UND physicist Nuri Oncel looks to ignite a passion for science in prospective students


Brian Johnson

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UND physicist Nuri Oncel looks to ignite a passion for science in prospective students

For ambitious teenagers looking to shape the world we live in, a career in science is a perfect fit.

That's what University of North Dakota physicist Nuri Oncel found as a boy growing up in Konya, Turkey, in the 1990s. An early interest in math and science sparked his eventual career in physics — a natural fit that has opened doorways to a world of discovery.

"In high school, I had a great math teacher," Oncel said. "After taking a couple semesters of his classes, I realized I should either be a mathematician or physicist. I love how your brain actually operates when you do mathematics. I loved the magic of that.

"That teacher knew how to teach. He knew how to challenge the students and help students understand the concept: the real meaning of the mathematics."

Today, Oncel is the one doing the inspiring, getting local high school students to dabble in real research in hopes they might one day consider careers in science.

Supported by a National Science Foundation grant, Oncel is researching advances in nanotechnology that could make electronic devices lighter, cheaper and more powerful.

"One day, we will be using individual atoms to make a device," Oncel said. "At that point, classical physics won't be enough. Devices will be working under the laws of quantum physics. Then, everything we know of will be different."

As part of the research, he is reaching out to high schools and tribal schools across the region to get young people involved.

In one initiative, Oncel is presenting images of atoms and molecules to local high school students; they, in turn, take inspiration from the images and create works of art for exhibition.

"I can talk about quantum mechanics and how interesting this nano stuff is, but it won't appeal to all of the students." Oncel said. "I believe that if we use art to express science, it will be more attractive, because there is a human connection to that."

"After creating art or looking at a friend's artwork, maybe one of the students will choose to become a scientist. Then I'm happy. Then the project is a success."

Betsy Thaden, an art teacher at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D., said the images provide her students with meaningful learning opportunities that link art with real-world applications.

"The experience gave them insight into new possibilities and exposure to a science they may not have known about," Thaden said. "It also opened their eyes to how the arts align and are connected to other curricular areas."

Oncel hopes the art also will attract attention in local communities when it goes on display; he wants as many people as possible learning about the innovative research happening at UND.

Oncel knows that some students write off physics as a possible major, thinking that a physicist mainly works at a desk and tackles complicated equations. However, not all physicists work that way.

"In the lab, we design and build special instruments to study physics of nanostructures. An important part of the work involves using wrenches, nuts and bolts — really basic instruments. It's very hands-on work." Oncel said.

Oncel is also reaching out to American Indian communities.

"You don't find a lot of American Indian students in physics, chemistry or mathematics," he said. "I'm a physicist and I'm kind of worried about that."

Oncel invites American Indian teachers and students to get involved. He realizes he can work with only a limited number of Native American high school students in the lab.

"When I work together with a high school teacher on a research project related to nano science, I actually reach out to all the students in that school." Oncel said. "Because the teacher carries that know-how back to the classroom, and that increases our chance to have a student major in science."

And what the influence of a good teacher can do is something that Oncel knows very well.

Brian Johnson University & Public Affairs writer

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