Rafael Carballeira ’22 and David Dolgitzer ’22 come from very different backgrounds and followed dissimilar paths to get to Saint Peter’s University; however their interest in theoretical physics was the same. Both students overcame the challenges of what it meant to be a college student during a pandemic and with the support of their professor, Debing Zeng, Ph.D., chair and associate professor of physics in the Department of Applied Science and Technology at Saint Peter’s, managed to accomplish tremendous successes during their time at the University.
When Carballeira was a student at Union City High School he came to Saint Peter’s University over the summer in 2018 to participate in the American Chemical Society (ACS) SEED Program, a program that provides hands-on research experiences for high school students with diverse identities and socioeconomic backgrounds. According to ACS, the program empowers participants to advance and enrich the chemical science enterprise.
Through the SEED Program, Carballeira participated in microplasma research with Wei-Dong Zhu, Ph.D., professor of physics and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and subsequently decided to continue his education at the University. As a freshman, he approached Dr. Zeng to express his interest in conducting research in theoretical physics.
“I have always appreciated the beauty of mathematics,” said Carballeira in describing his passion for theoretical physics, “Equations are the one aspect of physics that intrigued me more than actual hands-on experiments. I am motived by the power of seeing those equations come to life.”
Dr. Zeng connected Carballeira with his former colleague, Yusui Chen, Ph.D., a theoretical physicist and assistant professor of physics at the New York Institute of Technology. Together Dr. Zeng and Dr. Chen co-advised Carballeira in his research, which was ultimately published Nature’s Scientific Reports, a prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal. In addition to his research, Carballeira also obtained prominent internships with the United States Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security.
“Rafael experienced a lot of hardships during the pandemic, but his hard work with perseverance and persistence finally came to fruition,” said Dr. Zeng.
Carballeira’s education at Saint Peter’s would not have been possible without support from The Rev. Joseph E. Schuh, S.J. Scholars Program and the SURGE grant, a $3.8 million initiative at the University funded by the U.S. Department of Education through the Hispanic-Serving Institutions STEM Program. He is also a PODER Research Fellow, supported by the $4.8 million STEM-PODER grant Saint Peter’s received in 2021.
While Carballeira came to Saint Peter’s from the next town over, Dolgitzer came to the University to join the swim team as an international student from Israel.
While his journey was different, Dolgitzer was also extremely interested in theoretical physics and he also began to work with Drs. Zeng and Chen. He studied phase transitions in open quantum systems and his research was ultimately published by Optics Express, a prestigious journal for optical physics from Optics Society of America (OSA).
The silver lining that Dolgitzer could find in the pandemic was that he was able to continue his theoretical research outside of the lab, something that would not have been possible for experimental research when everything was shut down. Overall, he was appreciative for the opportunities he had at Saint Peter’s.
“It is not common that a student can participate in a project that is conducted throughout multiple semesters,” said Dolgitzer. “I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to live out my interest in conducting research.”
Both students had the opportunity to attend and present their research at the annual American Physical Society (APS) March Meeting in Chicago this past spring. The meeting offered the students the chance to share research, network with colleagues and learn about cutting-edge technology from academic, industrial and government sectors.
In the fall, Carballeira will attend Brown University to pursue a master’s degree and Dolgitzer will attend Johns Hopkins University as a Ph.D. student with full scholarship.
“I am incredibly proud of all that Rafael and David have accomplished,” said Dr. Zeng. “This is the first time that two physics majors are going to prestigious universities to continue their graduate studies and I am sure that they will continue to make us proud.”