Summer of Science: Michael Penafiel ’19

Sabre Penafiel
Michael Penafiel ’19 spent his summer researching a crystalline semimetal at Catholic University. (Photo by Jack Cooper ’19)

Summer is the time for students to pursue their passions without being interrupted by schoolwork. Responsibility pretty much melts away for three solid months, and most students travel to the beach or get a summer job.

However, this relaxed lifestyle isn’t for all students. Michael Penafiel, a senior at SJC, dedicated his summer to scientific research, interning at Vitreous State Laboratory, a research facility located in the Catholic University of America. “I worked there part time two years ago, and I’ve always wanted to go back because I’m really interested in research.”

For six weeks, Penafiel researched a crystalline material called LaAlGe, which is known as a type-II Weyl semimetal. In these semimetals, electrons behave as massless particles. “It was confirmed only last year that LaAlGe is a type-II Weyl semimetal, so my job was to look further into the properties of these crystals.”

Penafiel was inspired to pursue this opportunity by a physics class he took at SJC, where he said he discovered that nanophysics is such an innovative field because its findings have so many applications in the real world. He was specifically interested in exploring potential applications of these materials in various areas in medicine. The bottom line is, he saw a future – by participating in a summer internship program, Penafiel may have discovered his career path. “I could be doing what I love and paying the bills; that sounds pretty good to me.”

Through this challenging work, Penafiel said he learned a few important things about his chosen career path. “With everything I learned pertaining to physics, I learned above all else that conclusive research takes time and produces both successes and failures. I feel like my six-week tenure is insignificant when compared to the years that some of my role models have dedicated to this field.”

Penafiel also received some advice that he hopes to pass down to people thinking about going into nanophysics. “First and foremost, everybody should pay close attention in class. At SJC, I received an understanding of the principles of quantum mechanics, calculus, and electric band structure. I even got to use some of what I learned in chemistry and math.”

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