Not Your Typical Winter Break: Antarctic Working "Holiday" Awaits KIPAC Undergrad

Apr 3, 2016

By Lori Ann White

Above: Albert sporting a shirt that contains all the particles of the current Standard Model of particle physics (which is now known to be incomplete because it misses dark matter, for one.) (Photo courtesy Albert Wandui.)

On Friday, Dec. 4, while the vast majority of Stanford undergraduates were prepping for finals and planning for their holiday breaks, Albert Wandui was jetting to the South Pole. Wandui, a junior in the Stanford undergraduate physics program, will spend his holidays assisting the BICEP 3 crew that's already in Antarctica (including our intrepid engineer / teacher that we have been following, Val Monticue) and joing them in the tasks of upgrading and testing the sensitive telescope, which looks at the cosmic microwave background (CMB), the frigid radiation left over from the Big Bang some 13.75 billion years ago.

Before he left, Albert talked about this rare opportunity for an undergraduate, and how he earned it.

LW:  First, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you come to study physics at Stanford?

AW:  I'm from Kenya originally. I applied to Stanford after high school and I was really excited to be accepted and come to the US. I wanted to study physics and I've enjoyed the journey thus far.

LW:  How did you get involved in the BICEP experiment?

AW:  When I was a freshman I had a class where the professors would come and showcase their research so freshmen can see what they was doing. After [KIPAC] Professor Chao-Lin Kuo talked I approached him and asked if I could get involved. I worked with him during my freshman year and the following summer.

LW:  What did you do when you were working on the project?

AW:  I fabricated mesh filters.

LW:  Mesh filters? What did they filter?

AW:  BICEP is a microwave telescope, and it has a huge window to let in all the microwave wavelength radiation. But the detectors that look at the CMB have to stay very cold, so the mesh is to reflect the infrared portion of the light so it doesn't heat up the scope. I would fabricate the mesh, then send it off to get it coated with mylar, which we used to reflect the infrared. But we discovered that the mylar has some absorption in the infrared, which kind of defeats the purpose, so the last few weeks I've been scrambling to make filters with propylene and polyethelene.

LW:  Along with everything else you're doing to get ready, right?

AW:  (Laughs.) So many things to do to make sure I'm good to go. I have my finals, lab, coursework, presentations….

Above: A picture of students in one of Albert's favorite classes,  about "back-of-the-envelope" physics, taught by Shoucheng Zhang, who is shown in the front row of the picture. (Photo courtesy Albert Wandui.)

LW:  Have you been helping out with BICEP your entire time at Stanford?

AW:  No, I wanted to look around a bit more, so when I was a sophomore I explored some other areas and research and last summer I was at Caltech working with the Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) project doing data analysis. I looked for transient signals to characterize and either remove them or identify the source. I went to the Louisiana LIGO site. There are alligators all around there. (Laughs.)

LW:  So that frightened you enough to come back to the safer BICEP project, or was it something else?

AW:  (Laughs.) In the spring of my sophomore year Professor Kuo asked me if I wanted to think about joining them for this year's deployment. That was a surprise! When I first worked with them I was pretty happy that I was just helping with an experiment at the South Pole. I could say, "I made a filter that's at the South Pole!" I did wish I was a grad student since they're the ones who usually get to go. But then he asked me! I definitely didn't expect him to ask me!

LW:  What will you do when you're there?

AW:  I've had some experience testing the equipment—mostly the optics and cryogenic testing. I'll probably be doing more testing when I get there, depending on the status of the telescope, and whether it's been reassembled. I'll also do some data analysis.

Something else I'll be doing is learning. I think I've always been learning with this project, which is the best thing about it. There's so much to learn.  

LW:  Do you think you'll stick with observational astrophysics or cosmology?

AW:  I'm still not really sure what I want to do, career-wise. It just so happened that what I've been able to work on has been astrophysics-related, but I'd like to look around a bit more. I do know I want to go to grad school, but I'm not looking past that yet.

LW:  What do your friends and family think about the fact you're going to the South Pole?

AW:  My parents are pretty excited about it. My friends—at first they weren't sure I was telling the truth. "Did he actually say theSouth Pole?" Now it's sinking in and they're all very excited.

LW:  Has it sunk in for you, too?  

AW:  So many things to get done!