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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Faculty Members' Son Gets Early Research Start

By Philip Walzer

The title of the scientific paper - incomprehensible to most laymen - is: "Simulation of inverse Compton scattering and its implications on the scattered linewidth."

It appeared in March in Physical Review, published by the American Physical Society.

The 13-page article lists six authors, including an assistant professor of physics at Old Dominion University. But the lead author is Nalin Ranjan. His affiliation is listed as "Princess Anne High School, Virginia Beach, Virginia."

A physics teacher? Nope.

Nalin was a high school student at the time. He was 16 when he began the research, based at Old Dominion.

Nalin graduated from Princess Anne as the valedictorian this year - he took 16 Advanced Placement classes in high school, on top of his International Baccalaureate course load - and began undergraduate studies in the fall at Princeton University.

His success is Old Dominion's.

His parents, Jing He and Desh Ranjan, are professors in ODU's Department of Computer Science. Another faculty member, assistant professor of physics Balša Terzić, invited Nalin to join his research team, which works at the Center for Accelerator Science.

"It kind of just went from there," said Nalin, who graduated high school early because he skipped first grade.

Terzić said he has never before seen an academic paper with a high school student listed as the lead author. "If it wasn't for Nalin, this paper would have stayed in our heads," he said.

"We started low," Terzić added. "How much can you expect from a 16-year-old? We gave him a problem, and he solved it. We incrementally raised the bar until he had the same expectations as a graduate student."

Geoffrey Krafft, a senior staff scientist at the Jefferson Lab and Jefferson Lab Professor of Physics at ODU, collaborated on the research. "When we train graduate students," Krafft said, "we try to get them to the point where they're really independent and want to solve the problems you give them. I never had to push Nalin to get the problem solved. He displayed great initiative, which is a non-trivial thing to teach people."

Gail Dodge, the dean of the College of Sciences, said: "I am really pleased that Dr. Terzić, Dr. Krafft and other collaborators were able to mentor Nalin so effectively and provide the guidance that he needed to excel on this project. Teaching takes many forms, and mentoring students on research projects is one of the ways our faculty impact the lives of young scientists every day."

For his part, Nalin said the experience "makes me feel very satisfied. But I feel a hunger to do more. There are so many problems left unresolved."

A 10th-grade class at Princess Anne piqued Nalin's interest in physics and its problem-solving possibilities. He'd known Terzić, who was a friend and collaborator of his father's, since he was 11, so he asked him for a few physics books to dig in a little deeper.

In 2017, Nalin attended Old Dominion's Undergraduate Research Symposium. He wanted to be part of that world. This time, he asked Terzićif he could help the research team. Terzićsaid yes.

Nalin began work in March of last year, spending at least two hours a week in the lab.

"There was a lot of dedication from both sides to do this; that's something you don't see that often," his father said. Before Nalin learned to drive, he'd take the Tide to Norfolk and Terzić would pick him up at the station and drive him to the lab.

So what exactly was his research about?

Nalin, already experienced at translating his work for the non-scientist, said, "We are investigating colliding high-energy electrons with de-energized light to create a more precise X-ray." The benefits could include more targeted - and more effective - X-rays to treat cancerous tumors.

He also collaborated by email with three researchers from Milan, Italy, who are co-authors of the study.

Nalin continued working in the lab over the summer before he left for Princeton. Terzić said he's open to bringing on other high school students, "but I'm not holding my breath that I'll see anyone like him anytime soon."

This article was in the fall issue of Old Dominion's e-magazine, Monarch Extra. To read more, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag and click on the storm photograph.

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