By Alexandra Detweiler (PHYS 2nd year), president, Illinois Tech Society of Physics Students (SPS)
Yonas Gebre, a fourth year double major in physics and applied math, had originally thought that physics was solely for engineers. When he was young, Gebre explained, “I didn’t know the word ‘physicist’ existed.” Gebre grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and had initially done very poorly in math: then, he met a teacher in high school who believed very strongly that everyone in his class should succeed. In addition, Gebre had competed with a friend about who would get the higher score on math tests. “I got tired of losing I guess, so I eventually studied.”
Gebre came to Illinois Tech first as an applied mathematics major only. According to him, he chose Illinois Tech because of its small size and proximity to Chicago. In addition, Gebre had a very good experience with the recruiter that spoke to him about Illinois Tech. “I spoke to her multiple times,” he said, “and she went out of her way to make me feel welcomed.” Eventually, he found the physics department at Illinois Tech and decided to become a part of it as well.
Gebre’s achievements are expansive. The summer of his second year, he was accepted into a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a part of a large collaboration working on the South Pole Telescope. Gebre’s project was to look at the energy spectral resolution from galaxies in order to determine how old they were, what shape they were, whether they were surrounded by dust, etc. Gebre learned a multitude of new skills that summer, like how to program, solder properly, and use power tools in a lab. “I’d never worked with power tools before, so it was really fun,” Gebre said. To emphasize how much fun he had, he explained, “Any chance I had to play with liquid nitrogen, I took it.”
The summer of Gebre’s third year, he worked with Bryce Littlejohn, assistant professor of physics at Illinois Tech. Gebre assisted Littlejohn as a part of the Precision Reactor Oscillation SPECTrum (PROSPECT) collaboration, a group building an antineutrino detector to be placed extremely close to a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Gebre traveled to New Hampshire and Connecticut while assisting in the building of the detector itself, and also worked on a data analysis project about which a paper was recently published. The subject of the paper focused on the flux of antineutrinos from nuclear reactors, analyzing the way in which theoretical models didn’t match up with experimental data, suggesting that perhaps the prediction for the isotopic flux of one or more of the isotopes in the reactor core is incorrect. Gebre as well as others from Littlejohn’s group used experimental data from nuclear antineutrino experiments to find out whether some isotopes did have their values wrong, and by how much.
In addition to greatly contributing to a recently published paper, Gebre won first place for undergraduate physics at the Illinois Tech poster session in August 2017. “It’s not only your research skill sets that matter, but also the way you present them,” Gebre explained.
Gebre is heavily involved in Illinois Tech’s chapter of Society of Physics Students (SPS), serving as secretary from spring 2017 until fall 2017, and he also works at the Academic Resource Center (ARC) at Illinois Tech tutoring in math and physics.
To learn more about Illinois Tech SPS, see the chapter’s facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/sps.iit/