Undergraduate research: Greg Bernero

Photo by Max Brown
Photo by Max Brown

There are two positions in ultimate frisbee: the handler and the cutter. A handler’s job is to remain in the backfield while the offense runs around them. Handlers dump throws to cutters. If nothing is happening, the frisbee gets passed back to handlers to reset the offense. The frisbee is passed from person to person until someone catches it in the end zone. Carnegie Mellon senior Greg Bernero is a handler for his school’s team. He is also involved in the school’s physics research department— when he’s not on the field, he’s in the lab.

Carnegie Mellon is known for its involvement in scientific and technical research, and Bernero has taken advantage of this ever since his sophomore year. Like in ultimate, his current research position involves a lot of observations and research that can be passed on to the next researcher. And if it doesn’t work, he’s remaining in the backfield to reset and try again.

From an early age, Bernero knew science was what he wanted to do, messing with mini chemistry-lab kits and attending science camps every summer. In high school, he found a sense of freedom through Physics that was unlike any other science. “In biology and chemistry, there was pretty much always one approach to a problem and one answer. In physics, we learned to do things like orient your coordinate system however you wanted, or define variables to your liking. This is what really hooked me,” he said.

College Physics started off as a somewhat different story. It had been easy in high school, so Bernero thought he’d be able to breeze through his freshman courses. It wasn’t so simple. “College was harder than I had ever imagined it,” he recalled, “I got a 30% on my first physics exam.” This made him do some serious thinking. Had he made a giant mistake in investing all of this time in a field he might actually hate? “I had to remind myself of why I loved the subject in the first place. I knew that while it was going to be hard, it would all be worth it to get to all the juicy stuff later on.” He kept focused and read a lot of articles and papers on what was going on in the world of physics. Knowing what was going on outside the classroom kept him motivated to push through so he could get there too. After four years, it still keeps getting harder, but also more interesting.

The thought of something cooler in the world of higher-level physics is what kept him motivated to push through the tedious lower-level stuff, but Bernero then realized he didn’t have to wait until he graduated to get involved in the research he was reading about. All he had to do was, as he put it, “knock on some doors,” to get a position. “The fact that CMU as a whole is largely a research university and that most of the physics department is involved in awesome research was very influential,” Bernero said. He knew research was an excellent way to get your foot in the door on his track to a Ph.D., and found it wasn’t hard to help in research even as an undergrad. Since, he has dabbled with many areas of the field of physics— Astrophysics, Nuclear and Particle Physics to name a few.

His current position is looking at the clumpiness (yes, that’s the technical term), of hydrogen in space. He uses this clumpiness to write a program that analyzes simulation data of hydrogen, so that he and future physicists can take the simulations and apply them to actual observed data. What could the ability to estimate hydrogen levels through simulation and observations mean? It’s mostly to help others with data for their research. It could also mean a way to show how matter is actually formed in space, and take us all the way back to early expansion of the universe. Studying the current expansion of the universe could be telling in where it is headed, and what mass objects may or may not hold—all from mere hydrogen levels.

Bernero and his research partners calculate hydrogen levels by first looking at what are possibly the most distant objects in the universe, called quasi-stellar radio sources, or quasars. His work so far has been writing the software that calculates these hydrogen levels through simulations. Data from the Sloan Foundation telescope has provided them with absorption lines from these quasars, where neutral hydrogen can be detected in the appearance of protons each quasar emits.

One of Bernero’s nuisances has been getting enough access time to the supercomputer in his school research center, as his program requires greater power to run it properly. But his biggest challenge has been getting simulation data to match the actual observed data. Bernero has to get it to match so well through his software, that simulations will be much more accurate, even when a person using his software has fewer statistics on observed hydrogen levels. “This means that when we eventually analyze our preliminary results, there will be lots of refining and optimizing to be done,” he said, “Our hopes are for somebody else to be able to use our work on his or her own project, as is the case with many physics projects.”

Bernero initially had no interest in Astrophysics until he took up this particular project. His largest interest is High Energy Particle Physics, which he plans to do his thesis work on. The irony is that it’s all circling back around. “I am currently taking Intro to Nuclear and Particle Physics, which is my first real exposure to the subject. So far it has been quite challenging, but also incredibly interesting. I am excited to go into more depth in graduate school.”

His first four years studying physics at the university level have come with a few surprises too. What surprised him most was how lazy physicists often are. “Our notation is sloppy, we hand-wave ourselves through rough patches in the math, and we sweep many issues under the rug,” he laughed, “Mathematicians would cringe at some of the operations we do on a regular basis. And yet, somehow it all works. We often ignore some clutter and semantics in order to understand the meat of a problem.” It’s a freedom he likes. Like Physicist Richard Feynman described it in one of his most famous lectures, mathematicians work in the very concrete, and the reasons behind their numbers and calculations aren’t necessarily relevant for them to know, but “the physicist is always interested in the special case.” Feynman explains that the greatest discoveries always turn out abstract from the model. They rely on each other, but it’s the physicist who gets to stray.

Bernero’s next steps: his Masters and then his Ph.D., where he plans to work on High Energy Particle Physics. Bernero plans to, one day, work in a lab or accelerator studying particle physics—the branch of physics that has brought more attention to things, like the search for the Higgs Boson, a theoretical particle that would explain a great deal about our universe. For now, he’s working hard in his research. Getting published as an undergraduate isn’t as easy as finding research positions at Carnegie Mellon. But he still has a few more years for his studies. And he’s loving the freedom.