Undergraduates Path to the Stars Leads Through the Proton

  • Alexandra Cramer, right, and Jacob Gunnarson in 2015

Alexandra Cramer, right, and Jacob Gunnarson in 2015, prepare to use William & Mary’s Thomas Harriot Observatory. Cramer is pursuing her love of astronomy through physics. She was recently named recipient of the Jefferson Science Associates Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship at Jefferson Lab. Photo courtesy of Joseph McClain/William & Mary.

Aug. 8, 2017
Contact: Deborah Dowd
Ph. 757-269-7180


Undergraduate’s Path to the Stars Leads Through the Proton

William & Mary Senior Receives JSA Research Assistantship

NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Alexandra Cramer has always been interested in science. Growing up, her family took her to air shows, nature centers, and astronomy observation nights. “And they all appealed to me, especially the astronomy,” she commented.

In high school she discovered that the best foundation for pursuing her love of astronomy as a career was through physics. That drive and interest in physics has led to her selection as the latest recipient of the Jefferson Science Associates (JSA) Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship (MFURA) at Jefferson Lab.

“I am very honored,” Cramer said recently about receiving the assistantship. “I know that the opportunity to participate in the collaboration between William & Mary and Jefferson Lab will be a fantastic research experience.”

JSA established the MFURA program to provide opportunities to minority and female students who are pursuing undergraduate degrees in physics, giving them a chance to turn their studies into real-world research applications and experience.

Cramer will be tackling an ambitious and important project at Jefferson Lab, working with her advisor Justin Stevens, a William & Mary assistant professor, on the analysis of photoproduction data from the Gluonic Excitations, or GlueX, experiment in Hall D. In the GlueX experiment, researchers are interested in studying the gluonic degrees of freedom in a class of particles known as mesons, work that is one of the scientific drivers of the 12 GeV  Upgrade. “This work requires analysis of very large datasets; we collected over 1 petabyte in 2017,” noted Stevens. (There are a million gigabytes in a petabyte.)

“Alexandra will analyze a specific reaction of the production of electron-positron pairs,” Stevens explained, “which could provide insight into the quark and gluon distributions inside the proton, and broaden the scientific program accessible in Hall D.”

Cramer is excited to begin her work with the GlueX data. “Contributing to Jefferson Lab research will be a great opportunity to work with large amounts of data, and I think it will be neat to examine a data set and progress from reading lists of numbers to describing the characteristics of protons,” she said.

Stevens noted that Cramer is in an honors program, where she will complete an Honors Thesis Project related to her Jefferson Lab research during the 2017-2018 academic year. Cramer previously worked as an intern at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and plans to pursue a career in astronomy. “Her data analysis experience from NASA will be very useful in her GlueX data analysis, especially the different analysis techniques that she used in her internships,” Stevens pointed out.

The assistantship, which begins this month, gives Cramer a stipend for a year and travel money. It is supported through the JSA Initiatives Fund Program, which is funded annually by the JSA owners, SURA and PAE Applied Technologies. Initiatives Fund monies are awarded every year to support activities that further the scientific outreach, and promote the science, education and technology missions of Jefferson Lab, according to Elizabeth Lawson, JSA Initiatives Fund program manager.

“The Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship provides unique opportunities for recipients to gain valuable experience with the lab's physics research program while they are completing their undergraduate education,” Lawson said.


Jefferson Lab is a world-leading nuclear physics research facility devoted to the study of quarks and gluons – the building blocks of matter inside the atom's nucleus that make up 99 percent of the mass of our visible universe. Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE Applied Technologies, manages and operates Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.