Research Mentorship Program provides learning opportunities for both students and educators at UC Santa Barbara
By Marge Perko
In the bowels of UCSB’s Broida Hall, high school students donned goggles as they investigated phase shifts in light under the supervision of Travis Brashears, an engineering and physics student from UC Berkeley. This summer, Brashears -- an RMP alum -- worked for the second time as a mentor for the Research Mentorship Program offered through the UCSB Office of Summer Sessions.
That day at the lab, Brashears had two first-time RMP participants under his wing -- Ian Ho, from Hong Kong International School, and Whitaker Mercer from Billings West High.
Hanging on a beam above the organized chaos of the lab was a 3D print of Einstein’s face. On the door, a poster of inventor and engineer Elon Musk, with the words “Mars is not enough.” The teens joked with each other as they pored over data on their laptops, comfortable in an environment where some of the best minds at UCSB pursue ground-breaking research.
“This is going to be fun – trust me,” said their mentor as he started the demonstration. “Are you familiar with the double slit experiment, by any chance?”
As the light flashed from the lab setup, Brashears continued to explain the goals of his research work. “This application can be used as a telescope, to receive light. But you can also do is put a laser on this side and pump light in this setup and emit light. Through laser ablation – shining a powerful laser onto a material -- the material ejected off of that surface that the laser shines on, emits a thrust. So you can move something, such as a spacecraft, by firing a really powerful laser at it. And so when you have an array of these and lots of lasers – you can point it at an object in space, like space debris and shoot it with powerful lasers and get alternative propulsion.”
For two years, Brashears was just like Ho and Mercer, a determined teen who loved science and math who got to pursue his academic passions for six weeks through UCSB summer program. Now as a mentor, he’s excited about the future possibilities – for the students and for his own career. “It’s exciting to work with them and to see them be so self-motivated to push themselves through the program,” he says. “For me, it depends how this pans out. If I can get published through this, then I will end up applying to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.”
Upstairs, physics department employee Nicholas Rupert `15, also a first-time RMP mentor, works with Curpertino High School student Amal Mehta on his chosen project.
Rupert, a mechanical engineer, is working on building a folding mechanism for a very large telescope headed to Greenland. “Right now, I’m working on fitting this old telescope, this really big dish, into a shipping container so it can sit on top of the ice sheet,” he said. “The frequency is prely interesting and it doesn’t need to be highly reflective of visible light so much. We’re looking at 21-centimeter radiation – 1.42 gigahertz – after it’s red-shifted, so we’re up in the FM band – up in the radio spectrum.”
As a first-time mentor, Rupert had to learn to scale down his project tasks to meet the six-week time frame of the program. “It’s nice to have someone else around to teach,” he said. “The issue is a lot of our research has a large learning curve, so it’s hard to get into it right away. For instance, I could train someone for six weeks before they would be able to perform certain tasks. So it can be hard sometimes to find something that’s scalable for a short-term program – but a lot of the stuff I’m working on is stuff that they will be talking about for twenty years. So maybe six weeks isn’t very long just to me.”
Rupert sees a lot of potential in the program to for young people to develop good habits and mindsets early on in their academic careers. “Physics teaches you how to solve really complicated problems,” he said. “So I’ve been applying it everywhere – and I am glad to have someone to teach about these principles this summer.”