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Undergraduate Researchers

David Mason, SURF Scholar

Working Towards a NIST- Certified Phantom for Computer Tomography

This summer, I worked with a medical physicist at the Natl. Inst. of Standards and Technology (NIST) to help develop a precise reference standard for use in Computed Tomography (CT) imaging systems.  Having quantitative results from a CT scan are vital for making accurate diagnoses, but it has been found that there can be significant variation in results between systems due to hardware and software differences.  To help standardize results, it is desirable to have a material that can be used to calibrate each scan.  Our goal this summer was quantitatively studying the x-ray properties of a material that will be used to simulate lung tissue.  Once these characteristics are fully understood, NIST can certify the material as a standard reference material, which will in turn offer more accuracy to medical professionals when diagnosing lung disease.

How did I know about SURF?

I knew friends who had worked at NIST, and professors in the Physics department always promoted the program.

How did you know this was the laboratory you wanted to work in?

When applying to NIST, I knew that I wanted to explore the field of medical physics, and so I mentioned this in my application.  NIST does a great job of placing students in their area of interest.

Is this your first independent research project?

No.  In 2009, I began working at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as a summer research intern.  During this time, I worked with a team of astrophysicists on developing a compact, portable x-ray diffractometer for doing mineral analysis.  The final product should be a device small enough to have applications in rover-based planetary science missions.  During the summer of 2009 I worked on hardware development for this project, and then continued doing software work during the next academic year.

How much time did you put into it?

Both my internships at NASA and NIST were full 40-hr work weeks.  The NIST SURF program is a 10-11 week program.  My initial NASA work was 10 weeks, but I later continued my work during the semester.

What academic background did you have before you started?

I began working at NASA after my sophomore year and NIST after my junior year.  While my physics/math coursework was useful in both internships, undergraduate research often involves immersing yourself in a subject you've never seen before.  It's a fantastic learning experience, particularly if one is considering graduate school.

Was the application easy to do?

The NIST SURF application (like all internship applications) is simply a matter of watching deadlines and completing a few simple forms and questions.  Applications aren't hard, but it is easy to forget about deadlines.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Start now.  It's never too late and never too early to try getting involved in undergraduate research.  If you're a freshman with only limited experience, it may take more perseverance, but the opportunities are out there.  Professors can be a huge asset.  See what internship programs you can find on your own, but also try just talking to professors to see if they have room or know someone who does.  I ended up at NASA by simply asking my advisor to pass my name around the physics department.  As it turned out, one of my previous professors knew a research at NASA Goddard who had funding and was looking for help.  All it takes is a few e-mails to get the process started, and you'll be surprised how easy it can be.

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?

My physics courses provided a solid foundation on which I could rely as I explored new fields via research.  All the research I've done has involved x-ray physics, so my Modern Physics course sophomore year was quite valuable.