At a Glance

Year: ’25
Degree: Physics PhD
Activities: Nuclear Radiation Laboratory
Why physics? “From an early age, I’ve been genuinely interested in how things worked.”

Physics PhD

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Graduate student Christian Burns is making Illinois his new home for the next academic year.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected the physics Ph.D. candidate for its Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) program. 
“The SCGSR program provides a way for graduate students to enrich their scientific research by engaging with researchers at DOE national labs, learning from world-class scientists and using state-of-the-art equipment and facilities,” says Asmeret Asefaw Berhe, director of the DOE Office of Science.
For 12 months beginning in August, Burns will be working at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, to help develop a better understanding of chemical elements located at the bottom of the periodic table. The structure of these elements, which are considered “superheavy” because their nucleus contains a large number of protons, is not well-known.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity,” says Burns, one of 87 graduate students from around the country accepted to the program.
At the lab, Burns will install a high-purity germanium double-sided strip detector, which can detect X-rays and low-energy gamma radiation. The detector will be used to analyze radiation emitted from decaying superheavy elements and their isotopes, which have the same number of protons as the element but a different number of neutrons.
“This work is important, as it’ll provide insights into the properties of theoretical, superheavy stable elements,” Burn says.
Argonne physicist Dariusz Seweryniak will collaborate with Burns on the research.
“There’s just so much that I can learn from him,” Burns says. “He’s been at the lab for over 20 years, so he’s a veteran scientist there.”
Burns has worked with Seweryniak in the past through his involvement with UML’s Nuclear Radiation Laboratory, which Physics Prof. Partha Chowdhury directs. The lab group often visits the Argonne National Laboratory to conduct nuclear physics experiments.
Fascinated by the research expertise of the UML physics faculty, Burns decided to pursue his Ph.D. at UMass Lowell after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in physics at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Chowdhury’s work on nuclear structures particularly piqued Burns’ interest.
“Working in Dr. Chowdhury’s lab is an amazing experience,” Burns says. “I’ve learned a lot about different gamma-ray detectors and how to use computer coding to analyze data.”
Chowdhury is also the person who encouraged Burns to apply to the SCGSR program. He even helped Burns with the research proposal required for the application.
“If it wasn’t for Dr. Chowdhury, I wouldn’t have known about this great opportunity,” Burns says.
Along with getting involved in research, Burns has worked as a teaching assistant at UMass Lowell.
“I love teaching,” says the Long Island, New York, native. “When I graduate, I want to stay in academia as a college professor.”

Research opportunities

Christian Burns handling nitrogen
“Working in Dr. Chowdhury’s lab is an amazing experience. I’ve learned a lot about different gamma-ray detectors and how to use computer coding to analyze data.”