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Despite condensed program and limited travel, students gain insight into the real world of modern research
Erin Lorraine Broberg

Each year, Sanford Underground Research Facility's (SURF) Davis-Bahcall Scholars Program helps rising university freshmen and sophomores who are entering STEM fields develop an understanding of just where their passions for science, technology, engineering and math could take them.

In 2020, the program was cancelled due to the pandemic, and participants from the 2020 cohort were invited to attend the 2021 program. Although the program was shortened from four to two weeks and included limited travel, students said the experience gave them insight into the real world of modern research.

“The Davis-Bahcall program introduces students to a variety of STEM disciplines and can be helpful to them in deciding on their major in college,” said program coordinator Brianna Mount, a research assistant professor of physics at Black Hills State University (BHSU).

On their South Dakota circuit, the students toured the SURF in Lead; 3M in Aberdeen; Raven Industries in Sioux Falls; and physics, chemistry, engineering, geology and animal science research laboratories at Augustana University, BHSU, South Dakota Mines, South Dakota State University and University of South Dakota.

The group also talked virtually and in-person with scientists and engineers from Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, IceCube Neutrino Observatory, as well as representatives from the LUX-ZEPLIN (LZ), CASPAR, NASA Astrobiology and SuperCDMS experiments.


group of students outside 3M building
Davis-Bahcall Scholars and 3M representatives at 3M in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Photo courtesy Davis-Bahcall Facebook group


“We saw such an intense variety of fields and subjects—from an astrobiology talk to an asphalt lab to a veterinarian facility—it was just fabulous,” said Aisulu Malik, who will be a freshman at Pomona College in Claremont, California this fall studying linguistics and possibly mechanical engineering.

“The program comes at a point in their education where they are choosing their future career path,” said Mount. “It’s a critical time because they get exposed to many different disciplines and learn early in their education what professionals do every day, whether in science, engineering or another STEM field.”

The program indeed came at a critical point for Phoebe Lefevre, who just completed her freshman year at Oregon State University studying physics. “I've always been interested in—as I would describe it—a crippling amount of things. So, trying to decide what I want to study is particularly difficult,” said Lefevre. When the program began this summer, she was at a crossroads, trying to determine what academic track she would pursue.

“I decided to just hold my breath and go to the program, which turned out to be perfectly positioned, right when I needed it,” Lefevre said. “It really gave me such a great insight into the scientific community and what the possibilities were after an undergraduate degree, which is so often shrouded in mystery for younger students. And I was very excited to continue studying physics.”

Eli Bohlander, who will be a freshman at Purdue University this fall studying aerospace and mechanical engineering, said he appreciated the opportunity for informal conversations with researchers and in-depth facility tours.

“Because we're such a small group, we could ask researchers questions about their experiences: how they got into their field of study and what they like about it. That really made it a discussion where we learned more about the career path than you typically would in a classroom,” said Bohlander. “And it’s not every day you get to go underground and see world class experiments!”

The group chronicled their adventures on the Davis-Bahcall Scholars Facebook page, sharing photos of their stops at Wall Drug, the Badlands, Spearfish Canyon and the Fourth of July fireworks celebration in Lead.


students through bubbles in the air outside
Davis-Bahcall Scholars had fun with a bubble experiment as demonstrated by Deb Wolf and Chad Ronish during the "What if?" presentation at  Neutrino Day: Star Chronicles. Photo courtesy Davis-Bahcall Facebook group


“I enjoyed being around this group of students, these peers, because they’re interested in STEM, too,” said Bohlander. “We pursue this in our free time. We read books that aren’t assigned to us. It’s our passion.”

At the end of the program, the students gave presentations about their experiences.

“Some students presented about a specific research effort, like the LZ dark matter search or NASA astrobiology,” said Kristin Rath, a science educator at Spearfish Middle School who was a chaperone for the 2021 program. “And other presentations focused on overarching themes, like the precision needed for experiments like DUNE or efforts at 3M. Another student talked about the interdisciplinary science we saw—math and science and physics and chemistry and biology. They saw that science is a large, collaborative effort with different skills and knowledge bases coming together.”


group of students
Davis-Bahcall Scholars during their final presentations. Photo courtesy Davis-Bahcall Facebook group


Since 2009, 140 students have participated in SURF’s Davis-Bahcall Scholars Program. What began as a physics-oriented learning experience has evolved to include students from a variety of STEM majors. First PREMIER Bank and the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority are major sponsors of the program. The program is also supported by the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium and BHSU. 

To learn more, visit the Davis-Bahcall Scholars Program webpage.