High-school student eyes science future at FRIB

05 May 2021

Maya Wallach is a high-school student who follows the Michigan State University (MSU) physics curriculum and takes courses at MSU. She is gaining first-hand experience at the FRIB Laboratory as she pursues a science career. Her time at FRIB is part of the Physicists Inspiring the Next Generation: Exploring the Nuclear Matter (PING) program. PING allows high-school and undergraduate-college students to participate in nuclear physics research.

Wallach is from Stafford, Virginia. She became interested in science in preschool after being introduced to dinosaurs. Her current interest area is nuclear and particle physics, and she plans to earn a doctorate in nuclear physics.

PING is a year-long program that includes a two-week summer program and a year-long research experience to expose middle- and high-school students to the fields of basic and applied nuclear-astrophysics. PING also includes an eight- to ten-week summer experience program to cultivate interest in physics for undergraduate students.

“To fully understand nuclear physics, you must understand more than just nuclear physics. FRIB allowed me to apply my knowledge of computer science and develop research skills as I created an interactive Table of Nuclides for students with vision impairment,” said Wallach. “Because of my experience with FRIB, I now have a passion for research. I have expanded my library to include over 15 books about nuclear physics.”

MSU Associate Professor of Physics Paul Gueye met Wallach and her parents through colleagues at Virginia Union University. His colleagues had met her at a high-school science fair. Wallach had just finished her freshman year of high school, and expressed an interest in working with Gueye to conduct research. After two weeks, she was able to solve second-year physics undergraduate coursework. With her parents’ permission, Wallach enrolled as a freshman physics major while simultaneously finishing her high-school degree early while in the tenth grade.

“I am in awe on what she has already accomplished at such a young age and what the future could be with such a talented young African American scientist,” said Gueye. “I am humbled and honored to have her joining MSU and my research group. I have no doubt that she will be one of the most successful physicists and open opportunities for many other young aspiring scientists, along with establishing bridges between communities of all background.”

The annual PING program was launched in 2014 during Gueye's tenure as the president of the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP). It is a collaboration between NSBP, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and Associated Universities Inc. PING focuses on multiple levels of physics and astronomy and provides an environment to increase diversity representation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

PING is one of many Minority Serving Institution (MSI) programs at FRIB. Gueye said such programs are key to diversifying the research field and the workforce. He said that can be key to opening up new ideas and paths for scientific discovery. He currently collaborates with MSIs to provide students and faculty with more opportunities and access.

“Diversification of the workforce is paramount to enabling new discoveries and solving society problems,” he said. “It provides a richer environment with different ideas and pathways to tackle various quests for our understanding of a particular science or non-science topic.”

Michigan State University (MSU) establishes and operates FRIB as a user facility for the Office of Nuclear Physics in the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. Hosting the most powerful heavy-ion accelerator, FRIB will enable scientists to make discoveries about the properties of rare isotopes in order to better understand the physics of nuclei, nuclear astrophysics, fundamental interactions, and applications for society, including in medicine, homeland security, and industry.

The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of today’s most pressing challenges. For more information, visit energy.gov/science.