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Undergraduates Working On Solving Mysteries Of The Universe

SOCORRO, N.M. June 15, 2010 – Henry Godman and Jason Michnovicz have dream jobs this summer.

The New Mexico Tech electrical engineering students are getting full-time research and development experience, designing and building two lightning monitoring systems.

Henry Godman (left) and Jason Michnovicz assembling a 'slow antenna' in a New Mexico Tech lab for initial deployment atop Workman Center.

Jason Michnovicz puts the final touches on the sensor.

Godman and Michnovicz secure the sensor in the 'salad bowl'.

Michnovicz and Godman atop Workman Center.

Henry Godman at work at his lab work bench.

All photos by Thomas Guengerich

Working with professors Dr. Bill Rison and Dr. Rene Arechiga, the duo have been tasked with building an array of up to 10 electrical field change meters, or “slow antennas,” and an acoustic signal instrument.

Godman, a senior, and Michnovicz, a junior, received their marching orders at the beginning of the summer. First they researched the work that had already been done on similar instruments, then they started refining circuit designs, writing code and building the instruments.

“This work is fulfilling,” Michnovicz said. “I love that we’re contributing to research. The stuff we build will be deployed and gathering data and contributing to the understanding of physics and lightning protection.”

Godman said, “We’re solving the mysteries of our universe. I love how practical this work is – solving problems, picking parts, designing circuit boards.”

The slow antenna measures changes in the atmospheric electrical field. During a lightning strike, the instrument takes measurements every millisecond during a lightning strike, which takes about half a second.

“Very little is known about what triggers a lightning flash and we’re trying to figure that out," Godman said.

Their main engineering task is to build an antenna that can survive on low power. Rison, who studies lightning created by volcanic eruptions, needs a low-power version of the instrument so that he can deploy an array for months at a time in locations that have no electrical service.

Apart from the engineering work, Godman and Michnovicz said the biggest challenge is time. They set up the first working prototype on the roof of Workman Center on Friday, June 11. They hope to build seven to 10 instruments before the monsoon season brings lightning to central New Mexico.

“We hope to have the new design done shortly and the instrument in the field within a month,” Rison said.

Godman said if he wasn’t working in the research lab, he’d probably be back home in Alamogordo, whacking weeds.

“I’d be making more money, but it’s totally unsatisfying,” he said. “This is satisfying to me because I have a thirst for knowledge. I get bored if I’m not learning something.”

Michnovicz said he’d probably be working in a restaurant back home in Albuquerque if he hadn’t been offered the research job.
Godman and Michnovicz aren’t the only students spending their summer on research. Undergraduates at New Mexico Tech have opportunities to get practical lab experience in every science and engineering department.

“New Mexico Tech is a research institution,” Vice President of Research Dr. Van Romero said. “Our undergraduate program is among the best in science and engineering because our students have so many opportunities to work in research.”

The university has a research portfolio of more than $100 million. Professors and staff scientists spearhead all the projects, but virtually every research grant includes funding for student research assistantships. Romero said the university has traditionally involved students in funded research projects because the experience is critical for training top-notch scientists and engineers.

Additionally, the experience gives Tech graduates an advantage once they start their careers.

“It’s kind of unreal to be in this spot,” Godman said while sitting in his lab. “You usually only see this on Discovery Channel or National Geographic – some guy messing around on a work bench.”

Michnovicz said he considered looking for an internship, but abandoned that idea when he was hired as a summer researcher.

“This is way cooler than an internship,” he said.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech