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Hubbard studying three STEM majors

Barry McNamara
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Two years into her study of chemistry at Monmouth College, Esther Hubbard ’20 made an important discovery – she wanted to learn more about physics.

So Hubbard added physics to her existing majors of chemistry and mathematics (her self-described “fun” major). She is in the midst of two nuclear physics research projects, both under the direction of Professor Chris Fasano. One is part of Fasano’s ongoing lightning research, trying to determine what types of reactions are happening to cause the radiation that’s been detected in lightning. The other is an interdisciplinary project, merging nuclear physics with agriculture.

“It’s a beautiful project,” said Fasano. “It combines physics and chemistry and engineering and biology. It could even be a good data science project in time.”

Hubbard said she enjoys the project’s interdisciplinary nature.

“We’re talking to almost everybody here,” Hubbard said of the College’s Center for Science and Business. “We’ve talked to the biology department, we’ve talked to the chemistry department. It’s been very interdisciplinary.”

‘Better, faster, cheaper’

Fasano said the agriculture project is very timely, as “modern farmers want to optimize nitrogen application to produce the best yields but also do that in an environmentally friendly way.”

“Nitrogen is found in fertilizers, and scientists and farmers are interested in how much of that nitrogen is getting into plants, getting into the soil,” said Hubbard. “Through a chemical method – mass spectrometry – we can track that, but it’s an expensive method. We’re trying to create a simpler method through nuclear physics, using nitrogen with one extra neutron (N15), which acts as a tracer in the plants.”

Fasano called the project part of his department’s attempt to solve problems through solutions that are “better, faster, cheaper.”

“We’re not trying to design the perfect experiment,” he said. “Perfect is the enemy of good. We’re trying to get possible solutions up and running and just what see you have. These are ideas that students are really learning here, and Esther is really good at it. She’s organized in her thinking and very structured. It takes a kind of creativity to do this, and Esther has a knack for it.”

Hubbard was part of a group of students who discussed the project last fall at the National FFA Convention & Expo, held in Indianapolis.

“I let our students – both our nuclear ag group and our digital ag group – do the talking,” said Fasano. “I just made sure I was going out and getting them coffee to keep them going.”

‘Huge research opportunities’ at Monmouth

A resident of Sandy, Ore., Hubbard was drawn halfway across the country to Monmouth by its water polo program and by ample opportunities in the sciences, including the potential of a 3:2 engineering program.

“I interviewed for a Doc Kieft Scholarship, and I asked a lot of questions,” Hubbard said of her campus visit. “I really liked the huge professor-student relationships I heard about, and I also noticed how the College really wants to set you up for the next step in your life. Plus, as I visited the labs, I could see there were huge research opportunities here.”

Deciding on physics

A summer research opportunity altered Hubbard’s course in the sciences. Last year, she was one of just 24 students in the nation selected to attend an American Chemical Society Nuclear Chemistry Summer School session. Hubbard was joined by 11 other students in the program at San Jose State University, while another dozen students attended the session at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. (which Monmouth graduate Carley Folluo ’17 attended in 2016).

“All you learn is nuclear physics,” Hubbard said of the intensive, six-week, for-credit program. “It gives you a good idea of what graduate school is like.”

In California, the students were exposed to many opportunities, including visits to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, as well as a series of outstanding guest lecturers.

“Just yesterday in class, (chemistry) Professor (Laura) Moore showed a video, and Ken Moody was on it,” said Hubbard of the scientist known for his work in expanding the Periodic Table. “He’s one of the people who spoke to us in San Jose. So seeing him in the video was a super cool nerdy moment for me.”

As she soaked in all the prestigious summer school had to offer, Hubbard had a recurring thought: “I wish I knew more physics.”

She is now doing just that, both in and out of the classroom. In addition to traveling to Indianapolis, she and Bridgette Davey ’19 of Monticello, Ill., recently attended a regional Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics at Northwestern University. Last fall, Hubbard traveled to the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physical Sciences at the University of Nebraska.

Looking ahead, Hubbard said graduate school is “definitely in my plans. I’d like to pursue something that uses both chemistry and physics. Pursuing nuclear physics or nuclear chemistry would be a way to do that with a narrower focus, while pursuing materials science would be a broader option.”