Spotlight on Student Research

A Q&A with Antonio Lorenzo ’11, physics major

Why study science at Williams and not at a major research university?
Science at Williams is focused on undergraduate education.  The small class sizes were appealing because it meant that I would have a close relationship with each of my professors.  The other thing I found appealing about science at Williams was the lack of graduate students.  To me this meant that the professors would be more focused on teaching undergraduates, and that there would be research opportunities for undergraduates.

Antonio Lorenzo
Antonio Lorenzo '11 uses laser spectroscopy to test fundamental theories in physics. Photo by Kaison Tanabe '13 (kaison.org).

Has the experience been what you hoped it would be?
My experience has been better than I could have hoped for.  Professors take a sincere interest in ensuring students understand the material, and as a result, a personal connection is often formed.  They are always accessible and willing to answer questions about anything, from a question about a problem set to the meaning of life.  With the type of people that attend Williams, I was worried competition could be a problem.  Thankfully, cooperative work is encouraged.  Working on my physics problem sets with other majors has made the work more enjoyable and effective.  I never expected to enjoy almost living in the Physics Common Room as much as I do.

What kind of research opportunities does Williams offer students?
There are research opportunities for students in almost any field.  There are senior honors theses in which the student does almost independent research in some topic for a semester or year.  The summer science research program allows underclassmen to do research with a professor for a summer.  And professors often have openings in their labs during the course of a semester, which is another opportunity for students to engage in research.  Students often just need to talk to a professor to find a research opportunity.

Tell us about the research you’ve done in the physics department, and with whom. What are you studying, and what insights are you seeking through that research?
Currently, I am doing research with Professor Tiku Majumder in the area of atomic physics for my senior honors thesis.  We perform precise measurements of atoms (in my case Indium) to test fundamental physical theories.  By working with bigger Group IIIA atoms, we can test new atomic theory and the Standard Model.  My work focuses on using laser spectroscopy to probe a beam of Indium atoms to look for an effect predicted by quantum mechanics.  By making a precise measurement of this effect, we can provide feedback to groups working on approximate solutions to the wave functions of these heavy atoms.  Making these precise measurements is not easy, and most of my time has been spent testing different methods of detection and developing a source for the Indium beam.

Any milestone or particularly exciting moments in your research?
Over the course of my research I’ve had my fair share of exciting moments.  The first came when I demonstrated that our proposed method of detection (FM Spectroscopy) should be suitable to make the measurement with the precision we need.  Another exciting moment was turning on the furnace I helped design to heat the Indium for the first time.  Some things may have combusted, but it has been repaired, and it is exciting to see something you’ve created work.  Hopefully another milestone will come this semester when we fire up the furnace in a vacuum chamber and observe the signal we expect.

What’s next for you after Williams?
Next year I plan to take a year off, and do something non-physics related.  I would really love to go to Alaska and find some random job for a year.  After the break, I plan to attend graduate school in either physics or engineering for my doctorate.  Then I hope to have a career in research, whether it be at a university as a professor, at a national lab, or in industry.  My biggest hurdle will be determining what area of physics/engineering interests me most.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the lab?
When I’m not in lab, I’m often doing work for other classes, including reading and problem sets.  Luckily, I enjoy my classes.  Other than that, I hang out with friends, I play on the Men’s Rugby Team, and I try to get out into the mountains hiking or backpacking as much as I can.

What’s your favorite thing about Williams? What will you miss most?
My favorite thing about Williams is the people.  I couldn’t ask for better friends, and I will miss them all after graduation.  I will miss the Physics Common Room with all the wackiness that problem sets bring about.  I’ll miss the Purple Valley surrounded by the gorgeous Berkshires.  Finally, I will miss the quality of instruction that one can only get from a place like Williams.