Department News

OSU Physicist Builds On NASA Project's Success With New Device

OSU News, 26-Jun-2019


Dr. Eric Benton (right) works with graduate students on his radiation detector that flew on the International Space Station.
Dr. Eric Benton (right) works with graduate students on his radiation detector that flew on the International Space Station.


A successful 2018 project with NASA is providing the foundation for an improved radiation detector. Physicist Dr. Eric Benton and graduate students in his lab developed a tissue equivalent radiation dosimeter that flew on the International Space Station last summer.


They have finished analyzing the data it collected and found it produced predictable, reliable data, noting changes in radiation exposure as the space station passed over the poles or went through the South Atlantic Anomaly where the radiation belt dips close to earth.


"The new science is the device itself," Benton said. "We got data as high quality as what was previously obtained on NASA instruments."


Building on the foundation of NASA's advances in radiation detectors, Benton and his team were able to build one at a fraction of the cost. The detector also provided an improvement over previous models: the possibility for real-time information.


"For my entire career before this, I had done a lot of space radiation work, but it was using what we call passive detectors," he said. "These detectors worked analogously to film. Astronauts would carry them around, get exposed and the detector would have to be returned to the ground and chemically processed. We had no idea about any time structure of the radiation. Did it all come at once? Was most of it pretty small but there were a couple of bad days? Those are really simple detectors. There are no electronics. This was my first effort to fly an electronic instrument in space. It was a real departure for me personally and my research group to go into this new area."


The technology was such a success that Benton has plans for a new model. There are two types of radiation particles: charged particles like electrons and protons, and uncharged particles, which are mostly neutrons.


"Neutrons don't interact with anything electrically," he said. "They have to go through nuclear interactions with the nuclei of atoms so you only see them indirectly. In all of these detectors to date, we couldn't tell a difference. Was it a neutron that produced a secondary charged particle, or was it a primary charged particle? The new version will be able to discriminate between the two."


Neutrons are biologically damaging compared with charged particles of similar energy. Knowing what fraction of the radiation is coming from uncharged particles could help scientists construct better spacecraft or provide a means to limit exposure.


"You have to be able to measure that to even understand if the material you're building is helping," he said. "NASA and other groups have models to predict how much exposure of each kind an astronaut is going to get. Our hope is that the new detector will be able to validate their models."


Benton is on a sabbatical in Prague until December, working with the Nuclear Physics Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences. He's working on a project dealing with the effects of ionizing radiation and the atmosphere. He will begin work on the new detector model with his team of graduate students when he returns to OSU.


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REU Program Looks To Bring Students

OSU Graduate College, 29-Apr-2019


Oklahoma State University Physics REU Class of 2018The Oklahoma State University Physics Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) Program is in the business of making new Cowboys.

If you need proof, just look at Calvin Ainsworth and Jacob Crosby – two of seven students who came to Stillwater last year to be apart of the program – who will be starting class at OSU in the fall.

You can also talk to Lucas Blake – who attended the program last summer as well.

"[REU] is a great opportunity. It's a great résumé builder. It's a great way to make a great cohort, make new friends, and learn a lot about that university," Blake said.

The ten-week National Science Foundation program spans over the summer and brings undergraduate students from across the nation to Stillwater. The program includes a $5,000 stipend, attendance at a national professional meeting and the participants' travel, housing and meals covered.

"The program is necessary because it gives students who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to do research to be involved in research," Dr. Mario Borunda, one of the co-directors of the program, said.

"It applies to universities that don't have research facilties and it also helps us recruit some of those students. We want some of those students to come back to OSU as grad students," he said.

Which is exactly what Blake is considering now.

"From last summer, I decided I'm really interested in going [into] photonics as a career. So I'm actually considering OSU for graduate school," Blake said.

Which is quite different from where he was before the program.

"I had actually never heard of photonics before I came to OSU this summer," he said. "I had originally talked to the physics REU and I ended up in photonics. I didn't know the subset of optics that was photonics beforehand."

Blake was definitely given an introduction though.

Each student in the program goes through eight-hour workdays in the lab working in fields such as condensed matter physics, atomic and molecular optics and photonics, and high energy physics.

Participants also get to attend multiple workshops including how to apply to grad school, what is required for taking the GRE and finding the best way to present data.

"I didn't have a thorough background in optimal electronics or anything photonics related," Blake said. "I used a lot of stuff I learned in quantum mechanics and other undergraduate level physics courses and I could see the transition between that and the graduate level courses involving photonics. And the stuff I learned there I got to work from scratch."

Oklahoma State University Physics REU 2018 Research Poster SessionThis is one experience Borunda believes all REU participants should have in their time in the program.

"[They] get a research project from start to finish. So, they can see if they enjoy research or not," Borunda said.

"In grad school, you go to classes, but your main accomplishment is to do some original research," he said.

Borunda also realizes that for students who do fall in love with the research in the program that there's also a chance for the student to fall in love with the place they are researching at.

To help participants get acquainted with each other and their surroundings, the weekends are saved for fellowshipping and interacting in a more social environment. Participants as well as faculty and graduate student mentors enjoyed a picnic the opening weekend, intramural softball as well as visiting the zoo and National Cowboy Heritage Museum throughout the ten weeks.

At the close of the program there is Research Symposium where high school science teachers as well as physics faculty judge the participants' work on how well they can explain the research they've been working on to a science teacher.

Blake, Crosby, and Ainsworth were given the People's Choice, Best Poster, and Overall Presentation awards respectively at the symposium.

"I feel like an all-around better student after leaving [the program,]" Blake said.

"Working with the graduate level content and stuff like that, it's the hardest things I've probably worked with. But after thinking at such a high level all summer, it made everything else seem easier."

For more information on the Summer 2019 program, visit


Physics Department 2018 Newsletter

The Physics Department 2018 Newsletter in available PDF format.


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