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Exploring science around the world

Connor Matthiew at St. Peter's Basilica
Connor Matthies enjoys the view atop at St. Peter’s Basilica after making the 535-step climb. This was part of the experiences afforded Davis-Bahcall Scholars. The incoming SDSU sophomore was one of eight chosen for the four-week experience.

While the gold has been gone from the former Homestake Mine in Lead for many years, it still holds a treasure for current and would-be scientists.

One of them is Connor Matthies, an incoming sophomore mechanical engineering and computer science double major at SDSU. The Hartford resident was one of eight students chosen to be a Davis-Bahcall Scholar this summer. The students, five who had just finished high school and three who had just finished their first year of college, received four weeks of unparalleled scientific and cultural experiences.

The program is an all-expense-paid opportunity that connects science-curious students with peers and mentors while exploring the modern world of STEM research.

It is organized by the Sanford Underground Research Facility, which the Homestake Mine evolved into 16 years ago. Financial backing comes from First Premier Bank, the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium and the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority with in-kind support from Black Hills State University.

From June 11 to July 9, the students explored wonders in the Black Hills, the Upper Midwest and all the way to Rome.

Matthies is the 12th SDSU student to be selected since the program began at the Sanford Lab in 2008 and the first since Vanessa Konynenbelt in 2017.


Scholars climb peak, peek for dark matter

The program is named in honor of experimental physicist Ray Davis Jr. and theoretical physicist John Bahcall. Davis, who built his experiment at the 4850 Level of the Homestake Mine, received the Nobel Prize in 2002 for his groundbreaking solar neutrino research. Bahcall developed the theoretical model of the sun and of solar neutrino production, which guided Davis’ research.

The program provides a unique mix of exploration, culture and science blended with small-group camaraderie.

Davis-Bahcall Scholars climbed South Dakota’s highest peak—Black Elk—and enjoyed a picnic afterward. They toured the Davis Campus 4,850 feet below ground, viewed a dark matter detector and heard from the campus director.

On June 19, they began a weeklong journey to the Fermilab near Chicago. The route led them through Wall Drug, the Badlands, EROS (Earth Resources Observation and Science) Center, Raven Industries, 3M Aberdeen, Target Field for a Minnesota Twins game, the nano-science facility at the University of Minnesota and the physical science lab and the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Chicago—pizza and particles

They arrived in Chicago the night of June 23. The Windy City was equally a mix of culture, adventure and science.

From Geno’s deep-dish pizza, walking along Lake Michigan in Grant Park and viewing fireworks on the Navy Pier to touring the Museum of Science and Industry, St. Peter’s Church in the Loop and the Art Institute of Chicago, the young South Dakotans were seeing the world from a completely new perspective.

However, Matthies was most intrigued by the Fermilab, which is 45 miles west of Chicago in Batavia and home to a particle accelerator.


Fermilab, Argonne fascinate students

Fermilab, which dates back to 1967, is the premier particle physics and accelerator laboratory of the United States. Fermilab’s “next big thing” is to point the neutrinos—harmless, tiny particles that have no electric charge—at an angle into the ground and send them in the direction of the particle detector at Sanford Lab.

The neutrinos will leave the Fermilab site at a depth of about 200 feet, cross about 10 miles deep underneath the Mississippi River and reach a maximum depth of close to 20 miles as they travel to South Dakota.

No tunnel is necessary to send the neutrinos from Fermilab to South Dakota since neutrinos can travel straight through rock.

That project is still in the excavation stage, but Matthies found the whole concept fascinating, particularly after seeing where the capture site will be at the Sanford Underground Research Facility.

Also in Chicago, students toured the Argonne National Laboratory, where the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was conducted in 1942 and in 1946 became the country’s first national laboratory, and discussed physics and dark matter during a visit with a professor and graduate students at the University of Chicago.


Italy—Cradle of Renaissance, cutting-edge science

The eight students and two chaperones departed Chicago for Rome on June 30. Following a nine-hour flight, they spent five full days in Rome.

Cultural highlights included visiting the Colosseum, the Pantheon, Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, where they walked up all 535 steps to the top of the dome. Scientifically, they boosted their knowledge of planets at Teramo Observatory and took a deeper dive into dark matter research at the Gran Sasso Laboratory, which is the largest underground research center in the world, located below Gran Sasso mountain.

The developing project there is the construction of Legend-200, which will test to see if neutrinos can be their own antiparticle, which could one day have  implications for building robust quantum computers, Matthies said. A smaller version, the Majorana Demonstrator, was built at the Sanford Lab.

For Matthies, his strongest Italian memories were viewing “The School of Athens” painting in the Vatican and the various frescoes on the ceiling and walls of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo and other Renaissance artists. He noted the works are generally considered to be the greatest work of art ever and were commissioned during the Renaissance. Two days earlier the students had toured Gran Sasso Laboratory, where they witnessed the cutting edge of science.

The melding of those two historic and world-shaping institutions profoundly struck Matthies, he said.


Grateful for ‘unrivaled’ experience

Flying back to Rapid City on July 6 was an adventure of nearly 14 hours. On July 8, the crew helped at Neutrino Day at the Sanford Lab and explored the Little Shop of Physics before giving a July 9 talk on a science topic that captured their attention and saying their goodbyes. Matthies spoke on the Majorana Demonstrator, a Sanford project to look for a rare form of radioactive decay.

Looking back on his four weeks, Matthies said the experience “exceeded my expectation. It was awesome. It was more physics than I expected, and it turned out I enjoyed quantum physics.

“I’m really grateful for the entire program. It’s unrivaled in terms of how much experience you get in the scientific community. I don’t think anywhere else you can tour the number of national labs we did but also ask the depth of questions we did.

“We got a panel of researchers at a lot of these laboratories we visited, and we had hours to ask as many questions as we wanted to. I can’t think of anything that has that sort of deep-reaching influence in terms of how willing researchers were to talk to us about what they were doing.”

Long-term, Matthies isn’t sure if he will pursue a career in industry or scientific research, but he does plan to apply for internships at Fermilab and Argonne for next summer.

Applications for the 2024 Davis-Bahcall Scholar program are due in January.



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