MSU is working with the US Department of Energy to develop a one-of-a-kind training program for Spartan graduate students.

With nearly $2 million in grant support from the US Department of Energy Office of Science, or DOE-SC, Michigan State University is launching a new initiative to assist Spartan students push the boundaries of physics and power the economy.

TRAIN-MI, or the High Energy Physics Instrumentation Traineeship in Michigan, will offer graduate students a unique educational program focused on developing high-tech tools to investigate high energy physics. According to Kendall Mahn, the program’s head, these equipment will help scientists better comprehend what makes up the universe by examining abundant but elusive particles like neutrinos and dark matter.

“There’s another layer to this, in that this is a secret engine of our economic power,” said Mahn, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the College of Natural Sciences.

While it takes years to answer the universe’s grand questions, the tools researchers develop to do so can often have a more immediate impact. Advances in these technologies may also aid in the improvement of products that people use on a daily basis, such as phones, laptops, and medical devices.

In addition, teaching students how to create these instruments gives them the skills they need to work in the corporations, universities, and national labs that help the US lead the world in science and innovation.

“I see our role as attempting to provide kids with as broad a range of abilities as possible and assisting them in integrating into those many communities,” Mahn added. “We’ll be preparing a generation of students who are ready to assist.”

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Wade Fisher, a professor of physics; Nathan Whitehorn, an assistant professor of physics; and Kyle Brown, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB, are among Mahn’s MSU colleagues who are helping to establish the program. According to Mahn, MSU is one of three colleges to get a grant like this from DOE. The other two are Stanford University and the University of California, Davis.

“For a unique opportunity like this, MSU is a pretty unique location,” she added. “For this type of job, we have a powerful, warm, and friendly environment.”

It also turns out that the high-energy particle physics instruments can be used in nuclear physics, which is another of MSU’s research strengths. After all, FRIB, a one-of-a-kind particle accelerator, is located on campus, as is the nation’s top-ranked nuclear physics doctoral school. Brown of FRIB is assisting nuclear physics students in gaining a significant role in the TRAIN-MI program.

“We have a great relationship with the nuclear science program, which fosters a really collaborative environment,” Mahn added.

She hopes, however, that graduate students from fields other than physics will join the TRAIN-MI program, which provides curriculum, mentorship, and certification upon completion. MSU is also collaborating with Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, formerly the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, in California to ensure students get hands-on experience working with technology on real experiments.

“I’d like graduate students to be aware of this program and to come down,” Mahn remarked. “It’s a chance to learn a variety of valuable and fun skills.”


The inspiration for this curriculum came from Mahn’s personal experiences as a particle physics graduate student. She had the unique chance to assist in the assembly of two detectors while pursuing her Ph.D. at Columbia University, including building one from the ground up. Particle physics projects are enormous and time-consuming, so students may not get much hands-on experience with high-energy apparatus after they’re up and running.

“There are a lot of big investigations in particle physics right now, but many students won’t acquire a good understanding of how detectors function or how to create them,” Mahn said.

She envisaged a graduate certification program as a method to assist students enhance their knowledge. TRAIN-MI is already a reality, thanks to significant assistance from DOE-SC and a framework given by the MSU Accelerator Science and Engineering Traineeship model developed at FRIB.

“We’ll provide students with assistance, training, and the opportunity to collaborate on new instruments with other like-minded individuals,” Mahn added. “Building something that works and teaches you something new about the world is a lot of joy.” It’s really nice to construct something with other people right now, after months of seclusion and screen time.”

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