Sometimes ah-ha moments can come at unexpected times.
For Texas A&M University senior physics major Layla Bakhtiari ’15, a big one happened not long after her discovery at age 11 of the TV show Stargate SG-1. At first, she was merely hooked by the intergalactic plot that followed a military team from Earth as they traveled the cosmos looking for alien technology. Before long, however, Bakhtiari was reevaluating what she thought she knew about science as well as her career aspirations.
“Even though it was science fiction, I kind of gained some fact from it in that I came to realize that science is kind of like a tool that allows you to explore the unknown,” Bakhtiari said. “This is why I decided to become a physicist.”
Bakhtiari’s realization led her from her hometown of Houston to Texas A&M, where she has spent the better part of her undergraduate years working alongside world-class researchers in the university’s Cyclotron Institute. As Bakhtiari wraps up her senior year and prepares to graduate on Friday (May 15), she says the 49,000-square-foot facility that serves as the core of Texas A&M’s nuclear science and accelerator-based technology program has never ceased to provide her with new reasons to love her major.
“Once I started to know more and more about physics, I just became even more excited about it,” she said. “Every day, I see things I’ve never seen before. I’ve been able to meet other people, and I think it’s interesting just because it’s all so out there.”
Bakhtiari says one of the best parts has been the level of hands-on involvement she’s had in some of the Cyclotron’s high-caliber research initiatives, thanks in part to her academic advisor, Cyclotron Director Dr. Sherry J. Yennello. It didn’t take long after joining Yennello’s research group for Bakhtiari to find her niche and become an instrumental part of the team, despite her undergraduate status.
Yennello’s group is focused on reaction mechanisms and the variables that affect their equation of state, the relationship between the values of the pressure, and volumes and temperature of a particular substance. Bakhtiari often contributes by spearheading projects of her own. Most recently, she was mapping statistical models to better understand the group’s data.
“What our group does can help us understand element formation, and this kind of applies to much larger things in astronomy and physics like star formation and supernovae,” Bakhtiari said. “I think it’s really fascinating with regard to the scope of what we’re doing here. The research we’re conducting — it’s done within one building. But the applications of this research affect systems larger than this planet.”
Yennello recalls one instance in which her team was using very delicate microchannel plates to detect particles. She says they had come to rely on Bakhtiari’s expertise regarding device construction — to the extent that, when a part suddenly needed to be changed at a critical moment in the experiment, they had to send for her to make the repair.
“You had graduate students, postdocs and myself all sitting around dependent on Layla being able to make this adjustment on the detector,” Yennello said. “Layla is a really smart young physicist. She’s been a great team player and completely involved in all aspects of what goes on in the lab.”
Bakhtiari says she’s leaving Texas A&M not only with her degree in physics but also many happy memories of her time in the Cyclotron — a place that might never have piqued her interests in the first place, had she not been channel surfing many years ago.
“When you walk past this building, not a lot of people know what’s inside it, and it’s almost like a little hidden gem,” Bakhtiari said. “A lot of the systems are pretty unique and look like they came from a sci-fi. So, it’s pretty cool for that aspect, too.”
To learn more about the Cyclotron Institute, visit http://cyclotron.tamu.edu.
For additional information on undergraduate research programs in the College of Science and how to get involved, go to https://science.tamu.edu/research/undergraduate/index.php.
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About Research at Texas A&M University: As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Texas A&M is at the forefront in making significant contributions to the storehouse of knowledge, including that of science and technology. Research conducted at Texas A&M represented annual expenditures of more than $820 million in FY 2013, ranking Texas A&M in the top 20 of the National Science Foundation’s most recent survey of research and development expenditures among U.S. colleges and universities. Recently reported FY 2014 research expenditures exceed $854 million. That research creates new knowledge that provides basic, fundamental and applied contributions resulting in many cases in economic benefits to the state, nation and world. To learn more, visit http://research.tamu.edu.
Watch an interview with Layla Bakhtiari ’15 about her research and her views on what it takes to be a successful physics student: