Finding space weather events within space telescope data. Working on supercomputers. Playing in orchestra concerts. These are some of the great things Anthony Ficklin has experienced since graduating from LSU.
In the Spring of 2018, LSU graduated its largest and most diverse class to date. The campus was abuzz with graduation preparations as our newest graduates reminisced about the experiences that helped them earn their Tiger stripes and prepared them for life beyond the gates of LSU.
Meet Anthony Ficklin, a May 2018 physics graduate. Anthony grew up just south of Baton Rouge in Ascension Parish. He was fortunate to have several fantastic teachers and a family of engineers who inspired his love for science.
Join Anthony as he thinks back on his experience in the LSU College of Science and plans for his newest adventure as a research specialist at his alma mater.
Could you tell us about your new position as a research specialist?
Anthony: As a research specialist in the LSU Department of Physics & Astronomy, I split my time between being a member of the international research collaboration CALET (CALorimetric Electron Telescope), as well as managing and coordinating the MARS (Mobile Astronomy Resource System) Truck outreach program for the LaSPACE (Louisiana Space Consortium). CALET is a space telescope that is performing high precision observations of electrons and gamma rays in space. CALET is an advanced particle detector mounted on the International Space Station whose primary mission is to discover nearby cosmic-ray accelerators and search for dark matter by precisely measuring electron and gamma ray spectra across a wide range of energy. As a collaborator, I go from writing code to help find space weather events within the CALET data, to simulating millions of particles on LSU's supercomputers.
As the coordinator for the MARS Truck outreach program, I spend time each day working to schedule outreach events, writing up reports, preparing new activities and demos, updating our website, and promoting our program.
What is the MARS Truck?
Anthony: The MARS Truck is an outreach vehicle operated by the LaSPACE. We have an Isuzu box truck that houses dozens of physics and astronomy related activities and demonstrations. We can take the truck to a wide variety of events in order to provide informal science education to students and adults alike. We have two GPS telescopes, a portable planetarium, half a dozen NISE science activity kits, and dozens of physics demonstrations at our disposal that can work for large and small events.
What are some events the MARS Truck has participated in?
Anthony: Locally, I’ve taken the MARS truck to several STEM/STEAM nights at elementary schools in Baton Rouge, the yearly Louisiana Earth Day Festival in Baton Rouge, and the International Astronomy Day celebrations at the Highland Road Park Observatory. Additionally, we have taught at the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe’s Summer language and culture camp as well as participated in STEAM focused events for elementary schools in New Orleans.
Beyond Baton Rouge, the MARS Truck joined the LaSPACE Balloon Team, part of NASA’s Eclipse Balloon Project, at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, IL to provide outreach to the tens of thousands of folks who gathered for the total solar eclipse in August 2017. While I did not directly participate in the balloon launch, I managed and executed science outreach efforts for LSU/LaSPACE on the SIU campus. For three days, I managed about a dozen volunteers to provide outreach activities for tens of thousands of eager people who gathered at Carbondale for the eclipse. On the first day, the outreach activities took place at SIU's Touch of Nature Environmental Center and on the remaining two days, I ran demonstrations at a science expo at the SIU Saluki Arena. While it was an exhausting endeavor, I am proud to have helped so many people fully experience and understand the scientific relevance of the Eclipse Event.
What was your favorite moment of the eclipse?
Anthony: Easily my favorite moment was when the ONLY tiny cloud in the sky finally got out of the way so I could see the last few seconds of totality. It was looking like one lonely cloud was going to block it for those of us who were watching it from SIU, but right before the end, the cloud moved out of the way. As it did, the 30 thousand people on campus started yelling and cheering as loud as they could, which made a magical moment ever the more special.
What is CALET (Calorimetric Electron Telescope) and could you tell us about LSU’s supercomputers?
