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Physics student among ‘best of the best’

Student and scholarship winner Jalal Butt stands among the LIDAR equipment in CCSU's mobile laser lab.

By Loretta Waldman

The first books Jalal-ud-din Butt remembers reading were about space. He dreamed of becoming an aerospace engineer or maybe an astronaut when he grew up.

Now, 20, Butt ’19, still has his eyes on the heavens, but his childhood career goals have evolved a bit. Plasma physics is where he sees his future these days and, if his accomplishments at CCSU are any indication, his future will be a bright one.

Since the day he arrived on campus in 2014, Butt has been a standout. He is president of the CCSU Physics Club and a Student Government senator, serving as co-chair of the academic affairs committee.

A double physics and mechanical engineering major, Butt has presented his research at national and international conferences and had his papers published in a long list of scientific proceedings. Last summer, he interned at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Goddard Space Flight Center and is one of only 12 students nationally this year to receive NASA’s John Mather Nobel Scholarship, a scholarship established by senior NASA astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate John C. Mather.

On a recent clear night, Butt was one of a group of students studying the atmosphere outside Copernicus Hall with CCSU Physics Professor Nimmi Sharma. From inside a mobile laser lab, they used a specialized camera that shoots a green pillar of laser light into the darkness with a technique known as Light Detection and Ranging, or LIDAR. The Charge Coupled Device LIDAR, or CLidar, used at CCSU was developed by Sharma and John Barnes, the former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Mauna Loa Observatory, and has been adopted by researchers in the Bahamas and China. Sharma and her students continue to collaborate with NOAA and University of the Bahamas on LIDAR research and optical studies of the atmosphere — work that Butt has been involved in for some time.

Butt’s dedication to the field of physics is what sets him apart from his peers, according to Sharma.

“I think he has an innate leadership talent,” Sharma says. “It’s one thing to be an excellent student. It’s another thing to be able to share that with other students to help guide them along the way. And he does all that while serving on every committee there is.”

Butt’s intention when he enrolled as a mechanical engineering major at CCSU was to stay a year or two and then transfer. He chose the school because it was affordable and not too far from his home in North Haven. Then, in his sophomore year, he took Dr. Sharma’s physics course and realized that’s what he really wanted to study. Butt switched to a double major, with an emphasis on physics, and “just fell in love” with the program at CCSU.

“The department here is really tight-knit and very much like a family,” Butt says. “I realized how much attention students could get here and the potential that this department has — that the school has —and I knew I had to stay.”

Butt is one of five children in a Pakistani-American family. His father emigrated from Pakistan when he was 14 years old and had to work while attending college, so he recognized the importance of his children not having to do the same. Thanks to that support and encouragement, Butt says he’s been able to focus on his studies. He also credits Sharma and Professor Peter LeMaire, chair of the Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, for their wisdom, guidance and mentorship.

“The transition over to physics opened up a whole world for me,” he said. “There are so many cool problems to work on and everything is so interesting.”

Aerodynamics, optics and propulsion systems are areas in which Butt is most interested, including plasma propulsion systems he encountered at Goddard.

While assigned to the Optics Branch at Goddard, Butt helped recognize a problematic reservoir of ice on a spacecraft on its way to retrieving an asteroid sample. Butt’s work is helping mission leaders develop methods to avoid sample contamination and other possible threats to the mission.

In a congratulatory letter announcing Butt’s selection for a Mather Scholarship, Goddard Space Flight Center Director Christopher Scolese counted him “among the best of the best STEM or STEM-related students in the nation.”

Butt’s long-term goal is to help tackle the world’s energy crisis through fusion energy, an expansive energy source in the universe that scientists have been working to harness for about 100 years.

“I want to, in my lifetime, be able to see that happen,” he says. “I want to lead that development. If we were able to implement fusion energy today and get rid of all these gas and fossil fuels that we’re using, we’d be able to change the course that we are on.”

In the short term, Butt is committed to making the most of available resources at CCSU and is looking at ways to promote interdepartmental collaboration. He has been watching trends at other universities and, as part of his work with the Academic Affairs committee, exploring what might work at CCSU. Completing the requirements of two majors will take him five years, but he thinks the process can be streamlined to make it easier for students to attain dual degrees. A new concentration in the physics department — Engineering Physics — is a first step in those streamlining efforts.

Butt has the opportunity to intern at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in 2018, but he is exploring other summer positions as well. His sights are set on national labs researching fusion energy, such as Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, General Atomics, and Los Alamos.

Many undergraduates participate in research, especially in the Physics Department, Sharma says, but the caliber of Butt’s research far surpasses that of the typical undergraduate. “It’s not just that he’s a good student at figuring things out,” she says. “He’s very careful with research, he’s very creative. This is graduate-level research …and that’s a real testament to his talents, skills, hard work, and dedication.”

Physics Department Chair Peter LeMaire remembers how he worried about finding a replacement for Nick Lombardo, another star student, who graduated last year, and is currently doing a gap year at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center before attending graduate school.

“Then Jalal showed up and he’s taking it up another level,” he says.

Transfer student earns $5,000 NASA scholarship

Internships are not the only way NASA is helping CCSU students pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Justin Fagnoni, a junior majoring in Physics, has received a $5,000 scholarship from the NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium. Fagnoni received the NASGC Community College Transfer Scholarship which, as the name suggests, is awarded to a student transferring from a community college in Connecticut. Fagnoni came to CCSU from Manchester Community College. He lives in Glastonbury and is minoring in Mathematics and Astronomy. NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium is a federally mandated grant, internship, and scholarship program funded as a part of NASA Education. There are Space Grant Consortia in all 50 states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico. NASA CTSGC was formed in 1991 by a consortia of post-secondary institutions in Connecticut to encourage broader participation in NASA research.

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