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La vita è bella: NIU senior conducts physics research in Italy

September 4, 2014
Octavio Escalante-Aguirre

Octavio Escalante-Aguirre looks out upon Naples from atop the Castel Sant’Elmo,

For NIU senior Octavio Escalante-Aguirre, life is beautiful, as the Italians like to say.

His life has been a series of journeys, beginning at age 3 when his family moved from his birth home of Monterrey, Mexico, to Aurora, Ill.

During high school, he made the trek on Saturday mornings to nearby Fermilab for lectures geared toward young students. His experiences there ignited a passion in him for physics, set his career course and eventually led him to NIU where, in short order, he found himself working alongside world-class physicists.

But it was a series of academic successes at NIU and a supportive professor that led to his latest adventure – working for two months this summer at a research laboratory in Naples, Italy. It was a dream experience for the brilliant 20-year-old, who traveled to “the boot” as part of a prestigious international scientific exchange program – all expenses paid.

Working on an international physics experiment. Rubbing shoulders and learning from top Italian scientists.

Making friends with students from around the world. Feasting on Naples’ famous pizza. Touring the city’s landmark 14th century Castel Sant’Elmo.

Octavio Escalante-Aguirre

Octavio Escalante-Aguirre at the Roman Colosseum.

A jaunt to Rome to take in the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Who knew particle physics could open so many doors?

“It just goes to show what’s possible here at NIU,” says physics professor Michael Eads, who urged Escalante-Aguirre to apply for the exchange program. “College is what you make of it.”

Escalante-Aguirre’s interest in science began when he was a youngster. Early on, he wanted to be an entomologist, or bug scientist.

Then during his junior year at West Aurora High School, physics exerted its pull on the teenager. That’s when his teacher suggested that class members attend the Saturday Morning Physics program at Fermilab.

The free series of lectures and tours given by Fermilab scientists aims to spark high school students’ understanding and appreciation of modern physics. It had a profound effect on Escalante-Aguirre.

“For a lot of people who live near Fermilab, there’s just this big mystery about what goes on there,” he says. “After attending Saturday Morning Physics, I was quickly hooked on the topic.

“Aside from the subject matter – studying the building blocks of the universe is pretty cool if you ask me – what really drew me into particle physics was the unique way of problem solving and high level of persistence that was displayed by the scientists to study the unsolved mysteries of the world around us.”

A giant magnet for the Muon g-2 experiment arrives at Fermilab in the summer 2013. Photo credit: Fermilab

A giant magnet for the Muon g-2 Experiment arrives at Fermilab in the summer 2013.
Photo credit: Fermilab

NIU had a certain pull as well on the young man, who spent a year after high school at Waubonsee Community College on a full-ride scholarship.

“Both my sister and high school physics teacher were former NIU Huskies, so I applied fully knowing that NIU could be the right place to pursue my academic goals,” Escalante-Aguirre says. “I was pleasantly surprised to find that the physics department had a set of highly distinguished research professors who were more than willing to help students become involved in the field of particle physics.”

Escalante-Aguirre quickly became immersed in the NIU culture of giving back. He joined the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and helped the group promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) interests among young Latinos.

He also took advantage of every opportunity that came his way. He was accepted into the University Honors Program and later tapped as an elite University Honors Scholar. That program provides academically distinguished students with time, financial support and faculty mentoring to pursue in-depth, meaningful research.

With Professor Eads serving as his mentor, Escalante-Aguirre became involved in the Muon g-2 Experiment at Fermilab.

The new experiment aims to study the properties of the mysterious muon, with hopes that a better understanding of the subatomic particle will lead to discovery of new physics and unknown particles that form the most basic building blocks of nature. Nearly 20 physics and engineering students from NIU are involved in the project, along with scientists and engineers from 26 institutions across the world.

Mike Eads

Professor Michael Eads

Eads successfully encouraged Escalante-Aguirre to seek further support through NIU’s Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, as well as a paid Undergraduate Research Assistantship, allowing him to continue his research into his senior year.

Escalante-Aguirre and other NIU students have worked on quality-control testing for a complex straw tube tracker – a type of particle detector for g-2 being built in Liverpool, England. The device detects particles known as positrons, which result from the decay of muons.

“Octavio has been a great student,” Eads says. “He is just very diligent when it comes to research. He is always engaged and is very good about knowing what questions to ask. On the other hand, he’s not afraid to tear into something on his own and figure it out.”

While Escalante-Aguirre was searching for internships during his junior year, Eads encouraged him to apply for the scientific exchange program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Italy.

While in Italy, Escalante-Aguirre was stationed at the University of Naples Federico II, where he worked on the laser calibration of the Muon g-2 Experiment’s calorimeters,” which measure the energy of particles.

“I was a bit overwhelmed at first since I felt that my knowledge of digital electronics was not at the level that was required of my work, but under the guidance of the Italian g-2 team I surpassed my goals,” says Escalante-Aguirre, adding that the most impressive aspect of Italy was its people.

Octavio Escalante-Aguirre

Octavio Escalante-Aguirre in a laboratory at the University of Naples Federico II.

“I genuinely feel that the high standards of Italian hospitality contributed to my success,” he says.

Escalante-Aguirre will graduate in December with his bachelor’s degree in physics, plans to pursue a Ph.D. and intends to become a research scientist. Italian scientists already have invited him back to continue his research, he says.

“I’ve already started looking into the possibility of returning in the spring,” he says. “Conducting research in Italy has truly been one of the greatest learning experiences of my lifetime.”