Anthony: CALET is an advanced particle detector mounted currently on the International Space Station that can detect protons, electrons, gamma rays and heavy nuclei over a wide range of energies. It can be used to study several areas of High Energy Astrophysics. This is an international project led by Japan with participation from Italy and the United States. To help calibrate the instrument and support the data it sends back to us, it is necessary to simulate these particles using robust simulation software, which is where LSU's supercomputer comes into play. The cluster we use is called SuperMike II and consists of 440 nodes that each contain 16 processors. We use 512 processors for each of our simulation runs. Using the COSMOS/EPICS simulation package, I send jobs to SuperMike that each create millions of particles, which interact with a 3D model of the CALET detector. This simulated data can then be compared to the real flight data to help with data analysis and other tasks.
How has LSU prepared you for the next step in your career?
Anthony: Without LSU I wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to work as a student in my current research group, which ultimately got me into the position I am now. The quality of the professors in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, as well as the effectiveness of the curriculum, has provided me with most of the vital skills needed to continue my career as a researcher.
How did you become an undergraduate researcher?
Anthony: When I started working towards my physics degree, I filled out an application for the department in the hopes of getting an undergraduate position. But since I started late (I had already been in school for a year for my music degree) I didn’t get any initial responses. Over a year later I was forwarded an email about a job opportunity with Dr. Guzik and CALET and immediately jumped on the chance. I worked as a student for a year and a half picking up more and more responsibilities as I went, including coordinating the MARS truck, until one lucky day when Dr. Guzik offered me a full-time position.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students and what are some qualities of successful undergraduate researchers?
Anthony: Get involved in research as quickly as possible! Contact professors doing something you think you'll like and get involved as much as you can. Classes are great, but it's the skills you learn doing real research that can set you apart moving forward.
For undergraduate researchers, it's about showing initiative and showing up. Faculty and staff researchers will offer you more opportunities and greater autonomy as you prove yourself able to see your tasks through to completion, and capable of finding solutions to problems on your own.
Who is your science role model?
Anthony: My science role model is Dr. Greg Guzik. His dedication to community outreach efforts in addition to being an accomplished active researcher provides me with a fantastic example for what I hope to accomplish with my career.
What was the most rewarding aspect of pursuing a science degree at LSU?
Anthony: The most rewarding aspect I would say is the amount of opportunity LSU provides in the way of student research. In every field there are so many cool and diverse projects going on that students can get involved with to prepare them for the future. This was a huge reason I came to LSU.
What do you love most about your field of science?
Anthony: The thing I love most about Astronomy/Astrophysics would be the sheer scale of it all. The extreme distances, temperature ranges, time scales, etc. blow my mind on a daily basis. These things are what motivated me to pursue research in this field in the first place. I am sure that no matter how long I do this work, I will never run out of things to learn.
What I find most exciting, as well as challenging, would be all the new things I run into and have to learn during my daily tasks. During data analysis I'll find certain things that I have never been exposed to in a class or previous work before, and I have to learn the material, whether through textbooks or other resources available at a research institution like LSU before I can continue a particular job.
My favorite part of a typical science day would be when I run into a problem with some code or analysis (a common occurrence) and get to go through the process of troubleshooting and problem solving (many times with the help of my fantastic coworkers) until I get that "eureka" moment and fix the problem.
What is your favorite memory at LSU?
Anthony: Although not science related, my favorite moment here at LSU was performing Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony with the LSU Symphony Orchestra. It is one of my favorite pieces of music and being able to perform it was a fantastic moment.
Could you tell us about your degree in music?
Anthony: I graduated in 2016 with a Bachelor of Arts in Music with a focus on french horn performance. I've been playing the french horn since my senior year in high school and instantly became infatuated with it. I auditioned for the studio here at LSU after switching from engineering, and began pursuing a music degree. At the same time I also added my physics degree, which provided a great balance throughout my college career. Anytime I got frustrated with music, physics offered a getaway of sorts, and vice-versa.
While I was pursuing my music degree, I played with the LSU Symphony Orchestra and various wind bands, as well as participated in chamber music groups such as brass quintets. Now that I'm done with my formal musical education, I continue to play gigs around town, such as musicals, church services, weddings, and orchestra concerts. Although I might be a full-time physics researcher now, music will always continue to be a big part of my life going forward.
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