Nelson REU

Spiritual Opportunities at a Summer REU

Genevieve Nelson successfully applied for and was chosen to participate in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) for the summer of 2021 at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana. REUs are research programs funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that are conducted by a wide variety of host universities throughout the country. These programs enable a student to determine if they enjoy research work and can often serve as a stepping-stone towards being accepted into a graduate or doctoral program. While seeking to develop her expertise as a physics researcher, Nelson also desired to view her research as an opportunity for ministry, investing in both her passions for science and service simultaneously.

The REU in Montana State

Nelson’s REU project with Dr. John Neumeier of Montana State in summer 2021 focused on designing, machining, and testing a sapphire dilatometer cell which measures the thermal expansion of solids. The cell is composed of two capacitor plates that sandwich a sample between them in an inset channel. Cooling or heating the cell allows the sample to expand or contract, changing the gap distance between the upper and lower capacitor plates. This type of dilatometer cell can be used to detect extremely small changes in the length of the solid sample, with precision of up to 0.1 Angstroms.

Thermal expansion is a key thermodynamic property of matter that can "tell you a lot about the structure and phase transition of the material being studied" according to Nelson. By plotting thermal expansion against temperature one can observe characteristic shifts in the data which may indicate a phase transition, giving researchers insight into the structural, magnetic, conductive, and other properties of the material. Engineers can then use these measurements to inform how they design and build future devices and projects.

Nelson’s responsibilities included designing and machining the cell, which was accomplished through hand-drafting schematic figures and spending many hours at the surface grinder in one of MSU’s machine shops. She also designed and fabricated various metal jigs to aid in the construction of the cell which she produced by using bandsaws, a drill press, a sheet metal bender machine, and a milling machine. 

Genevieve Grinding
Genevieve Nelson '22 Grinding the Sapphire Component of the Dilatometer Cell using a Grinding Machine in the Research Lab.


Nelson's REU Research Poster

At the end of the summer, Nelson gave a presentation to the other members of her REU detailing her work and used this to produce a research poster that was featured at Wheaton’s Homecoming poster session (PDF format). Nelson and Dr. Neumeier also produced a paper outlining the design and function of the cell that has been accepted by the Review of Scientific Instruments and is scheduled to be published in June 2022. Nelson has also been accepted into the Ph.D program at Montana State and will begin her studies in condensed matter physics in Fall 2022. 

The Finished Dilatometer Cell

REU and Ministry

Having grown up at a Christian camp, Nelson has always had a heart for ministry. Her passion was bolstered by an evangelism course taught by Dr. Jerry Root in Spring 2021 which challenged Nelson to share her faith in new ways and encouraged her to begin praying for the people she would get to interact with through her summer research. Nelson recounted asking God for opportunities to continue to be a witness for His Kingdom and for Him to bring other Christians to the REU with whom she could serve.

On the second day of the summer Nelson met Karis, a rising senior student at John Brown University. While brushing their teeth that night, the girls discovered that they were both Christians and decided to attend church together during the summer. Later that first week, Nelson discovered that two other students had brought C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity with them and intended to read it during the summer, one of whom belonged to the Mormon Faith/Church of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Genevieve, Karis, another LDS student, and a Catholic student all decided to buy the book. Thus began the “Merely Reading” book club in which two Protestants, two Mormons, a Catholic, and another student met to discuss a few chapters a week. According to Nelson, this book study acted as a “springboard for spiritual conversations,” answering her prayers for opportunities to share Christ’s light and love with others in the middle of a scientific research program. Nelson described the summer by referencing Ephesians 3:20, proclaiming the ways that God provided “more than she could ask or imagine” in the ways of opportunities for ministry and in the growth of her own faith.

Advice to Students Looking for REU’s

While looking for an REU, Nelson advises students to consider both the scientific programs and the surrounding location the REU has to offer, encouraging them to “pursue locations they think they may enjoy living in.” Nelson described how her REU gave her the opportunity to build significant friendships with other students and commented that these friendships were strengthened by their mutual enjoyment of the hiking, camping, and climbing that Bozeman had to offer.

However, even more important in her decision than location or content of the project was the choice of who to work with. Nelson suggests researching the professors involved in the REU programs at the schools applying students are interested in and looking for individuals who are invested in the welfare and development of their students and whose work style will mesh well with that of the student applying for their program. She advises applying students to contact the professors they are interested in working with before the REU and talk to them about the project, work environment, and expectations for a potential student. “Every project is going to have its ups and downs,” Nelson commented, “and one of the most important things to come out of an REU with is a professor who will support you and is willing to recommend you in applications to graduate school. Being involved in a project where people want to work with you and you want to work with them is one of the most rewarding ways to do research.”  Nelson is excited to return to MSU for her graduate studies and continue to work with the friends she made within the students, staff, and faculty during her REU last summer.