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Feb. 25, 2020

Chris Wrede: Nuclear physics at MSU

Feb. 24, 2020

Chris Wrede is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Natural Science and former chair of the NSCL/FRIB outreach committee at MSU. His research group studies the role atomic nuclei play in the evolution of matter in our universe.

My research is driven by an interest in fundamental physical questions about the evolving universe. As a student in Canada, I studied physics and astronomy and, despite my lifelong interest in the cosmos, I diverted myself from becoming an astronomer because it is not possible to perform experiments on stars.

I also dabbled in philosophy, visual and conceptual art, and architecture before committing to nuclear physics as a career path when I entered graduate school.

One of my favorite things about my chosen field is the creative process of conceiving sensitive laboratory experiments. The goal each time is to measure a property of an atomic nucleus that is necessary to understand how a type of star or stellar explosion works. Most of the atoms in the Earth and in our bodies were forged by nuclear processes in these extreme environments.

During eight years at MSU, I’ve been fortunate to work with a talented and diverse group of undergraduate researchers, graduate students and research associates, who do most of the hard work required to carry out our experiments and analyze the data.

My recruiting has been enhanced by the perennial No. 1 ranking of MSU’s nuclear physics graduate program. One of the main draws of MSU for nuclear science students and faculty alike is the National Conducting Cyclotron Laboratory, or NSCL, and its successor, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, or FRIB, which deliver beams of rare, radioactive isotopes to users from all over the world. Until recently, our field relied on stable, or non-radioactive beams, limiting the scientific reach.

These facilities are the present manifestation of more than 50 years of nuclear-science developments at MSU, which were recently documented in a book "Up From Nothing" by Sam Austin.

Without the beams provided by NSCL and FRIB, my group’s experiments would not be sensitive enough to investigate some very interesting types of stellar explosions, and I owe a debt of gratitude to several generations of predecessors including current colleagues for establishing the opportunity.

While many large nuclear-physics facilities are based at national laboratories in remote locations far away from universities, only a few steps separate our laboratory from MSU’s Departments of Physics and Astronomy, Chemistry and Engineering.

Students and faculty like myself can attend class on the same day they are doing an experiment instead of enduring extended absences to conduct research elsewhere. We also host many meetings — MSU is a national hub for nuclear physics!

Ironically, despite my initial resistance to becoming an astronomer, my teaching at MSU is predominantly an integrative studies course about astronomy and a graduate course about nuclear astrophysics. I truly enjoy the subject matter and interactions with the students, and communicating our science to the public.

I served as chair of the NSCL/FRIB outreach committee for four years and collaborated on many initiatives, including the “Rare Access” open house that gave the public their first inside look at the FRIB project, an educational video game called “Isotopolis” about nuclear science and an interactive exhibit “Smash” now open at the Impression 5 Science Center in Lansing.