By Tiffany Whitfield

Virginia Beach native Alicia “Ali” Mand’s natural curiosity has made her a leader in science, technology, engineering and math at Old Dominion University. Come May 6, Mand will be the first in her family to earn a college degree. She chose to double major in astrophysics and computer engineering because of an affinity with astronomy that stemmed from her childhood.

Mand’s parents, both retired from the Navy, instilled two long-lasting characteristics in her. They pushed her to have a good work ethic, and they sparked her love for gazing at the planets.

“My dad used to take me out each weekend to go look at the stars, when I had my own telescope growing up, and ever since then I’ve been enthralled with astronomy and astrophysics,” Mand said. “I had one of the cheap telescopes you could buy from Wal-Mart, and we could only really see the moon with it.”

Nevertheless, the experience kindled Mand’s urge to discover the unknown.

During her high school years at Ocean Lakes Math and Science Academy in Virginia Beach, she excelled. “I had a teacher in high school for two years of physics named Mr. Isel who taught using a flipped classroom method and made learning physics a lot of fun. It's because of him that I ultimately chose to study physics instead of pure astronomy.”

During Mand’s high school senior year, selecting a college came down to affordability and rigor. “I chose ODU because, aside from two years of the GI bill from my dad, I was pretty much on my own for paying for tuition.”

She chose astrophysics because of her passion for astronomy and paired that study with computer engineering. “I chose to complement astrophysics so that I would have a strong programming and hardware background.”  

Mand is grateful to be able to pursue a science degree, especially as a woman in STEM. “Maybe 100 years ago that wouldn’t be possible, but I’m not passionate about anything else. I don’t think I can picture myself going into any other field, so I’m glad I’m able to go into this field and feel welcomed.”

Not only was Mand welcomed into the College of Sciences and the Batten College of Engineering and Technology, but she was encouraged by her peers and faculty to explore all that physics and computer engineering had to offer her. 

Astronomy and astrophysics are all-encompassing fields. “You can study anything from the smallest of particles, like neutrinos – what I'm interested in – to galactic dynamics and evolution. I love that there is so much to study in the field and so much we still don't know despite it being one of the oldest fields of study. For example, we still know so little about neutrinos despite them being the second-most abundant particle in the universe.”

As a Monarch, Mand has matured both academically and socially. Research has been at the core of her growth.  She performed research with internationally recognized physicists at ODU who also do research at the Department of Energy’s Jefferson Lab.

The two ODU professors Mand has worked with are Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director Balša Terzić and Professor Lawrence Weinstein. “It’s been really nice to put what I’m learning in the classroom to something tangible,” Mand said.

She’s working on two research projects. One is the Missing Mass Group with Terzić and the second one is Electrons for Neutrinos under Weinstein. “In the Missing Mass project, we’re trying to find an alternative theory for dark matter using gravitational self-interactions,” Mand said.

“Ali helped my ODU astrophysics group explore a model in which the apparent ‘missing mass’ is the direct consequence of the nonlinearity of gravity,” said Terzić. “This nonlinearity originates as a field self-interaction phenomenon – the gravitational fields interact directly with each other: the total field is more than the sum of the individual fields. If this self-interaction is important, it mimics the gravitational effect of dark matter.

“Ali is a focused, engaged and curious student, a real pleasure to teach and work with. Her unbridled enthusiasm for discovery and science communication makes her an excellent ambassador for physics. When all of these qualities are coupled with her impressive work ethic, there is no limit to what she can do.”

“ODU has a really strong program for engineering and for physics. ODU is a very good school and a very strong community.” – Alicia Mand

For the Electrons for Neutrinos project, she is trying to improve the energy reconstruction methods for neutrinos, which are small particles that are hard to detect using electron scattering data from Jefferson Lab.

“I use electron scattering data that was taken in 1999, which is kind of cool because I was born in 2000, so it’s really old data, especially compared to me,” said Mand. “We have collaborators all over the world from ODU, MIT, to even all the way in Tel Aviv. It's a lot of fun getting to work with such a large group of people.” 

Making computer engineering her second major was not an easy road. “At first, I was intimidated because I knew some programming but didn’t have a super-strong background in it. I had only programmed in Java before. There was a bit of a learning curve trying to figure it out.”

In ODU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE), Mand likes being able to combine software and hardware to create her own machines and programs. “One of the best courses taught in the ECE department is ECE484W, which is a semester-long project in which students create an image manipulation tool to implement on an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) with a webcam,” said Mand.

The result is live footage of individual students who are able to edit in real time using the FPGA and the software they wrote for it. “It's a lot of fun; however, my heart will always be in physics and astronomy,” Mand said.

In ODU’s Department of Physics, Mand said she has been very supported. “Surprisingly, none of them have told me to go away yet, despite how many questions I seem to ask them.”  

“Ali Mand is very talented, very enthusiastic and super-engaged in the department. Her successful final project in my electronics class to build a self-driving model car is still one of my favorites,” said Professor of Physics and Chair Charles Sukenik. “Her many accomplishments have been recognized by the faculty, and I am delighted that she was selected as a co-recipient of this year’s Physics Outstanding Senior Award. It is much deserved.”

She has found the time between classes to be active in three clubs on campus. She’s president of both the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and Tau Beta Pi, which is the Engineering Honors Society. Also, she’s the treasurer of ODU’s Rotaract Club, the college version of the Rotary Club community service and charity organization.

“Being active in a club really supplements your education, especially for something like the Physics Club, where we do a lot of outreach,” said Mand. She has taught basic physics to younger students at local schools and conducted demonstrations for K-12 students at the Naval Air Station Oceana Air Show, and this allowed her to convey information to younger audiences.

“It’s also nice to have a leadership role because it helps you grow as a person,” said Mand. “I used to be a lot quieter and a lot less outgoing, and now I feel like I’m more of a social person than I was before I joined the club.”

“The only thing that surpasses Ali's work ethic is her compassion and empathy for others,” said Perry Nerem, physics lecturer and SPS advisor.

Mand has received grants, awards and other recognition while at ODU:

  • Physics Outstanding Senior Award from the Department of Physics (Spring 2023)
  • ODU Kaufman Award Finalist (2023)
  • American Physical Society Future of Physics Days Award (March 2023)
  • Society of Physics Students Travel Award (2023)
  • Conference Experience for Undergraduates Travel Award (2022 for Division of Nuclear Physics Fall Meeting)
  • Jefferson Science Associates Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship (2022)
  • Virginia Space Grant Consortium Scholarship (2022)
  • College of Sciences General Scholarship (2021)
  • PhysCon MSI Travel Grant (2019 and 2022)
  • Pathway Retention Award (2019, 2020, 2021)

Mand has thoroughly enjoyed her time as a Monarch. “ODU has a really strong program for engineering and for physics. ODU is a very good school and a very strong community.”

After graduation she will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall as a Ph.D. candidate in physics. “I want to go to school again for at least another six years, and after that I want to be a professor. I want to be like how my professors were to me and mentor students and make them passionate about physics.”

During her down time, she looks forward to using her latest telescope to view the planets. It’s a bit of an upgrade over her childhood scope. “I use the Celestron at home, but light pollution is pretty bad here, so I want to take a trip to the mountains or Outer Banks to get better viewing.”