By Alexandria Weesner

Like many people, I went through middle school and high school with an intense dislike for math. I didn’t like doing it, I found it boring and difficult, and I wasn’t very good at it. So it’s a little strange that I ended up studying a field that wouldn’t even exist without it.

My revelation happened during my senior year of high school. At the time I was taking Physics 2, because of my long-time interest in astronomy, and Calculus. When we learned in Calculus what a derivative is and how to take them I had a “Eureka!” moment. This derivative thing was exactly what we had been doing in my Physics class to find the velocities of objects, the only difference being that we hadn’t given a name to the process we were doing. Teachers had been saying my whole life that “you’ll have to use math in the real world!” and I didn’t see it until that moment. Calculus isn’t just used in the real world, it is actually the tool we use to describe how the whole Universe works! It sounds silly, but I was so excited. I went home talking to my parents about it, and I knew from then on that Physics was what I wanted to study. 

I graduated from Edwardsburg High School feeling very excited to go to college and start studying Physics. My plan had always been to move away from home and go to a big university. However, life always has a way of deterring our plans. When I realized what a financial burden going to a big university was going to be I ended up applying to and attending Indiana University South Bend, a decision that I am now very happy with. The department is small enough that the professors are able to dedicate time to help their students. I also made a lot of good friends that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. I am now a senior at IUSB; if all goes well I will have my Physics degree in hand this May (2020). 

If I had to give one piece of advice to any undergraduate student my tip would be: ask for help, always. Your professors and advisors are there to help you. An important part of studying physics (at least for those who are planning on going to grad school) is doing research, and it will help you out immensely if you can do some research as an undergrad. Every one of my research experiences happened because I asked my advisor, other professors, and even complete strangers for help. As an undergraduate I have worked at the University of Notre Dame doing research in a galactic archeology, Louisiana State University, where I did an REU with a LIGO-affiliated group that studies quantum optics, and at my own school, IUSB, where I have done work on the PICO dark matter experiment and on another project designing shark bycatch reduction devices. I now work at Saint Mary’s College with the Kloepper Lab Group, where I will continue doing research for the next two years. 

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Image caption: A photograph of me at the end of the summer of 2018 presenting my poster on the work I completed during the REU at Louisiana State University.

The project I will be working on in the Kloepper Laboratory is particularly interesting and special due to its interdisciplinary nature. Ultimately, it is a Biology project, but those working in our group come from a variety of backgrounds, including Biology, Physics, and Electrical Engineering. In the past I have only worked with other physicists; I learned a lot from those experiences, but I feel I have learned even more in the few short months I have spent here at Saint Mary’s about collaboration, good communication skills, the benefits of a group composed of a variety of backgrounds, and even Biology, since it is a field I have not studied before. 

Our main goal is to study the flight patterns of bats, which we are doing by developing a computer program to track and count the bats as they fly. We also want this currently-unnamed program to be able to do other things that will help biologists, such as sample colors measure lengths and angles of organisms, in addition to the tracking feature. It is important to us that this program be available to use by anyone who can benefit from it, like smaller universities that don’t have the funding for professional programs, high schools, and amateurs, so we plan to make this program free to use. 

Right now I am working on improving the tracking algorithm. It can already analyze the number of bats present in each frame of a video but it isn’t accurate when the bats’ flight paths intersect. If more than one bat overlaps in the field of view then the program will either count them as one bat or it won’t count them at all, which depends on the user’s settings. I am improving this feature by creating a program that takes images of the two bats from before and after the intersection, predicts what they will look like when they intersect by merging these two images into one, and finds the correct combination that most closely matches up to the reality. An example of this is shown below.

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Image caption: A sneak peek at the program I have written that predicts what two bats will look like when they intersect in the field of view of the camera. The image on the left is a real photograph of what the bats actually look like, and the image on the right is the prediction made by combining images of the two individual bats into one.

I will be sure to post more details and information on this process in the future! If this process proves to be unsuccessful or too difficult for larger numbers of bats then we will move on to training a neural network to detect how many bats are overlapping. At this point in time it isn’t clear which technique we will end up going with. Regardless of the direction we end up usingI am excited to see the results. 

I find it interesting how I started off with such a strong dislike for Math and now it is something that I use every day; the predicted image of the two bats shown above was something I created using my knowledge of Math, some programming, and a computer. Being able to do something like this wasn’t what I saw myself doing when I was a lot younger, but now I am just excited to see what else I can accomplish.