From Periodic Elements
"An Elemental Find":
In 2009 Aryan Khojandi was a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a public school that offers a specialized education for Northern Virginia students who are selected through a competitive admissions process. He had completed the school’s physics curriculum and was on course to finish the mathematics curriculum by the end of the first semester of his senior year. He wanted something more and thought research was the answer. “I knew that I would require a mentor to ‘get into’ the research scene,” says Khojandi.
His inquiries led him to Dimitrios Papaconstantopoulos, chair of the Department of Computational and Data Sciences (CDS) and previously a senior research scientist at the Naval Research Laboratory. Explaining that computational and data sciences research is usually performed by graduate students, Papaconstantopoulos says because Khojandi was from Thomas Jefferson, “I was willing to talk to him.”
Together they agreed on a project where Khojandi would investigate the electronic structure and superconductivity power of radium.An element that has not been extensively researched, radium’s atomic structure is related to calcium and allows for some suitable hypotheses. Khojandi embraced the research, which required an understanding of quantum mechanics.
“I started by giving him real assignments,” says Papaconstantopoulos. He explains that Khojandi lacked a high-level mathematics and physics background and that he needed to just accept certain principles of quantum mechanics without proof. “He would quickly finish everything I gave him and wanted more, and he wanted to learn as much as he could. He was working at a graduate student level.”
Khojandi and Papaconstantopoulos published their findings—“Electronic Structure Calculations and Determination of Related Properties for Radium”—in The Physical Review this past October. Their research showed that radium could become superconductive under pressure, but because of its radioactive properties, radium was not suitable for industrial use.
Khojandi had submitted an earlier version of the paper to the Siemens Competition in Mathematics, Science and Technology in summer 2009 and was named a finalist, a ranking that placed his project among the top thirty individual projects in the nation. He also submitted the paper to the Intel Science Talent Search and received semifinalist standing.
And last spring, he entered a regional science fair and advanced to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where he placed second in the Physics and Astronomy category.
Accepted at most of the top research universities in the country, Khojandi is now a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He says that “the caliber of the undergraduate education at MIT is really unmatched.” However, he attributes his research and time at Mason as a reason for his acceptance. “Perhaps the most important lessons gained from it [the research] were not the fine points of the calculations or of the underlying physics (though these were certainly helpful),” he says, “but rather those concerning the approach to research, the mindset, and the development of the wide variety of universally applicable analytical skills.”
Papaconstantopoulos expects great work from Khojandi and is pleased that he and CDS will have contributed to that success.