Physics & Astronomy, School of Science

When you hear “Hawai’i” you most likely start thinking about palm trees, tropical breezes and luaus. Now go ahead and add particle physics to that picture.

Jillian Cola ’25 headed to Kona on the Big Island last November to attend a joint meeting of the American Physical Society Division of Nuclear Physics and the Physical Society of Japan – Hawai’i being a mutually convenient halfway meeting point, that just happens to be one of the most gorgeous spots on Earth.

Cola has been working with Matt Bellis, Ph.D., associate professor of physics, on cloud chamber devices that enable viewers to see trails left by radioactive decay products. Last fall, Cola and Bellis worked to develop ways these cloud chambers can be used not just for outreach events and demonstrations, but also for making measurements in Siena’s classroom labs. 

“We want to bring a sense of authentic scientific experimentation to our classes and this is not always easy to do,” explained Bellis. 

Cola developed an approach where students can use a free, open-source program to perform a video analysis and measure the lengths of these trails. She recently organized and led a small demo with some science and non-science majors to understand how this might work in a Siena lab. The team is still tweaking the project to ensure that the cloud chambers can be effectively used in Siena coursework. 

While at the week-long conference, Cola presented a poster on their work, connected with a graduate mentor from Michigan State University, and attended sessions on new research in her specialty of particle physics. 

“I definitely learned how to network and develop social and communication skills by meeting so many different people,” she said. “It’s super important to know how to be able to meet and talk to new people at an academic conference. I would definitely recommend this kind of experience to any undergrad.”

With one year left at Siena, Cola is exploring possible graduate study options. Programs from a wide range of universities were represented at a grad school fair at the conference.
The cloud chamber project has been funded by a combination of Bellis’ grant from the National Science Foundation and Siena’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity.

Cola got to attend the meeting through her acceptance to the Conference Experience for Undergrads (CEU), which both subsidizes a portion of the cost of travel and connected her with her MSU mentor. And yes, experiencing Hawai’ian scenery and culture were on the agenda as well – attendees enjoyed a luau and sightseeing between sessions.

“It’s a tremendous experience for a student to take the lead on a research project where they can come up with and test on their own ideas and then circle back and improve upon them,” said Bellis. “For super-strong students like Jillian, we try to level-up that experience by sending them to conferences where they can share their work with experts in the field and then bring that feedback back to Siena to share with peers and faculty alike. Scientists at the conference were very impressed and excited about Jillian's work and want to see where it goes next!”