August 09, 2022

Carl Faust, chair and associate professor of physics, assists Hannah Needham '23 in the lab. Carl Faust, chair and associate professor of physics, assists Hannah Needham ’23 in the lab.Gwen Conley ’23 and Hannah Needham ’23 entered the Susquehanna Valley Undergraduate Research Symposium on a high note. After spending the summer building a research device that could be used by their counterparts in psychology, they proudly showcased and described their end product. Feelings of accomplishment turned to bewilderment upon their return to the lab, when they discovered the device stopped working.

“We didn’t touch anything,” Conley, of Conneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, said. “We didn’t touch the code or the circuits, and now it doesn’t work.”

Many experimental psychology studies involving animals make use of equipment designed to produce small electrical stimuli to investigate various responses. Much of this equipment, along with the software that runs it, can be expensive. In collaboration with James Briggs, chair and associate professor of psychology, Conley and Needham have been building an alternative device using inexpensive open-source processing boards to accomplish the same effect.

Plans are for the customizable device to allow for experimentation options beyond what might be available with standard commercial equipment. However, instead of fine-tuning their device, they’re currently trying to determine what went wrong.

“We’re taking it apart piece by piece and going back to square one,” Needham, of Newtown, Pennsylvania, explained. “We’ll add one relay switch at a time and hopefully determine where the problem is.”

Though this hiccup may be irritating, Carl Faust, chair and associate professor of physics, said it’s a good lesson to learn.

“This is what research is all about, and learning to troubleshoot is a valuable skill,” he said. “You develop this physics intuition of sorts, but it’s something you build up over time and this is a great way to do it.”

Conley and Needham, both physics majors with mathematics minors, said their time in the lab this summer has opened their minds to the career opportunities ahead of them, something that was beginning to weigh on Needham’s mind.

“You take all of these classes and they’re super fun and you have a great time, but you wonder, how do I apply this to a career,” Needham said. “Now I’m considering three separate tracks — maybe a master’s in electrical engineering or general physics or possibly going into STEM education.”

Conley, too, is considering various paths — from astrophysics to engineering.

“I used to be dead set on a career with NASA,” she said, “but this experience has broadened my horizons.”