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Physics freshman names research experience, social connections as keys to her early success

February 26, 2013
Gabriela Arriaga stands with an ultra-high vacuum (UHV) thin film deposition system.

Gabriela Arriaga stands with an ultra-high vacuum thin film deposition system.

Affordability and convenient location were not the primary reasons that freshman physics major Gabriela Arriaga chose NIU.

It was the opportunity to be involved in research as a freshman through NIU’s Research Rookies program that provided the deciding factor.

“The best part about being involved with Research Rookies is being able to get hands-on experience in my major,” Arriaga says. “I am enjoying every moment of it!”

She has gone to Argonne National Laboratory to observe scientists’ research. When she returns to Argonne this semester, just halfway through her freshman year, she will conduct research along with her mentor, Zhili Xiao, a professor in the Department of Physics.

Although Arriaga has not decided in which area of physics she wants to specialize, she knows that her work will be research-oriented.

When she started at NIU in the fall semester of 2012, Arriaga applied to the Student-Faculty Links program through Orientation. She was paired with Julia Spears, who recommended Arriaga to Research Rookies. She then met with Xiao to discuss his research.

Xiao, Arriaga and a high magnetic field and extra-low temperature system.

Xiao, Arriaga and a high magnetic field and extra-low temperature system.

“I was extremely impressed with her home-schooling experience and her desire to pursue an academic career,” says Xiao, who found Arriaga to have solid knowledge of physics and clear understanding of experimental methods. “This is very impressive for an undergraduate student.”

At Argonne, Arriaga will work with Xiao and his research group members on superconductors research through nanoscale engineering.

“One focus of our research is to increase the critical current, which is the maximum current or flow of electrons that can pass through a superconductor, while maintaining the material’s superconducting properties,” Arriaga says.

She finds working with an experienced faculty member to be very interesting and beneficial.

“I not only learn about research and other topics associated with my major, but I also receive support and advice from my mentor,” says Arriaga, who is also vice president of the NIU Society of Physics Students (SPS). She says that being in organizations outside of the classroom has made her NIU experience much more fun and educational.

“My involvement with SPS has been an enriching experience,” says Arriaga, citing the many opportunities to develop leadership skills as well as social connections.

Logo of Argonne National LaboratoryThrough the SPS, she helps connect the students with faculty and plans events such as last fall’s trip to the Field Museum in Chicago. She is currently planning a science day event for the children at NIU’s Campus Child Care Center and an informal event to introduce more people to physics.

Arriaga’s participation in SPS and Research Rookies has not only helped her learn and get career advice from professors and scientists, but it has also allowed her to build relationships with students who have similar interests.

“Get involved in something you like. Be sure to make social connections because they will be important in the future,” she says. “If you have come here to NIU, you have come for a reason. Do not give up when things get tough. Your involvement on campus and the connections you make will help you succeed and reach your goals.”

by Pam Roesner