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April 28, 2022

Student View: A chance opportunity that changed my life

Phuonganh Pham is a junior majoring in physics with minors in computational mathematics, science and engineering, and Chinese. Pham transferred to Michigan State University for its highly rated physics program and is an undergraduate researcher at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams.

When I was in eighth grade in Virginia, Dr. Paul Guèye, who is currently my adviser at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, came and talked about a two-week summer program called PING, or Physicists Inspiring the Next Generation. What caught my attention was that we could learn about astronomy — which has been an interest of mine since first grade — and that it was free. I did not think much of it days afterward, but I turned in the application anyway, which was past the deadline. I forgot about it until I got an email back saying I had been accepted. I participated in the program and did cool things like soldering, star observation, experiments and physics.

At the time, with my parents’ support, I had planned on becoming a medical doctor. I avoided physics like the plague throughout high school and planned to do so in college. I went to college with the set goal of going to medical school. However, as time went on, the momentum stopped. I realized that I didn’t want to become a doctor. I remembered how I felt during the PING program and wanted to pursue a career in astronomy. I did not know what to do or where to go. During that dilemma, I thought of Dr. Guèye. I contacted him and, after many conversations with him and with my parents, I packed my bags and headed to MSU. I knew that this meant that I had to be far away from family and be on my own in a new environment, basically restarting my college years. I was overwhelmed and questioned myself a lot.

The Facility for Rare Isotope Beams at MSU is home to the world’s most powerful heavy-ion accelerator. See what makes MSU a nuclear science powerhouse.

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MSU had what I wanted: a very well-known physics program and many physics-related research opportunities. The university also has advanced equipment that is used in physics labs for undergraduates, and I am always in awe of them. The opportunity at FRIB was brought to me by chance, and it is my pleasure to work there. I was able to surround myself with amazing people, and I learned a lot from them. MSU, FRIB, and Dr. Guèye have opened many doors for me. This is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.


The biggest challenge in my research is to always deal with the unknown. In research science, we are constantly trying to answer unanswered questions using the knowledge that we have. It irritates me to not know things because it makes me nervous and can be very scary. However, I persevere through it because of the support from my research group and the belief that I know what I am doing. Even though it may not deliver world-breaking results, it is helpful to those who want to continue our work.


When I am able to connect the research with what I know, I feel like a firework has set off in my heart. It is all a learning process, not only for me but also for everyone on the research team. My adviser said no one always knows what they are doing, particularly in research. That’s very reassuring.


You should take any opportunity that comes toward you, as long as you are comfortable. No opportunity is a waste of time. You never know what you might find, learn and what door is being opened for you. What seem like insignificant events can impact your life tremendously later.


By: Meredith Mescher

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