Portrait of Zuheb Mohamed Ibrahim.
Zuheb Mohamed Ibrahim Photo: Andy Manis

Most students in the Letters & Science Summer of Excellence in Research (LASER) program don’t actually use lasers, but sophomore computer science major Zuheb Mohamed Ibrahim did. He spent his summer in a UW–Madison lab studying black holes and calibrating the equipment that makes research at the South Pole possible. The focus of his research was on neutrinos, the electrically charged particles so small that they can pass easily through other objects. We sat down with him to ask about his experience in the program.

What was your summer project?

In the IceCube [Neutrino Observatory] lab, it’s about neutrino physics. Basically, there are black holes, and in these black holes certain particles come out. IceCube focuses on neutrinos. In the South Pole, we have our lab, which has digital optical modules (DOMs), which are spherical things with sensors, and they’re all embedded in the ice. These modules pick up on the flashes of light that these neutrinos emit. So, when these neutrinos come out of the black hole, they emit a flash of light and these modules pick up on that.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory is a massive research project. What was your role?

In my research, we made a laser beam, which calibrates these modules. So instead of, for example, the same flashes of light that these neutrinos pick up and emit, we [artificially] make those flashes of light to calibrate the DOMs and see if they’re working and picking up on the flashes of light. [We tested] at different levels of intensity and in different directions. We made some hardware that would pick up on the flashes of light to test in the lab. I wrote some scripts that would move a motor that had a laser sitting on top of it. So, the script would move it a certain amount of steps in one direction and a certain amount of steps in another direction, and the board would pick up on how much light, when the light passed through, and graph it.

What skills did you pick up along the way?

I learned a lot of new skills. I had never worked with any hardware, never soldered, never tested how much velocity of electricity was going through the board — never did anything with the board. I had some experience with scripts, but I had never made my own script from scratch. I’d never basically had my own choice of direction on what to do and where to go with the project. I started off with a clean slate. I was told this is what we were looking for and these are the tools you use — let’s see what you can do.

What would you say to prospective students who are considering this program?

Apply, apply, apply. There’s something for you that would pique your interest. Looking at the list of projects, I didn’t know which project to join, which project to pick, but once I picked the IceCube neutrino project, it was a great experience. It’s probably not something that I would have ever ventured out of my comfort zone to do, being that it was in the physics department and that kind of scared me, but it was a great experience, and I learned a lot from it.

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