Tara Leininger '22 standing in front of Watson Hall on Lafayette College campus

Tara Leininger ’22

Tara Leininger ’22 (physics, math)

Barry Goldwater Scholarship

The Goldwater Scholars program provides support to students who present outstanding undergraduate research applications. Graduate students and professional researchers have the ability to apply for grants or other forms of financial support, but this program allows undergraduate students to present their research as the basis for a scholarship. The scholarship itself will provide financial support for my education at Lafayette. 

In the future, I want to pursue a career in research. I’m particularly interested in high-energy physics (particle physics), which focuses on the smallest constituents of matter and radiation. Professor Brooks Thomas’ Physics 130: Relativity, Spacetime, and Contemporary Physics class is what initially got me interested in this topic. My research with Professor Thomas and his collaborators—Professor Keith Dienes [of University of Arizona] and Doojin Kim, Ph.D., [of Texas A&M]—has given me an opportunity to get a sense of what research is like in this field. After graduation, I plan to attend graduate school, where I can narrow down my interests in both this field and mathematical physics. 

For the last two years, I have been investigating the consequences of a new type of signal for dark matter that could be detected at particle colliders like the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is the largest machine in the world, and thousands of scientists collaborate on projects related to it. The experiments at the LHC are made to detect fundamental particles. In this project, we investigate an entirely new type of signal that might arise from a specific type of dark matter, a yet-undetected type of particle. This signal is particularly interesting as it relies on technology that is about to be added to an experiment as the LHC undergoes upgrades. My work focused on researching the experiments at the LHC, finding and solving equations related to the dark matter model developed by my research advisers, and developing code to see how well we could expect to reconstruct our signal in an experimental setting.

Anticipated highlight of the experience: The scholarship process has given me a lot of insight into what I find interesting and what I want to do in the future. I was very enthusiastic about my research topic, so I was thrilled to see that the evaluators found this topic to be compelling and interesting. The financial support is going to be really beneficial, and winning the scholarship will help open doors as I look to apply to graduate school and begin my research career. 

How will the experience benefit you in the future? In addition to the benefits of the scholarship itself, I knew that the entire process of applying for the scholarship would help me gain valuable skills that would bring me closer to my research goals in physics and math. I think that most of the experience that I get to take with me comes from working to express the fundamental aspects of my research. It was a difficult process to try to express what I had worked on for two years in only a few pages of a research essay, but I feel that this really strengthened my skills in communication as it relates to research work. It was definitely worth it given the doors that Goldwater Scholarship helps to open as well as the perspective I got on my research throughout the application process.

Professors Thomas and Dienes also worked with me extensively on revising my research essay during the scholarship application process. At one point, they sat down for a four-hour Zoom call so that I could refine the language of my research essay. That level of support really blew me away, and it will stick with me as I work to mentor others down the road. 

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