Orange Alert

A Chat with Matt Cufari

Posted on: Dec. 6, 2023

Matt Cufari, who graduated this year with his BS in physics and computer science, is no stranger to awards. He was awarded the 2022-2023 Astronaut Scholarship, 2022 Goldwater Scholarship, and the 2022 APS LeRoy Apker Speaker award for his undergraduate research on tidal disruption events. Matt has recently started grad school at MIT where his research focus will shift to plasma physics. We had a chat about physics, mentorship, and climbing. Matt will be missed here at SU physics and we hope he stays in touch!

Georgia: What are some of the highlights of your time here at Syracuse?

Matt: Highlights of my time at Syracuse would have to include the annual trip to Beak and Skiff with the Society of Physics Students to go apple picking and the many apple crumbles that followed. They would also include: the 36 sleepless hours when several friends and I won the Cusehacks hackathon during my first year at Syracuse, coaching in physics recitations, going to SU Football and basketball games, beginning a new and continuing rock-climbing hobby at the rock wall at the gym on campus, and of course making many new and interesting friends. I’m also especially fond of the time I spent working with Professor Eric Coughlin on astrophysics research. I would not be where I am today without Eric’s mentorship and support.

Georgia: You’re a physicist and a climber – what do you think draws so many people in STEM to the sport?

Matt: I think there are many features of climbing that make it great for people in STEM. The community is highly supportive of people of all skill levels which, in my view, encourages the ingroup recruitment among STEM people into the sport. Climbing often presents as a variation of problem solving in which climbers are challenged both physically and intellectually which draws folks from STEM to the sport; Climbing requires us to not only figure out the sequence of moves that can get someone to the top of a climb but to also execute them in sequence.

Georgia: You’re headed to MIT for grad school – what will you be working on, and are you most excited about for this new venture?

Matt: I’ll be joining the plasma science and fusion center working in the subfield of high energy density physics. This is a subfield of physics that studies the behavior of matter at extreme temperatures and pressure. To achieve these conditions, we shine very large lasers on a variety of targets. For example, the lasers may be used to irradiate thin and flat foils of metals, hollowed cylinders with holes in each end called hohlraums, and spherical capsules.

The project I work on at MIT involves studying the behavior of the hohlraum walls under the influence of the intense laser light. The walls absorb energy from the laser and form a state of matter known as a plasma, where the electrons become unbound from their nuclei yielding a soup of negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions moving freely.

Georgia: Do you have any tips or advice to students looking to get into astrophysics/plasma physics research?

Matt: In terms of getting started in research I had a great deal of success with reaching out to professors I was interested in working with through email. Taking a class with a professor you may be interested in working with and attending their office hours is a great avenue to ask them more about their research.

In my experience, computer programming skills that I developed during high school were the most useful tool I had prior to beginning research; much of my work at Syracuse involved data analysis and calculations that required computer assistance. A great language to begin learning and one of the most frequently used programming languages in physics research is Python because of its versatility, large and active community of developers, and similarity to English when expressing algorithms.

Final note: I’m happy to answer further questions via email from readers interested in astronomy/astrophysics or plasma physics who have further interests not answered here.