Augustana Student Named Lead Author on Paper Published in Physics Journal

Written by University Writer Keeley Meier '20

Augustana University student Tiana Townsend ‘22 was named the lead author of a paper recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Physics — a rare achievement for an undergraduate. The paper, “Controlling H⁺₃ Formation From Ethane Using Shaped Ultrafast Laser Pulses,” was published on June 30, and is based on research conducted with Dr. Eric Wells, professor of physics, and collaborators from Kansas State University. It summarizes several experiments the team completed over the course of five years.

“It's super exciting,” Townsend said. “I remember being kind of shocked when we had a Zoom call last summer and Dr. Wells just thought that it was commonplace for me to be the first author on this.”

Townsend, a physics and ACS chemistry double major, began research under Wells in the summer of 2019 after her first year at Augustana. She performed 10 weeks of research, putting in 40 or more hours a week.

“Tiana was ultimately chosen to be the first author because she worked on the analysis of both types of molecular imaging experiments that we conducted,” Wells said. “Without being able to link the measurements from the different experiments and make them complementary to each other, it would have been difficult to reach the conclusions that we did. So, her contribution to the understanding of the results was key. This project, however, was very much a team effort.” 

The paper focused on ethane, and what happens when the molecule is broken up by a laser. The ultimate goal of the research was to understand and control how chemical bonds are modified by light. Townsend's main role was to analyze molecular fragmentation data taken using a certain technique — the cold target recoil ion momentum spectroscopy (COLTRIMS) technique. 

“We used concepts from general physics and worked backward to figure out what happened when the molecule was hit by the laser pulse,” Townsend explained. “So, we were looking at different potential energy curves, how often a process happens and mechanistic information.”

Townsend entered both Augustana and the research process with a focus on chemistry, but soon realized her interest in physics. She is now considering pursuing physics in graduate school.

“I feel like Augustana has prepared me well for both research and grad school,” Townsend said. “I think the academic expectation at Augie is relatively high which puts me at an advantage when I'm moving from undergraduate courses to graduate courses. I think that Augie has also done a great job as far as research opportunities, so that’s something I’m grateful for.”

Townsend said her biggest piece of advice for fellow science majors is to talk with researching Augustana professors and take advantage of any research opportunities that come their way. 

“I'm very glad that I did research as an undergraduate and that I have found it as enjoyable as I have,” Townsend said. “But, even if I had not, I would've been glad to have the experience and know that maybe this path isn't for me.”

Now Augustana alumni Charlie Schwartz ‘20, Naoki Iwamoto ‘20, Joe Napierala ‘17, Selamawit Tegegn ‘17, Abel Solomon ‘19, Shitong Zhao ‘19 and Wells were also listed as authors. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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