Terraforming Mars


(Image copyright NASA)

On February 28 we were delighted to host Dr Chris McKay from the NASA Ames Research Center.

Dr McKay, who does research on the evolution of the solar system and the origin of life, gave a talk on the physics and ethics of terraforming Mars. He’s also actively involved in planning for future Mars missions including human exploration. He has been involved with polar and desert research, traveling to the Antarctic Dry Valleys, the Atacama Desert, the Arctic, and the Namib Desert to conduct research in these Mars-like environments.

Dr McKay described a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much energy it would take to convert Mars into a planet warm enough for plant life to grow and eventually have an atmosphere where humans could breathe. He discussed the idea of using nuclear weapons to warm Mars, how perfluorocarbon (PFC) gases could create the right greenhouse gas effect, and what time scale this would take: centuries (for plant life) or hundreds of thousands of years (for habitable human conditions)?

Dr McKay also discussed the ethics of terraforming: Should we leave an isolated planet as it is? How should we react if we encounter any kind of life form, even microbial, on Mars? What could a Second Genesis discovery, of independent life, tell us about biochemistry on Earth? His take is that, if possible, we should consider terraforming Mars, but be prepared for ethical questions that haven’t been considered yet.

Thanks to Dr McKay for a great talk and a lot of great stories about doing research in the Arctic and Antarctic!

Money for Research

Guillermo Barro Figure

The Physics faculty not only teach, they are also researchers in various areas of physics and astronomy, in areas like galaxy formation and evolution, black holes at the center of galaxies, particle physics and the Higgs boson, and exoplanet discovery and classification.

To do this research takes time, people and money. Currently the faculty have more than $900,000 in external grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Google, the Hubble Space Telescope Program, and the San Joaquin County Office of Education. For a small department, that’s a lot of money! Some of this money is to support undergraduate students to work with faculty on their projects or to travel to conferences to present their research. You don’t need to be a world expert, you just need to be curious and ready to learn new skills.

The figure is from Dr Guillermo Barro’s recent paper on star-forming galaxies, you can read more about it here – or just ask him about it at a physics social.

Here are some of the grants:

Dr Elisa Toloba, “The Nature of Compact Stellar Systems in Massive Galaxy Clusters Using the Hubble Frontier Fields”, $130,000 from the Space Sciences Institute

Dr Daniel Jontof-Hutter, “Statistical study of known multi-planetary systems”, $110,000 from the NASA Astrophysical Data Analysis Program

Dr Guillermo Barro, “Spatially resolved UV-to-FIR SEDs of compact SFGs at z~2”, $130,000 from the Space Sciences Institute

Dr Jim Hetrick, “The Delta Sierra Science Project”, $55,000 from the San Joaquin County Office of Education

Dr Kieran Holland and Dr Jim Hetrick, “Lattice gauge theory at the University of the Pacific”, $210,000 from the National Science Foundation


Women in Physics conference


Katie Ram, Nina Madsen and Katie Christensen attended the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) which was held in Los Angeles at Harvey Mudd College, Pomona College and Cal Poly Pomona during the winter break. Here’s what they thought about it:

Katie Ram: With good fortune, I had the privilege of attending the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) for the third time. Each conference has provided a unique experience that has shaped and influenced my experience in the physics community.

My first year, I discovered the vast diversity of fields available to someone with a physics degree. Many misinformed peers had convinced me that I would only be able to teach or work in a lab, but at CUWiP I learned of many other careers and spoke with physicists working in everything from industry to astrophysics to law.

The Pacific physics department is a remarkable place for its students. Here I have found support and encouragement, and I rarely, if ever, felt foreign to the physics community. However, during my year studying abroad in Chile, I was not only an actual foreigner, but one of maybe 5 women in a physics class of over 100 students. That eye-opening experience and some discouraging statistics led me to question what sort of environment I would be entering after graduating from Pacific. However, a second venture to CUWiP motivated me to continue in my path. I was encouraged by the presence of 200+ women physicists, and learning about imposter syndrome helped me overcome underlying self-doubt. Panelists and peers shared not only their research, but their stories on overcoming gender stereotypes and insecurity.

This last CUWiP was helpful to me as an upcoming graduate. In addition to sessions on various graduate school options, I partook in discussions on work-life balance. A solid work-life balance is essential to a sustainable lifestyle and career, but Ph.D. programs and careers in science are notoriously difficult environments for establishing such an equilibrium. A diverse panel of physicists explained their personal routines and strategies for creating a work-life balance. Already experimenting with some of their approaches, I hope to incorporate some of their ideas into my lifestyle as I journey into my career.

Overall, CUWiP has provided me with the resources, information, and motivation that I needed when I needed them. I highly encourage any women physics students to attend, as the conference may reshape their perception of a career in physics.

Katie Christensen: The women in physics conference was very informative. Everyone who spoke had a clear message and was helpful to many of the women there. It was great seeing and hearing from successful women in the physics field, and reassuring to hear that their career path wasn’t as manicured as one would expect. It was comforting to be surrounded by hundreds of women who were all excited about physics. Regardless of the small population of professional women with physics degrees, and the adversity some women in physics might have faced, many of them have been successful in building WIP societies at their universities and getting other people, not just physics students, interested in STEM topics. Overall, the conference was well put together, and very successful in spurring drive in women to persevere in the world of physics.


