Dean's Honored Graduate 2012, Photo by Alex Wang
Jennifer Ellis is a Dean’s Honored Graduate in the Department of Physics and the Department of Astronomy. She graduates with an impressive 3.95 GPA. She is being recognized for her extensive research culminating in an honors thesis entitled, “Creation of White Dwarf Photospheric Conditions in the Lab Using the Z Pulsed Power Facility,” which was done under the direction of Professor Don Winget.
Jennifer began her research under Professor Winget in his Freshman Research Initiative stream and stayed on throughout her college career. Her undergraduate honors thesis sought to recreate macroscopic conditions inside a star at the Sandia National Laboratory. Such research “transforms astronomy from a merely observational field to an experimental science,” says Professor Winget. “Jennifer is taking spectra of photospheric stellar plasma from a distance, not measured in light-years, but in centimeters. This is a fundamental and historic change.”
Jennifer’s research project was to investigate the broadening of spectroscopic emission lines that are characteristic of stars at the “Z machine” at Sandia National Laboratory. The Z machine is the world’s largest pulsed power machine, where a plasma current of 20 million amperes is routine. It has a staff of 50 full-time technicians and engineers to operate it. Says Professor Roger Bengtson, reader of Jennifer’s physics honors thesis, “after every shot, several cubic feet of stainless steel must be replaced because they were damaged. Additionally, many of the experiments on Z were classified. In total, this was not a friendly, supportive environment for an undergraduate to be doing an experiment… For most of the shots, Jennifer was in charge…Jennifer kept her head and was successful.
“It is remarkable to think of a confident undergraduate supervising the work of 50 classified staff at a government laboratory, and one can only speculate what lies ahead in her graduate and post-graduate career.”
Jennifer has been a widely present and positive mentor to younger students. She served multiple semesters as an undergraduate TA in freshman electricity and magnetism, taught by Professor John Markert, and sophomore modern physics, taught by Professor Sacha Kopp. Says Professor Markert, “She is much appreciated by students for her careful step-by-step explanations. Her knowledge of the course materials is deep; she obviously considers the exceptions and variations on any given topic.”
After finishing her degree at UT, Jennifer had a difficult choice of going to MIT or the University of Colorado at Boulder to undertake her PhD. With the research opportunities at Boulder, including some of the top atomic physicists in the world and the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) there on campus, she’s decided to head there in the fall. Before she does, she’s selected some light summer reading, including Soft X-Rays and Extreme Ultraviolet Radiation: Principles and Applications, I Am Legend, and Starship Troopers.