LU News Archive

Physics/engineering major to perform research at NIST

Keeley Townley-Smith is passionate about her research on the way light and matter interact and eager to delve deeper into the subject. As one of Lamar University’s two David J. BeckKeeley Townley-Smith standing in physics lab Fellows for 2014, she will have the opportunity to pursue her research on a more sophisticated level next summer in the world-class laboratories of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

“It hasn’t fully sunk in yet,” said the physics and electrical engineering major from Lumberton. “It’s amazing just to be able to go and do this type of research with scientists of such high caliber, especially since they provide important information for my personal research.”

Townley-Smith became involved in atomic spectroscopy research, in which the electromagnetic spectrum is used to determine elemental composition of matter, in early 2013. She works with LU’s STAIRSTEP program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the Sigma Pi Sigma Astronomical project funded by the American Institute of Physics. Townley-Smith and other physics students are using spectroscopy to identify pollutants in the Earth’s atmosphere by examining the emission spectra of various elements and compounds. They plan to take solar measurements and expect to observe absorption of light by compounds present in the atmosphere. Because each element has its own unique electron configuration, it also has characteristic wavelengths or photons associated with it. Researchers can use this information to detect specific elements in complex environments such as the Earth’s atmosphere or in a distant star. In the research group’s work so far, Townley-Smith has relied on an NIST database as a valuable tool, which led to her interest in working more closely with the institution.

Townley-Smith’s desire to do additional research inspired her to apply for the David J. Beck Fellowship. The unique, competitive undergraduate fellowship covers all expenses – including tuition, fees, books and on-campus room and board – for one year and provides up to $10,000 for a summer project proposed as part of the application process.

“I want to do summer research, and I have the luxury with the Beck Fellowship of choosing my own topic and choosing who I will work with. That in itself is incredible,” Townley-Smith said.

At NIST, Townley-Smith looks forward to learning from scientists involved in cutting-edge projects and to working with high-tech equipment that allows for studies of a broader range of the electromagnetic spectrum than the optical sensors she has been using at LU. These tools allow NIST to use more sophisticated spectroscopic techniques and explore more applications compared to the research she has done on campus. Additionally, the summer project will give her insight into whether she would prefer to work at a government lab or in an academic setting in the future. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in the science and engineering field.

“I think that optics is a fascinating topic. It has so many applications. Really, it’s one of the more precise ways to study the universe because it’s challenging to physically go out there. Instead, you can look to the light emitted from a particular object, and you can have a good idea about the matter composing it. You can get a pretty good picture about the universe using spectroscopic techniques. Accurate spectroscopic information is important as space is the next frontier,” Townley-Smith said.

 So far this year, Townley-Smith has presented her research at two American Physical Society joint conferences in Texas. Along with research, STAIRSTEP has allowed her to participate in science outreach activities in Southeast Texas high schools and middle schools.

Additionally, Townley-Smith serves as secretary and webmaster of the Society of Physics Students and as secretary of LU’s chapter of Rotaract, which is affiliated with Rotary International. She also participates in LU’s Honors Program, where she serves as a peer mentor, and worked as an electrical engineering intern at Huntsman in Port Neches this summer.

To Townley-Smith, the connection between her interest in electrical engineering and physics is a natural fit. “This essentially is the study of light-matter interaction, including atoms and photons. If we’re better able to understand how light and matter interact, then I think we’ll be better able to manipulate photonic and optical technology in the future,” she said.

Townley-Smith will be recognized as one of two 2014 David J. Beck Fellows in a ceremony at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 20 in the University Reception Center on the eighth floor of the Mary and John Gray Library. Kollin Kahler, an exercise science/pre-med major from Waco, will also be recognized as a 2014 Beck Fellow. Jeremy Allen, a management information systems major from Beaumont, will be recognized as a finalist for the fellowship.

The ceremony also will include presentations by 2013 Beck Fellows Amy Morgan and Crissie Vandehoef about their summer projects. Morgan, an English and Spanish major from Silsbee, traveled to Argentina where she attended a literary seminar and worked on translations of works by Argentine author Mempo Giardinelli, organizer of the seminar. Vandehoef, a biology/chemistry/pre-med major from Port Neches, worked as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health where she investigated akylosing spondylitis, a chronic inflammatory disease from which she suffers.

The David J. Beck Fellowships are made possible by a generous gift from LU distinguished alumnus and prominent attorney David J. Beck, founding partner of Beck Redden LLP in Houston. For more information on the David J. Beck Fellowships, visit or call (409) 880-8400.