Earlier this semester scientific history was made when the discovery of gravitational waves was announced. While Cal State Fullerton was only one of the many colleges and research centers involved in the discovery, dozens of CSUF students aided in the scientific breakthrough.
Now, four undergraduate students and members of the Gravitational Wave Physics and Astronomy Center at CSUF who contributed to the research discuss how they got involved in the world of science.
Erik Muniz, a senior undergraduate in physics, had a fascination with how things worked as a child.
“The pursuit of wanting to know more about the world and how things worked in the universe drove me to that pursuit,” Muniz said.
In high school, Muniz’s interests were primarily in biochemistry, hoping to some day find the cure for cancer and AIDS. A book called “Physics of the Impossible,” by Michio Kaku, however, drew him to the potential in pursuing physics.
“It talked about teleportation and lightsabers; things that you can only imagine in science fiction,” Muniz said.
The book opened the door to the major in which he would soon find himself, but it wasn’t until taking an introductory course at the University of Pittsburgh that he considered it a serious pursuit. In the summer of 2013, he became involved in his first research project at Cal State Fullerton.
Initially, Muniz was concerned about not knowing everything about the science he was researching, but he found that his knowledge began to grow with supplementary courses on campus.
“It was a really good experience doing research but also learning things in the classroom,” Muniz said.
This would be the beginning of his journey in research, eventually leading to being a part of a modern scientific breakthrough.
“I had no clue that it was all going to happen,” Muniz said, in regards to the gravitational-wave detection.
Much of Muniz’s lab assistance involves a working analysis of light scatter through MATLAB software and data acquisition through LabVIEW. In other words, he does a lot of coding.
“Only thing that we’re protecting ourselves from is carpal tunnel,” Muniz joked.
Muniz believes the diverse and encouraging lab environment was the key to the team’s scientific success.
“It’s really the different perspectives and thinking, and that’s what really pushed things forward and keeps everyone motivated,” Muniz said.
Muniz’s family was also excited to hear that he was part of scientific history.
“My mom just went like crazy. She said, ‘Wow, congratulations.’ It was a really good time to be able to share that with them,” he said.
With the detection of gravitational waves this semester, all of the cumulative work and camaraderie paid off.
“The discovery has opened up a whole new window of understanding,” Muniz said. “It shows that our understanding of physics is constantly changing.”
Juan Rocha, 25, a mechanical engineering major, was born and raised in Anaheim just a few blocks away from Disneyland.
Rocha grew up watching documentaries about the cosmos, which helped foster his interest in science. But it was really his inquisitiveness from school that planted seeds of interest in science and mechanics.
As a child, Rocha was intrigued with the mechanical aspects of how everyday things worked.
“As a kid I was always interested in how a car worked, why it would go fast, all of the processes of how a car worked,” Rocha said. By sorting through other fields, Rocha eventually found a major that best met his general interests.
At Katella High School, he was involved in several honor science courses. “At that time, I was just trying to take as many accelerated science classes as I could,” Rocha said.
While his scientific academic pursuits began at Santiago Canyon College, it was last summer at Cal State Fullerton that he had begun participating on his first research project.
“We didn’t know what kinds of labs we were going to get into or what kind of research we were going to do. We were just kind of handed a research (project) and I ended up liking it,” Rocha said.
Now, as a member of the Gravitational-Wave Physics and Astronomy Center (GWPAC), Rocha was one of the undergraduate students who aided in the research leading to the gravitational-waves detection.
Rocha’s work in the lab involved improving equipment such as the scatterometer, so that the equipment’s sensitivity may be improved and thus make more accurate measurements.
“Learning physics and science is giving me that extra ‘why it works the way it does,’” Rocha said.
Rocha came into the research project at a vital time, as the chances for making a detection was greater than it had ever been due to the equipment’s sensitivity. Two days after the detectors became operational, the very first detection of gravitational waves was discovered. “I guess we just got lucky to have the detectors on at the right time,” Rocha said.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the research leading to the discovery for Rocha was the time he spent with his research colleagues. “The atmosphere in the lab is always uplifting and always good to work with,” he said.lab is always uplifting and always good to work with.”
Nousha Afshari, a physics major at Cal State Fullerton, is in charge of operating the Orange County Relativity Cluster for Astronomy (ORCA), the Gravitational-Waves Physics and Astronomy Center (GWPAC)’s supercomputer. But, she wasn’t always a physics major.
The 23-year-old arrived at CSUF as a business major, unsure of what she wanted to do. After about two years in the program, she felt like something was missing.
“I took a physics 101 class here … and I fell in love with it,” she said.
Afshari said the switch was the best decision she’s ever made, even though her first encounter with the subject is something she looks back on with a more good-natured humor than pride.
“I did take physics in high school,” she said. “Failed it. It was awful. It was a train wreck. Definitely had to retake it later.”
When she first became a physics major, Afshari said she was eager for the opportunity to be involved in research. When Geoffrey Lovelace, a physics assistant professor, sent out an email to undergraduate students in the department about an open position, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I think I emailed him like 10 seconds after he emailed everyone,” she said.
Since becoming a part of the GWPAC, Afshari became increasingly excited about the world of physics. She said that she’s usually at school for over 12 hours a day, but spends her time on campus doing what she loves.
“I really enjoy all of the research I do here. All of us have projects that no one else has done before and we’re also working on different things, so you really feel like you’re doing research,” she said.
She’s looking forward to grad school to become a medical physicist who works with MRI and CT scan machines.
“It’s a combination of bio and chem and engineering and physics and it just sounded like the most bada** thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.
Adrian Avila-Alvarez, a member of the GWPAC, was involved in examining the sample optics Caltech and MIT sent to CSUF.
“We test the coatings on it to see how much the light is being scattered off of it,” he said.
The 23-year-old recalled Sept. 14, when his research mentor announced during their weekly meeting that gravitational waves had been detected.
“We detected this incredibly small distortion,” Avila-Alvarez said. “To find out we actually detected something that small was … it was huge, it was really huge.”
The group wasn’t allowed to tell anyone who wasn’t affiliated with Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) about the discovery until the day of the big announcement on Feb. 11.
When he was finally able to talk about the discovery, the first people he told were his parents.
“The hard part was trying to explain it to him (his dad) in Spanish,” he said.
Avila-Alvarez said that his parents were some of his biggest supporters.
“They definitely paved the road for me,” he said. “When they had me, they decided, ‘Let’s work so that our son can have a career and not work so hard as us.’”
Avila-Alvarez said that he grew up in a bad neighborhood, but his parents’ support and challenging classes, such as Advanced Placement Physics in high school, kept him working hard.
“I was definitely not always interested in physics,” he said. “I was doing naughty things myself.”
Since he enrolled at CSUF, Avila-Alvarez has been working and studying as hard as he can.
“Monday through Thursday I hit the books, and Friday I come in here and do research,” he said. “And I come in Saturday as well, eight to five.”