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Alumni Stories – Patrick O’Malley

Understanding the origin of elements in the universe is one of the main goals of nuclear science and astrophysics today. Achieving this goal involves determining how the elements and their isotopes formed and being able to predict their abundances. In order to accomplish this, we must determine how the elements and their isotopes formed and be able to predict their abundances. Completely solving this problem is beyond the scope of any one research program. The exact origins of every nuclei are still a mystery, but the majority are believed to be produced in stars at various stages of their life. I work in a community of scientists who utilize their various skills and strengths to help answer this simple, yet difficult question.


For example, an observational astronomer might look at the light it views from a star and be able to deduce what the elemental and isotopic composition of the surface of that star. As a nuclear experimentalist I work in laboratories where we strive to understand the reactions that likely occurred to produce the type and quantity of isotopes observed by the astronomer. More accurately, my goals are to study structure of the nuclei of interest and measure their specific properties. This information is key to producing accurate models of stellar processes believed to create at least some of the thousands of known isotopes.


Dr. Patrick O’Malley graduated from TTU in 2006.  He earned his Ph.D in Experimental Nuclear Physics from Rutgers in 2012.  He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Notre Dame University.

Welcome Dr. Chuck Pearson!

Dr. Pearson is a new instructor in the Physics Department.  Come by and welcome him to our university!  I asked him to introduce himself below:


I’m Pearson. Yes, that’s all I go by.

I’m a teaching specialist in algebra-based physics. After getting my doctorate in biophysics from Ohio State and a year as a postdoc at UAB, I’ve spent a decade and a half as a professor of physics and chemistry at small schools in Georgia and Virginia, most recently at Virginia Intermont College in Bristol.  Even as I’ve taught coursework as diverse as physical chemistry, organic chemistry, astronomy, introductory cellular/molecular biology, and non-major science surveys, the algebra/trig-based physics sequence has been the one course I’ve consistently taught since 2000, and I’m glad to continue that work here at Tennessee Tech.

When I have been engaged in scientific work, it’s centered on two proteins, plastocyanin and cytochrome f, found in photosynthetic electron transport.  My doctoral work centered around a Brownian dynamics study of the interaction of those proteins, which I couldn’t have completed without a program called Macrodox – a product of Scott Northrup’s lab in the chemistry department here at Tech!  I’ve guided undergraduates through studies of the structures of those proteins found in the Protein Data Bank in my time as faculty.

Much of my current work has centered around open educational resources of various types, however.  I’m a promoter of the OpenStax College OER project and was a reviewer of the OpenStax College Physics text that was released in 2012.  I’ve done work with the learning management system Moodle and have worked to develop problem databases with the goal of releasing those databases as open resources in their own right, as well has having presented work on the tactics of assignment design with such learning management systems (most recently at the Appalachian College Association Summit in 2013). And I’ve supported institutions with early adoption, training and best practices development wherever I’ve worked.  It’s seriously nerdy, but it’s fun.

I’m married to Kristin, the best reference librarian ever.  Our two kids are 19 and 15. I am way too passionate about college football, was an original Major League Soccer supporter (you’ll never beat Columbus – OHIO!), and I play way too many old computer games (MULE Returns in particular, now available for iOS, coming soon for Android, and HIGHLY recommended). I will never hear enough good pop music (now playing: “Atonement” by Anberlin) and welcome your suggestions.  And I love, love, LOVE trivia, quiz bowl, Jeopardy!, TRASH – any knowledge game involving buzzers, really. If you like those games too, I will ALWAYS want to talk to you.

Oh, and my friend Pirkle had one more thing.


Welcome Dr. Mustafa Rajabali

Dr. Mustafa Rajabali just joined the TTU Physics Department as a new tenure-track faculty member.  I asked him to introduce himself below.  Welcome Dr. Rajabali to our university!

Welcome Dr. Rajabali!
Welcome Dr. Rajabali!

I am originally from Kenya (east coast of Africa). I have a wonderful wife who is from Germany and a young child who was born in Canada but has citizenship in three countries. I studied in the US where I got my BA in physics, math and chemistry (MN), MS – solid state physics (ND,IL) and PhD – nuclear physics (TN). I have since lived in Belgium and Canada where I did did my post-doctoral research projects.

