Student Spotlights

Frank Corral, '19Frank Corral
Physics, 2019

 

Frank, first of all, congratulations on receiving the Kathryn Regan Service Award! 

Thank you, it came as a big surprise actually, I wasn’t expecting it at all. But it means a lot to me: I love to teach, I like being an educator; in fact, I’d like to become a professor. I love the moment when I see widening eyes, and the students start to ask questions with enthusiasm—without any prompting—their curiosity is piqued. Getting teenagers’ attention, with science, I always regard that as a big success.

 I really enjoyed our trip to the AAPT conference, when it was here in San Diego: we saw some cool demonstrations, and the importance of adding a real-life narrative and the impact of hands-on experience really struck me.

Did you start here as a physics major?

Nope. I started as a bio major, actually, at Grossmont College, a place I really appreciate for how easy it was to explore different subjects. I had great teachers there.

I really like biology, was fascinated by it even in high school. The phenomenon of life just blew my mind—still does, in fact. Then in college I took chemistry, and that was, like. . . magic. The ability to create something out of nothing, basically. . . starting with few basic building blocks, you can arrange them in endless combinations and permutations, and out of that arises complexity, in fact, all the complexity of life. Crazy. 

But then I took physics, and that was amazing! The foundation for everything. It wasn’t that easy, I just found it really interesting. It’s applicable  to all aspects of life, from optimizing how to build a good refrigerator to understanding the physical basis for life itself. And even if you don’t end up really using it per se, studying physics is still really useful, as it’s hard and will train your brain in all kinds of interesting and useful ways.

 I also came to appreciate math after studying physics. Never really cared for it before, even though of course I studied it from—what? Kindergarten? Just like how I found physics to be really useful for honing engineering-type thinking, I began to see how mathematics was an entirely new toolbox for doing physics. Having the right tool makes everything more efficient, and way more effective. (I love tools, haha.)

So, what’s on the horizon?

Grad school. I’m looking to continue studying gravitational physics. Life is short, but I’m taking my time to build a strong foundation, and I’m glad. Because, when studying physics, you learn how deep the field is—it goes all the way to the foundations of space, time, reality—and broad! What we learn here is so applicable, and allows for exploring new perspectives, especially when you integrate the liberal arts aspect of studying at a college like this one.

Another thing that’s great about studying here at USD, is that, more often than not, you can get your research published! As an undergrad, which is amazing. The research here is really top-notch, the professors of physics and biophysics are incredible. In my research, specifically, on accretion disks and magnetic fields, I spent my whole first summer just reading, soaking in a ton of stuff even though a lot of it was way over my head. My second summer I actually got to do some real analytical work: we created equations, and I took them to Denver [APS meeting]. Third summer has been computational work, which has been an entirely new experience for me. That’s the work that will go into the paper we hope to finish next semester.

As incremental as it is, it’s still new: something that has never been done before. I’m humbled and grateful to be able to add to the body of human knowledge, and to be a link in the lineage of Ted [Prof. Dezen] and his mentors and the student researchers whose work I’m building on and branching from. And what a time to be in this field! Our equations have direct relevance to this M87 image, while we’re listening to coalescing black holes. . . !? Not only that, but space, right around us right here, now, is undulating—it’s like sci fi. I think about Einstein, who had pencil and paper and no fear. Such beautiful simplicity, how a child-like imagination leads to a sophisticated theory.


 

Kathryn ReganKathryn Regan
Biophysics, 2018

What drew you to majoring in biophysics?

I was originally pre-med, but the biophysics major had all of those requirements (other than psychology). Plus it was a little bit of everything, so it would give me a wider grasp of subject matter. And I thought it would develop my critical thinking and problem solving skills more than other majors.

What has surprised you about the major?

It’s interesting that there’s such a wide variety of interests of the people in the department. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how you can see people growing and changing throughout the course of the program—you can visibly see the changes happening in your cohort.

The colloquia series was a great way to see the incredibly wide array of problems that physicists are interested in. . . and have the tools to attack!

How did you get involved in research?

Dr. Anderson asked me if I had thought about research, and encouraged me to go talk to professors. I talked to Dr. Dezen and Dr. McGorty. Then I talked to a senior biophysics major, Stephanie, who was doing research in Dr. Anderson’s lab. Intrigued, I ended up being mentored by her. She was really excited, passionate, she was publishing papers—three by the time she graduated, lead author on at least one.

I liked the bio side, doing wet lab stuff—actual physical work in the lab.  But the autonomy and the immediacy were what made me stay. I had actual deliverables that I could make, and see results right away. Then I had my own project after a few months, something no one else was working on. In our group, there’s a steep learning curve, but then you start taking data and seeing results.

The people there made it fun to come in every day, and bonding with lab-mates made late nights tolerable, even fun. Then I got attached to my DNA: fluorescently labeling them, watching these little guys walk around after spending so much time with them. . . It’s really cool to see the physics happening right in front of you, from the cellular processes down to the molecular dynamics, where I’m directly observing ambient thermal energy moving my DNA on the single molecule scale. Maybe I’ve developed a bit of a God complex? [laughs] I like to personify my DNA molecules.

What have you learned/gained from your research experience?

I got to go to national conferences, I got to develop my own expertise—now I can serve as an expert source to people just starting out in our lab. I got my name on papers, it will help (hopefully!) with getting into grad school; I gained confidence in my lab skills, to where I can go into a graduate program and do basically the same thing; that is, work independently on research projects.

How did you get involved in outreach?

This is actually crazy: Involvement in SPS, awareness of different awards, et cetera, all stemmed from a conversation with Dr. Severn in 272 lab. I said I wished we had a mentorship program between high school and college students, specifically about the why and how of getting into college. He then told me about his ideas for outreach with Hoover High, and told me to go to an SPS meeting. I ended up becoming president of our USD SPS chapter, and pushed for it to actually happen. Now we do it every semester.

It’s so cool to see the kids getting into it, connecting the science they’re learning with their lives right there. In high school you have so many options, including many you might not even know about. It’s so important to have positive role models in math and science, people who are really into it, passionate and knowledgeable. And we try to humanize science by making the demos and experiments we do fun and not too scary, while they are actually still learning something.

I would love to see the department get even more active with outreach in the near future!

Future plans?

Publish, finish this project—rather, this chapter of the project: we could probably publish three or four more times before finishing this phase. Then I’ll head out to grad school.

Kathryn Regan is the recipient of the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award from the Society of Physics Students (SPS). Under her leadership, the USD SPS chapter was awarded a Blake Lily Prize in 2017.