Hammond physics graduation candidate experiences research

Hammond resident Tim Polka transferred to Purdue University Calumet with a thirst to engage in research, but uncertain whether his thirst would be satisfied.

“I wasn’t sure I would have the opportunity to participate in the type of research I was looking for,” he said, “but all that changed when I met Professor (Neeti) Parashar.”

Polka, 23, met Parashar, a Purdue Calumet associate professor of physics, as she guided a tour for Purdue Calumet students at Fermilab. The Batavia, Ill.-based, U.S. Department of Energy-funded national research facility builds and operates the accelerators and detectors that world-wide physicists use to carry out cutting edge research about the make-up of the universe.

By the time the tour ended, Polka was hooked. Not only would he go on to realize his goal of participating in high-energy physics research, but doing so would help position him to earn a Purdue degree in physics, which he will receive during Purdue Calumet Commencement Exercises Sunday (5/22, 6 p.m.) at Merrillville’s Radisson Star Plaza Theater.

High energy physics is an experimental science focusing on identifying particles that comprise the universe’s matter and their interactions through forces of nature. Results in this field are achieved through colliding particles in a controlled laboratory environment, such as Fermilab.

In pursuit of his research goal, Polka enrolled in an experiential learning physics course Parashar taught. Subsequently, Parashar mentored Polka through his initial research and exposed him to further research conducted at Fermilab. Polka then took advantage of an opportunity to spend his 2010 spring break week learning and researching specific experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Large Hadron Collider is a particle accelerator located on the foothills of the Jura mountains on the Swiss-French border. The circular Collider, located 100 meters beneath the ground, accelerates protons with protons traveling at nearly the speed of light to collide with each other.

Parashar then afforded Polka the chance to continue his research activity last summer at Fermilab on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment. The Compact Muon Solenoid is one of four major experimental components at the Large Hadron Collider. The CMS is designed to detect a wide range of particles and other phenomena produced in high energy collisions.

Data from this experiment is used by scientists to answer fundamental questions about the universe relating to its structure and origin. Polka was responsible for checking data produced by software to assure desired operation of a specific component.

“Tim was very enthusiastic as he began his work at Fermilab,” Parashar said. “It was fantastic to see him so passionate and engaged, learning and leading at the same time.”

Impressed by Polka’s accurate and prompt work, Parashar provided him the rare opportunity to travel with her earlier this spring to CERN, where they demonstrated and presented research data. More specifically, Polka attended meetings, toured facilities and gained valuable, confidence-building experience presenting in person to world-class scientists.

“Getting out of the classroom and working in a real-life experience, not only has given me more confidence, but it also has improved my resume,” he said. “Because of Professor Parashar and experiential learning, I got to live my dream these past months. Now, I look forward to graduation and further opportunities to continue my education and research.”

Polka has applied to graduate school and says that ultimately he would like to work within the field of high energy physics, preferably at a national laboratory such as Fermilab.

(Researched and written by Purdue Calumet Experiential Learning Outreach Coordinator Jan Gonzalez)