My research is focused on nuclear structure physics and interdisciplinary science with the application of radiation detection methods in geology and environmental sciences. For Nuclear structure, I study the nuclei at the extremes of the nuclear chart to try to understand the evolution of the nuclear shell structure. I also develop new detector systems to measure properties of these very exotic nuclei. The laboratories where I conduct my research are located in various places around the world. However, my current projects are focused at TRIUMF laboratory (Vancouver, Canada), ISOLDE-CERN (Geneva, Switzerland), NSCL (East Lansing, MI) and ORNL (Oak Ridge, TN). My door is always open to anyone who wants to go for a good hike, students who want to do research projects with me and to collaborators who are interested in the research that I conduct or who think I would be interested in their work.

Welcome Dr. Adam Holley!

Dr. Adam Holley is a new tenure-track faculty member in the Department of Physics at TTU.  Come by and welcome him to our university!  I asked him to introduce himself below:

Welcome Dr. Holley!
Welcome Dr. Holley!

What really excites me (besides being a new faculty member at TTU)? Pretty much any opportunity to understand something new, especially when that something is truly new, and most definitely when I encounter it in some experiential way. I’m equally keen on getting others addicted to the enjoyment that comes from seeing and doing things which have never been seen or done before, and I want to give students a sense of how exciting that can be– especially in the context of science!

For me it would be particularly thrilling to uncover new information about how the world functions at its most basic level, which is why I do research in experimental fundamental physics. Since I prefer to work with smaller-scale apparatus I use a low-energy approach, which facilitates very precise measurements designed to look for deviations from what is predicted by the current theoretical state of the art, called the Standard Model. Currently I perform a number of these experiments using neutrons, especially “ultracold” neutrons which are perhaps the most tangible form of a fundamental particle that you’ll ever encounter. In these experiments neutrons can serve both as an object of study, as when used to make a precise measurement of the neutron lifetime, as well as a probe, for example to detect the presence of new forces beyond the four that we already know.

Since the nature of physics is figuring out how to do things that have never been done before, one requires strategies for getting the mind unstuck from its ruts. Mine involve practicing Aikido, horseback riding (although finding horses to ride has been challenging of late), playing the guitar, and most definitely long runs. In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll also confess to having a well-developed sweet tooth and actually liking hot, humid weather.

TTU Students at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Three Tennessee Tech Physics students were involved in research experiences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) this summer:  Drew Dycus (physics major), Natã Franco Soares de Bem (engineering exchange student), and Rowan Lumb (physics major).  They were mentored by Dr. Ray Kozub and other scientists at ORNL.

Drew and Natã summarize their experiences below.

Drew Dycus

My research at ORNL this summer consisted of writing code for executing nuclear reaction simulations using Monte Carlo methods. In the beginning I had to receive my radiological worker training in order to access certain buildings in the site that contained radioactive sources. The research itself involved writing codes to create randomly distributed values that would be used as input for a nuclear reaction program called TALYS. An incomplete template input file was used to create many input files with parameters that were varied in their allowed range using normal and lognormal distributions . A script was written to automate the execution of the programs. TALYS created output files which gave the cross section values for the reactions which are used for understanding the r-process that is believed to happen in nova explosions.

Natã Franco Soares de Bem

Natã is a Control and Automation Engineering student at CEFET/MG (Brazil) and an exchange student at Tennessee Tech University.

During this summer, I worked trying to design a structure to hold the SuperORRUBA detectors inside JENSA (Jet Experiments in Nuclear Structure and Astrophysics) chamber. After some attempts, the final design was chosen as shown in the picture. It was a little hard to work with something that I did not have familiarity with (astrophysics) but together with my mentors I was able to progress and come out with this final piece. Now, this design is going to be mounted inside JENSA, at Michigan State University, to see how it behaves in the real chamber. I am extremely happy for having the opportunity to work in something so interesting, modern and unique!

Natã is holding the structure he designed for the SuperORRUBA detectors.
Natã is holding the structure he designed for the SuperORRUBA detectors.

Drew, Natã, and Rowan presented posters at the ORNL poster session.

Drew Dycus
Drew Dycus
Natã Franco Soares de Bem
Natã Franco Soares de Bem
Rowan Lumb
Rowan Lumb

Many research opportunities are available for undergraduates through the TTU Physics department.  If you are interested, please speak to any professor in the Physics department for more details.