Joseph "J.T." McNeil

Joseph "J.T." McNeil at ETSU's Harry Powell Observatory

He spent last summer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, doing research on an instrument designed for the Large Hadron Collider.  He has presented his research on exoplanets at a gathering of scholars from across the nation.  And he’s still an undergraduate.

Joseph “J.T.” McNeil, a senior from Elizabethton who plans to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in both physics and mathematics, has done all that and amassed a near-perfect GPA of 3.951 while working part-time at Dino’s Restaurant in his hometown.

McNeil came to ETSU because of its proximity to his home, and it would give him an opportunity to save money to help with his goal of attending graduate school.  In addition, he was good in math, and he knew several faculty members in the Department of Mathematics through his high school activities.  He started his freshman year as a mathematics major, and thought he would minor in biology, following in the footsteps of his father, a biologist.

“But I decided to take one physics class my freshman year and found that I really enjoyed it,” he said.  “By the end of my freshman year, I’d decided on a double major of math and physics.  It was a little unexpected!”

This past summer, McNeil traveled to Gainesville to conduct experimental particle physics research with Dr. Ivan Furic in the University of Florida’s Department of Physics and its Institute for High Energy Physics and Astrophysics. CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research located in Switzerland, is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator.  According to the CERN website, the collider allows scientists to cause two high-energy particle beams to travel through vacuum beam pipes in opposite directions at nearly the speed of light until they are made to collide.  After spending two weeks learning two computer languages, McNeil modeled charged particles in magnetic fields related to one of four ongoing major experiments being done with the Hadron Collider.  The ultimate goal of his work is to provide information that will lead to faster simulations in future upgrades to the collider’s Compact Muon Solenoid Silicon Tracker.

McNeil is also participating in ongoing research at ETSU dealing with modeling the light curves of transiting exoplanets; these extrasolar planets dim the light from their host stars as they transit in front of the stars in orbit.  Collaborating with ETSU astronomer Dr. Richard Ignace and former ETSU post-doctoral fellow Dr. Hilding Neilson of the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, McNeil is working to develop a different method of measuring these light curves – a stellar intensity profile – that results in fewer mathematical errors than the standard method of using limb-darkening coefficients. 

A highlight of his college experience was the opportunity to present this research at an American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., last January.  Although he initially felt a bit intimidated as an undergraduate in a huge conference center with thousands of scientists, physicists and astronomers, McNeil soon felt more at home and learned a lot, about both his field and his future.

“During the poster presentation, people were intrigued and asked questions,” he said.  “But you’re stepping into their field – a field they know much more about than you do – and they almost challenge you, push you, to see what you’ve got.  Despite all the nerves that I had going in, a few hours into the poster presentation, I finally ‘got on my feet’ and was able to defend myself.

“Going to that conference, though, really solidified for me that I was in a field that I really wanted to do, and a path that I really wanted to take.”

That field is particle physics, which McNeil says is a “hopping topic” right now, and it also would allow him a great opportunity to use his mathematical skills to answer very complicated problems.  While applying to graduate schools for a Ph.D. in physics, he is thoroughly enjoying the capstone research project in graph theory that he is doing in his mathematics major, and insists that whatever field he enters, it must involve math.  He even hopes to get a second graduate degree in mathematics.

“If physics is the painting, then math is the colors,” he says, noting that it helps provide structure and unity.  “I want my research to be math-heavy, brain-rattling … I want to be up all night working on a problem that I can’t solve, and just finally be thrilled whenever it ‘clicks,’ when I ‘get it.’”

In addition to his research, McNeil is president of the Society of Physics Students and enjoys the opportunities it provides for public outreach on behalf of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  One of those is the regional Science Olympiad for middle and high school students in the Tri-Cities area and beyond.  Upper-level physics majors from the group judge and score the science projects submitted, and the winners move on to statewide competition.

One thing McNeil says he most enjoys at ETSU is “the view.” 

“East Tennessee is a really, really beautiful place, and I realized that even more when I was in Florida last summer,” he said.  “As I was driving back, once I hit the mountains, I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’m home!’  Before I started spending a lot of time in the (Physics computer) lab, I would just go outside and sit on the bleachers and work on my homework and stuff.  There were nights when I’d just go outside and sit on my car and work out there.  It’s just nice.  A good environment, never gets too hot … but it can get a little too cold at times!”

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