High school interns benefit from tackling IceCube challenges

As the summer is heating up, two local high school students are chilling out working on some seriously cool science. Nicolas Dupaty from Madison East High School and Emily Jean Zerger from Madison West are research interns with the South Pole-based IceCube Neutrino Observatory.

Students working in the lab at the UW physics department
PEOPLE interns Nicolas (left) and Emily Jean (right) work with UW undergraduate David (back) to write scripts for their experiments.

This internship placement is a part of UW–Madison’s PEOPLE (Pre–College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence) high school program. Students are challenged to apply methods of scientific inquiry, analyze data, and research questions in humanities and social sciences through hands-on experiences and exposure to professional fields. Internships are offered following the students’ junior year.

Mentors Chris Wendt, a senior scientist with IceCube, and David Schmidt, an undergraduate at UW, are working with the two students for six weeks. Throughout the summer, the students are learning about the science and technology of the IceCube detector while conducting their own research.

Nicolas is working on an experiment that mimics the way IceCube sensors collect data. He’s using a computer to control the new “MicroDAQ” board, reading out signals from a photo sensor. While finding and fixing some design issues with the new board, he’s also learning about electronic noise and how it can interfere with data collection. His work is an in-depth look at the technology and instrumentation used in IceCube and this board will be used for IceTop scintillator modules and other future applications.

Emily Jean is also working on sensor technology for IceCube, focusing on how to precisely measure sensor performance at cold temperatures. She is looking at the effect of cold temperatures on how optical fibers transmit light, which has been a challenge for past lab measurements. She constructed an insulated box with a BeagleBone, an open-sounce single-board computer, and a temperature control system, for which she is writing a computer program. Later, the box will contain a photodiode to measure light from optical fibers outside the box. 

While Nicolas and Emily Jean didn’t have much prior experience with computer programming, they were able to work with David to learn the basics of coding in Python. Supporting the students has been a rewarding experience for David. “It was especially gratifying the first time they ran their scripts and the systems behaved exactly as expected; printing out nice clean data for us to analyze,” says David. 

Both students feel that the internship is helping them get a jump on computer programming and electrical engineering concepts, which they didn’t expect to need for a physics internship.

Chris found it very pleasurable to work with the students. “It’s great that Nicolas and Emily Jean were so motivated and that they were given this chance to become part of the physics life for this time,” he said. “They demonstrated how engaging in learning and meaningful work can be productive even before college, and it made me feel part of an exciting future.”

Although both students weren’t initially sure what to expect from the internship, they’ve enjoyed seeing how physics theory, engineering design, programming, and experimentation come together in creating a detector that addresses questions in physics. “Embrace the idea that not everything is as you originally thought,” says Nicolas. “It allows you to experience real science.”

Nicolas is determined to be a theoretical physicist studying string theory. He’s driven by the mathematical rigor and lack of experimental data supporting the theory. “String theory would allow us to look into areas of the Universe that we can’t begin to dream about at this time,” says Nicolas.

Emily Jean is interested in finding out about other areas of physics, like biophysics, but found this internship was a great start in figuring out her future career. “I’ve been loving it,” says Emily Jean. “It’s a really good base to build from.” She feels the computer programming and soldering techniques that she learned would be helpful in her future studies.

PEOPLE is a program designed to increase college enrollment and graduation rates of students from diverse backgrounds across Wisconsin. The program runs from elementary school through high school, with after-school tutoring, residential summer courses, and internship opportunities.