Physics major studies the universe, has paper published
|Name:||Brent Follin, '09
A&S Undergraduate Research grant (three summers)
Tell me a little about your experience as a physics major at Richmond.
The department here is really close knit. I spent the last semester abroad at the University of Edinburgh and there is a big distinction between the faculty there and the Richmond faculty. In the physics department, faculty really take the time to forge relationships with their students. I'm sort of treated the way a grad student or post-doctoral fellow at a larger university would be.
What are some of your favorite aspects of this close-knit environment?
I’ve been able to observe and be a part of the very center of research done in the physics department. I’ve had many interesting and illuminating talks with my professors over lunch or even dinner in their homes. The professors aren't just researchers and teachers I've worked with; they're friends who I'll actually miss when I graduate.
You do research in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology—sounds impressive. What’s the best way to describe what you study?
I think the best way to explain these fields is through distances (or equivalently, times—a long, long time ago means a galaxy far, far away). The "nearby" astrophysics, such as the study of the sun and the solar system, is a completely different beast than the far-field astrophysics of distant stars, galaxies and black holes. On one end of the spectrum, it can be about trying to understand the atmospheric content of Jupiter, and on the other, it can be about trying to understand the general distribution of matter and energy in the entire universe. Cosmology is the theoretical study of the universe.
Tell me about your specific research.
My research, dealing with the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), is about as far towards the "far away" and the general as you can get. It deals with the universe as it was around 12 billion years ago. Though that sounds broad, there are specific questions that researchers at Richmond are trying to answer. Research teams at Richmond are studying the design specifics of an instrument to measure the CMB (which isn't easy), as well as methods of eliminating background noise from CMB measurements. These are small questions but answering them will hopefully put us closer to our next major breakthrough in cosmology.
And you've had a paper published recently?
Yes. The work I was doing started when a professor of mine posed an interesting math problem that also had an important application in instrument design for CMB measurements. I liked it enough that two years ago, I applied for a summer research grant to study the problem in more depth. I continued working on it in the fall before leaving for Scotland and for several weeks once I returned to the United States. The paper is a joint work of my professor Ted Bunn, myself and a post-graduate student at another university. The post-graduate student actually wrote the paper and sent me drafts to critique.
A published paper is a pretty big accomplishment for an undergraduate. What’s next in research for you?
I'm now working on methods of quantifying the ability of several theoretical and proposed instruments to pick up faint polarization patterns in the CMB. If we can measure this polarization, it can offer us one of the first real tests of a central theory in cosmology called inflation, as well as push the envelope of our knowledge about the universe to some 10 to 20 seconds after the big bang.
When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?
My first dream was to be a "seashell farmer.” My mother finally killed this dream, however, by pointing out that seashells are not cultivated. I was very creative in my job search back then, though, so I next came up with Civil War general (I grew up near Gettysburg). There weren't any positions open though, so by high school I was oscillating between physicist and lawyer. My love of math won me over to physics in the end, though my lawyer side lives on in my philosophy classes (I like to argue too much).
What does the future hold for you now?
The near future has me finishing my studies and writing a thesis on my work from this summer and fall. After that, I'll hopefully be teaching in Richmond City Public Schools for a couple of years since I feel strongly about the need for better math and science education at the middle and high school levels. I'm also starting to plan for graduate school and have been searching for the best universities to continue the research that I've been doing at Richmond.