The College of Law announces that the Hon. James E. Graves Jr. G’80, L’80 will be the Class of 2024 Commencement Speaker. Graves is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He is the…
An Intuitive Approach to Physics Research: Get to Know Graduate Student Marshal Ohana Benevides Rodrigues
Most people think of Neapolitan ice cream when they hear vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, but Ohana Benevides Rodrigues G’22 uses vanilla, chocolate and strawberry to explain one of the main features of the complex world of neutrinos—tiny, nearly massless, chargeless particles that travel at near light speeds and are abundant in the universe.
Stemming from intense astrophysical events like exploding stars, neutrinos are notoriously tricky to pin down and detect since they rarely interact with other particles.
Neutrinos can come from many sources, but Benevides Rodrigues studies the ones that come out of nuclear reactions and those that are made in particle accelerators.
Whenever a neutrino is formed, it comes in three different types: electron, muon and tau (this is where the vanilla, chocolate and strawberry analogy comes into play). But unlike those ice cream flavors, which exist in one primary flavor, neutrinos can change as they travel through space.
Starting with an internship with Fermilab, the country’s renowned particle physics and accelerator laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, Benevides Rodrigues’ research has concentrated on studying how neutrinos interact and why they change from one state as they travel.
After successfully defending her physics dissertation, Benevides Rodrigues, a Ph.D. candidate in physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, has been selected as Graduate School marshal for Syracuse University’s 2023 Commencement.
“It is such an honor to be recognized,” Benevides Rodrigues says. “It’s special because I do physics in an unconventional way. Most physicists are very mathematically driven and always start with formulas and equations. I start with the opposite end. I have to think about what is going on in a given system and only then I put together the formula in a kind of intuitive way.”
The Universitywide honor recognizes outstanding academic achievement, inspired research, campus and community involvement and Orange spirit and pride. Benevides Rodrigues will lead the graduate student procession and walk the stage during Commencement.
“The Graduate School congratulates Ohana on her excellent academic achievements and innovative, distinctive research. She has been a dedicated, hardworking doctoral student and accomplished scholar. We look forward to her representation of the Graduate School at Commencement and wish her all the best in her future career path,” says Peter Vanable, Graduate School dean.
Currently a postdoctoral senior research associate at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Benevides Rodrigues plans on pursuing a permanent position in the field of reactor neutrinos and MeV-scale neutrino physics.
Benevides Rodrigues currently works on three different experiments. One is located near a research reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, observing and studying how the neutrinos coming out of the high flux isotope reactor change when arriving at the facility’s detector. She’s also involved in a project called Mobile Anti-Neutrino Demonstrator, developing a detector that could be used as an extra tool for nuclear safeguards and surveillance. Lastly, she uses the MicroBooNE detector at Fermilab to search for MeV-scale neutrinos coming from the neutrinos at the main injector beam.
“When I was growing up, my dad was a lawyer who eventually became a judge. I always wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps, so I wanted to go to law school and become a prosecutor. I always had a sense of justice and I think I still have that sense of justice. I consider myself an activist in many ways, including the research I’m currently doing,” Benevides Rodrigues says.
It’s a career path that got off to an inauspicious start. Growing up in Petropolis, a city in Brazil north of Rio de Janeiro, Benevides Rodrigues initially struggled with math since her school didn’t have a math teacher. Eventually, a high school physics teacher helped her realize her potential.
While her math skills weren’t on the same level as her classmates, Benevides Rodrigues enjoyed an advantage over her peers: Rather than memorizing formulas and equations and relying on math to solve problems, Benevides Rodrigues employed a more intuitive approach to physics.
“I love thinking about physics that way, of looking at systems and trying to figure out what was going on there by observing and looking out for patterns and behaviors. Eventually I understood I could use math to describe those patterns and behaviors, but that’s not the only way you can think of physics,” Benevides Rodrigues says.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in physics from the State University of Campinas in Brazil, Benevides Rodrigues was drawn to Syracuse University for her doctoral degree. She credits her advisors, especially Mitchell Soderberg, her graduate school advisor, and Walter Freeman, associate teaching professor of physics, for inspiring and motivating her to press forward with her research.
“I was lucky to have great mentors around me that supported me through my failures,” Benevides Rodrigues says. “I’m a people-driven person who connects with people and science requires that. Science is a game where we’re supposed to fail all the time. You come up with a hypothesis and you test it. It doesn’t work and you try again. That’s rule 101 of science. You just keep doing it until you get it right, so having people supporting you throughout the failures is essential,” Benevides Rodrigues says.