Faculty Spotlight: Vandana Tripathi
Vandana Tripathi is an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. Tripathi earned her doctoral degree in experimental nuclear physics from Jawahar Lal Nehru University in India, and she has been with FSU’s Department of Physics since 2003, starting as a post-doctoral fellow. Her research focuses on understanding the structure of subatomic nuclei, especially those that are unstable and do not occur in nature but are crucial to understanding the early stages of the universe.
Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to FSU.
I was born in Agra, a small town in India that happens to be famous for the Taj Mahal. My family was quite big on education, with both of my parents having college degrees. Studying and learning new things came second only to eating and sleeping in our house. Math and science always attracted me as a kid, and I gravitated towards physics in high school since it seemed to have answers about our surroundings. It was later, during my master’s, that an internship in experimental nuclear physics at a national institute in New Delhi, India, steered me to my current field. I got a job as a scientist in India after finishing my doctorate, but I ultimately came to FSU as a post-doctoral fellow due to family commitments. The excellent nuclear physics faculty at FSU made that switch easy, and in hindsight, it was the best professional decision for me.
What inspired you to choose your field of study?
Simply put, physics is one of the most fundamental disciplines of science, and its ultimate goal is understanding how the universe works and behaves. This is what drove me to learn physics. Later, guidance from professors led me to experimental nuclear physics, which is at the heart of understanding the universe’s workings.
Can you break down your areas of interest for us?
I am a low-energy experimental nuclear physicist. The experiments I am involved in are designed to interpret the nuclear structure of specific isotopes, which means understanding the ground state and excited state properties of these strongly interacting many body-quantum mechanical systems, which is the general name for a category of problems involving the properties of microscopic systems made of many interacting particles. The nucleus exhibits a fascinating variety of shapes and excitation modes, which all emerge from the common underlying strong nuclear interaction. Developing a complete understanding of the nuclear force that binds protons and neutrons into stable and rare isotopes remains at the forefront of experimental endeavors at national and international facilities.
A typical nuclear physics experiment is like purposefully making two billiard balls collide, one stationary, the "target," and the other moving very fast, the “beam.” After collision, the trajectory that the two balls take depends on the properties of the balls, which is what we are after. In our experiments we follow the cool-down of the excited reaction products through high resolution gamma-ray spectroscopy, or the measurements of the emitted gamma-ray energies and angular correlations using high purity germanium detector arrays. Then, we compare our new results to theoretical predictions, which either validates them or provides paths for improvement.
Tell us more about your two 2019 publications “Understanding Gamow-Teller strength distribution in neutron-rich nuclei” and “High spin structure of 39Ar and the FSU cross-shell interaction.”
"Understanding Gamow-Teller strength distribution in neutron-rich nuclei" details the results of an experiment I performed at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University. We explored the beta decay of very exotic silicon isotopes, namely 38,39,40Si, to get new information on the excited states in the daughter nuclei 38-40P. The dominant decay mode of an atomic nuclei is beta-decay, a process that changes a neutron into a proton, or vice versa, to attain a more stable configuration. This decay is at the heart of stellar explosions and element synthesis in the universe. It is also a tool to populate excited states in the daughter (decay product) nuclei, as we did. The new information on the P isotopes was instrumental in validating theoretical prediction for these nuclei for which we worked with our collaborators from Japan. The results also formed the basis for the next proposal of an experiment to push the data to even more neutron rich isotopes, and we are currently working on that analysis.
“High spin structure of 39Ar and the FSU cross-shell interaction” details the results of an experiment performed at the John D. Fox Laboratory using the FSU gamma array. In the collision of 14C beam with 27Al target, a very excited 39Ar nucleus was created, which emitted gamma rays on its way down to the ground state that we detected in our high purity germanium detectors. We found several new excited states in 39Ar and they were compared to predictions of "shell model" calculation — a model that predicts the properties of the nucleus — which was developed at FSU. We recently used available experimental information on excited states from our work and from literature to refine the model and establish the "FSU interaction." This was done in collaboration with nuclear theory colleagues at FSU, and this interaction is now available for other experimenters to use.
What is it like to work at FSU’s John D. Fox Laboratory?
The lab offers a great work environment. The faculty, staff, and graduate and undergraduate students work together to run experiments, collect data and advance our understanding of the tiny nucleus at the center of every atom! It is a very close-knit family with people from different backgrounds and expertise, which makes it an enriching experience working together each day. We have great conversations just walking through the corridors!
What’s your favorite part of your job?
As a researcher, there is nothing more rewarding than when the experiment you plan is successful and the results are published. As an educator, I love teaching the concepts of physics and advancing students’ understanding. Being able to impart knowledge and confidence to the younger generation is a great joy to me, and it’s definitely a favorite part of my job.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Apart from being a researcher and a teacher, I’m also a mom, and so time management is the most challenging part of the job. However, I have learned to set my priorities on a daily or weekly basis depending on what needs my attention the most.
What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?
My research focuses on understanding the structure of exotic nuclei, and it can provide helpful information for understanding nucleosynthesis in the universe, which elements exist, how much of them are present and why. The experiments are quite sophisticated, involving state-of-the-art detectors, electronics and computation tools. Graduate students who work on these projects get excellent training and exposure, which is helpful in their placement in a variety of jobs.
As someone who has been a part of FSU’s faculty for almost two decades, what do you enjoy most about working here?
The best part of working in FSU's physics department is the camaraderie that I share with my colleagues, who are also my friends. I never get the "Monday blues."
If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?
I hope they learn that hard work is the key to any achievement. When you see a finished product, you are seeing only the tip of the iceberg. No one ever just gets lucky. Luck is merely the meeting of preparedness and opportunity, so, always be prepared!