How Matthew Portman found his research ‘niche’

How Matthew Portman found his research ‘niche’

June 30, 2022

Matthew Portman has worn many hats within academia. Throughout his career, he studied physics as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas, taught mathematics as an adjunct professor at Collin County Community College and is now a doctoral candidate at the University of California Irvine. 

“It seemed like continuing in science was the right course of action,” said Matthew Portman, a computational science doctoral candidate at the University of California Irvine. “But that being said, doing pure physics was not the best thing for me either,” Portman notes.

Matthew Portman, a doctoral candidate at the University of California Irvine and Spring 2021 Visiting Scholar Awardee.

His combined interests in physics and coding have paved a unique path leading to a joint doctoral program at the University of California Irvine, and San Diego State University. Currently, in his fifth year, Portman is working towards completing his doctoral thesis titled, “Automated Multi-Component Fitting of Light Models to Observations of Spiral Galaxies.” In doing so, Portman has grown into the world of high-level scientific research and along the way, became a Universities Research Association Visiting Scholar.

“It was really through my principal investigator that I was able to apply for it,” Portman said.

Portman’s principal investigator, Dr. Antonella Palmese, first encountered Portman after he applied for Fermilab’s 2021 Computing Summer Internship. He interviewed for the position, meeting Dr. Palmese and her team, but lack of funding halted Portman’s ability to work at Fermilab.

Dr. Antonella Palmese, Portman’s Fermilab Sponsor for the Universities Research Association’s Visiting Scholars Program. Photo: The Dark Energy Survey

Dr. Palmese, a former Visiting Scholar herself, connected Portman to the Universities Research Association. With the help of Dr. Palmese, Portman was able to apply for the Universities Research Association’s Visiting Scholars Program in the spring 2021 cycle. Portman recalls that there was an “excitable chaos” leading up to submitting his application since he only had a week to complete it. Ironically, Portman jokes that preparing his Visiting Scholars Program proposal and getting to reach out to people was his fondest memory.

Portman’s research proposal titled, “A Gravitational Wave Multi-Messenger Pipeline for the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument and Redshift Catalog” was accepted by the Universities Research Association’s Visiting Scholars Program Review Panel and was awarded funding to work at Fermilab for seven months. The grant allowed Portman to join the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) time-domain group alongside Dr. Palmese.

“We were focused on identifying these transient phenomena after gravitational wave events were detected at gravitational wave detectors like (the) Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO),” Portman said. “So specifically, for this research, we were looking for a pipeline so that we can identify these transient phenomena after an event was detected.”

DESI’s lens-holding barrel located at Fermilab in September 2016. Photo: Fermilab/Reidar Hahn

Portman’s curiosity for gravitational waves and coding knowledge allowed him to merge both physics and computer science while at Fermilab

“The code that I wrote, it goes through and analyzes the results from the gravitational wave detectors and basically spits out where we want to point the telescope,” Portman explains.

In addition, Portman matched the detectors’ findings with alert brokers to compare against other sky surveys. This continues to be an ongoing project Portman explains.

Through the Visiting Scholars Program, Portman was given the opportunity to work with different scientists and meet Fermilab staff members. Portman also had the opportunity to present his research to DESI collaborators and in turn, received beneficial feedback from a diverse group of scientists. This helped reaffirm how computer science and physics can be fused together into one field. As a result, these interactions introduced myriad projects and other collaborations within the purview of Fermilab, opening the doors to a larger science community.

 “It is clear to me the Visiting Scholars Program has opened a huge swathe of possibilities as far as where I can go from here,” Portman said.

Prior to working at Fermilab, Portman was new to research where computer science and physics intersect. However, the Visiting Scholars Program enabled him to become familiar with the two and understand the challenges they pose.

 “This is always a challenge with any new field,” Portman admits. “But I felt this opportunity would provide an important avenue for my growth and hence why I saw that as the most challenging thing.”

 With a grin, Portman mentions how he unexpectedly discovered his research focus through the Visiting Scholars Program and his project collaborators admitting, “I didn’t expect to find my niche until I did.”

“I didn’t know, personally, going into this Program that any of these opportunities were available,” Portman said in reference to his doctoral program. “Of course, continuing that to the Visiting Scholars Program and seeing that those opportunities were available had been very cool for me.”