Fall awards

Members of the physics department received grants and awards during the Fall semester:

  • Prof. James Hetrick received the Faculty Mentor award given annually by the Pacific Alumni Association to three current and emeriti professors for their lifelong mentoring of students and alumni.
  • Gerold Curell (’17) received a FAMOUS (Funds for Astronomical Meetings: Outreach to Underrepresented Scientists) Travel Grant from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to attend the 227th meeting of the AAS. In addition, Gerold received funding from the SoE Pacific Fund to help pay for his travel expenses.
  • Vaughn Petersen (’17) was awarded a Student Travel Grant by the Dr. Gerald A. Soffen Memorial Fund for the Advancement of Space Science Education to attend the 227th meeting of the AAS. In addition, Vaughn received funding from the COP Pacific Fund to help pay for his travel expenses.
  • Krista Hibert (’17) received a Pacific Fund Student Conference Travel Grant from the  Office of Undergraduate Research to attend the 227th meeting of the AAS.
  •  A.J. Romelfanger (’17) received funding from the SoE Pacific Fund to attend the 227th meeting of the AAS.

Congratulations! These awards and grants were very much deserved.

Sarah Antonsson attends Penn State Open House

In October 2015, Pennsylvania State University hosted the STEM Open House, a program which invites underrepresented junior and senior undergraduates with strong academic records and research proposals to visit the campus, explore the graduate and research opportunities there. Applicants submitted transcripts, personal statements, letters of recommendation, and research area interests. Finalists were brought to Penn State for the Open House weekend with all travel expenses covered.
Sarah’s Report:
The weekend was a busy one, with individualized schedules jam-packed with presentations, meetings, and panel discussions. Even meal times were occupied by informative sessions. Visiting students were encouraged to ask questions at all times, including via anonymous notes.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Penn State and found the program extremely informative. The chilly weather was a welcoming break in this all-too-long summer we have had in Stockton. During the morning of the first day, I had the opportunity to meet privately with two professors of the Acoustics department and one professor from the Materials Research Institute, and received tours of both facilities. In the afternoon, I met with some of the Physics department faculty, along with other prospective Physics PhD students, and got to see a laser-cooling setup during our tour of the facilities. Before I left on Sunday, I was able to meet with the materials science professor again, Prof. Mike Lanagan, and two of his PhD students for lunch. There, I learned about the students’ perspective of life at Penn State and in the department of Materials Science.
Despite the long and busy days scheduled for the visiting students, we still had the opportunity to explore the area on our own and get to know each other. I attended the Penn State orchestra concert on Friday night, at which I was able to meet a few of the school’s French horn players. Being a horn player myself, they were excited that I would join them in performances, if I attend Penn State next year. On Saturday night, I ventured off campus with a few other visiting students to a bar recommended by Dr. Flohic, called Zeno’s Pub. There, we found some peace and quiet while every other bar was filled with mobs of people cheering on Penn State’s football team, the Nittany Lions, during their away game against Ohio State.
Overall, the trip was very satisfying. I met many great people (both faculty and visiting students), learned a lot about Penn State and graduate school, and enjoyed seeing the beautiful campus and facilities. In addition to being a good learning opportunity, it served as a nice break from the stresses of day-to-day life in my senior year, here at Pacific.

Talk: Experimental Engineering (Arduinos and 3D Printing in Physics)

  • When: Tuesday September 29
  • When: 4pm
  • Where: Olson 120
  • Who: Chris Vincent (UOP ’15)
  • Title: Experimental Engineering

Chris will tell us about the engineering and research projects he was involved in over the summer.



Over the summer of 2015, Chris Vincent developed and honed skills in programming, prototyping, and the integration of experimental apparatuses. He worked on building an intensity controller for an alignment laser, a digital scale to measure the amount of N2 in a dewar, a scrolling LED sign to signify that the pump laser was in use, and a system to measure atmospheric data at various altitudes. To accomplish these tasks, he developed skills in programming for Arduino, including communications with external parts, such as potentiometers, load sensors, and LED matrices. Also, he honed 3D modeling and printing skills to create housings for the apparatuses. The ability to build and integrate experimental gear can be the factor to make or brake the completion of the experiment.

Pacific Physics alum David Pace (2002) recognized for contributions to fusion research

Dr. David Pace

Pacific Physics alum David Pace was awarded the prestigious American Physical Society‘s 2014 Landau-Spitzer Award for his contributions to understanding the physics of nuclear fusion.

David completed his B.S. degree in Physics at the University of the Pacific in 2002. His desire to study nuclear fusion developed following his participation in a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) in 2001 at the National Spherical Torus Experiment, run by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, where a mega-Ampere current run inspired his excitement for tokamak research.

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in experimental plasma physics at UCLA, working at the Large Plasma Device Laboratory there. With teams at the DIII-D National Fusion Facility through the University of California, Irvine, and at the Alcator C-Mod National Tokamak Facility, Dr. Pace helped commission fast ion loss detector diagnostic systems, leading to new studies of loss mechanisms through wave-particle interactions. He is a U.S. member of the International Tokamak Physics Activity Energetic Particles Topical Group, and leader of the United States Burning Plasma Organization Energetic Particles Group. He is presently a staff scientist with General Atomics and continues to engage in energetic ion research topics anticipated to influence the operation of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER).

The Landua-Spitzer Award specifically recognizes

an individual or group of researchers not exceeding three, for outstanding theoretical, experimental or technical contribution(s) in plasma physics, and for advancing the collaboration and unity between the European Union (EU) and the United States of America (USA) by joint research, or research that advances knowledge which benefits the EU and USA communities in a unique way.

The Award consists of a $4000 honorarium and a certificate citing the contribution made by the recipient. The citation for Dr. Pace reads:

For greater understanding of energetic particle transport in tokamaks through collaborative research

Congratulations David!

To learn more check out the links in the text above,  especially

  • the ITER project site to learn more about the international project to build a nuclear fusion reactor, and
  • this article, “A Star in a Bottle” in The New Yorker magazine