academics, Publications & Research