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Graduate physics students wins top honors in superconductivity symposium

A graduate student who returned to school after suffering an injury that ended her ballet career has won top honors at the 40th Semiannual Student Symposium at the Texas Center for Superconductivity at the University of Houston.

Melissa Gooch, a graduate student in physics, received the first place honor for her work on newly discovered iron pnictide superconductors.

Debtanu De, also a graduate physics student, took second place for his work involving the pairing mechanism between the electrons inside a superconductor. Ngozi Amuneke, a chemistry graduate student, and Sladjana Maric, a biophysics graduate student, tied for third place. All four are graduate students in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

About 100 students have been pursuing various research efforts in different laboratories at TcSUH, and nine of them were chosen to present their work at the recent symposium, which highlights undergraduate and graduate students' original, multidisciplinary research efforts.

The competing students were judged on the originality of their work and presentation. First prize was $300, second was $200 and third was $100.

"This symposium provides students with a forum to gain experience in formally presenting their work to an audience that includes their peers and mentors," said TcSUH Director Allan Jacobson, professor of chemistry and the Robert A. Welch Chair of Science. "This is important because researchers are often called on to present their work."

Gooch worked under the supervision of superconductivity pioneer Paul Chu, who founded TcSUH and now serves as the center's executive director. De's project leader was Haibing Peng, an assistant physics professor. Amuneke's project leader was Angela Moeller, an assistant professor in chemistry, and Maric's was John Miller, a physics professor.

The winning students found the experience valuable to their budding careers.

"When you're in academia, you spend a lot of time going to presentations and you have to talk in front of people," said Amuneke, whose high school chemistry teacher sparked her interest in the field. "You have to present your research. A lot of times it's intimidating to speak in front of audiences about what you're doing. This is really helpful because it gives me that practice. It makes me feel confident when I'm talking and people are nodding their heads."

Maric, who is originally from Serbia and learned to speak English in recent years, said she knew she had to present her work clearly and concisely.

"I was really nervous," said Maric, who has been interested in physics since she was a child. "But this was a great opportunity for me. It was time for me to get out of the lab and tell people what I'm doing. I feel much more confident now."

Amuneke's research project deals with finding ways to make batteries as efficient as possible. Maric has been investigating the nano-devices in cells that convert food to energy, which is then used to make the human body function.

De, who is from India where he attended the University of Calcutta and the Indian Institute of Technology, also was inspired by his high school science teacher.

But Gooch's path to physics was not quite as direct. She originally wanted to be a professional ballet dancer and performed in the Austin and Houston areas before an injury forced her to quit.

"I went back to school, enrolling at the University of Houston. After seeing a demonstration in my introductory physics class of the Meissner effect, I became interested in superconductors," Gooch said. (The Meissner effect is the expulsion of a magnetic field from a superconductor during its transition to the superconducting state.)


Contact: Laura Tolley
University of Houston

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