LEAD | Deep beneath the Black Hills, amid 375 miles of dark tunnels where drill-dusty miners once blasted solid rock in search of elusive gold, university students and their professors will soon be hunting for nuggets of wisdom in the world of physics and biology.

Black Hills State University researchers on Tuesday gave a sneak peak into their new underground campus at the 4,850-foot level of the Sanford Underground Research Facility, which now occupies the former 8,000-foot-deep Homestake Gold Mine in this mile-high town. While the grand opening of the campus doesn’t officially occur until May 9, protocols are in place and experiments are already underway.

“The BHSU Underground Campus is an amazing addition to the education and research happening at BHSU and around the world,” BHSU President Tom Jackson Jr. said this week. “Our students and faculty are already using the facility to conduct cutting-edge research projects in physics and biology. We are partnering with other schools and industries to make the best use of the space a mile underground.”

Occupying a ground-stabilized room not far from the existing Davis Campus, BHSU’s new offsite facility includes access to essential utilities including power, water, air and safe redundant egress, as well as a clean room space occupying 1,000 square feet, said Underground Campus Director Brianna Mount, a research physicist at BHSU.

“This new facility means that undergraduate students from a relatively small university will be able to collaborate with some of the leading scientists in the world,” Mount said. “They’ll gain hands on experience with these amazing physics experiments that are really cutting edge, truly at the forefront of physics.”

Mount said BHSU’s collaboration already involved the University of South Dakota, the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, the University of California-Berkeley, Brown University and the University of Alabama.

“Not only do Black Hills State students work with Black Hills State professors, but with the Underground Campus they’ll have the added benefit of working with professors from much larger, prestigious institutions,” Mount added. “Who knows what could come of this.”

According to Mount, in 2013 BHSU began working with the Sanford Lab on planning for the underground campus and securing funding. The South Dakota Science & Technology Authority contributed about $500,000 in-kind to the cause, while in 2014, BHSU received a $125,000 grant from the South Dakota Board of Regents.

According to BHSU and the Science Authority, “The underground campus is a key component of the Sanford Science Education Center. The Sanford Science Education Center draws upon the science of the Sanford Underground Research Facility and the educational resources of Black Hills State University to inspire, engage, and connect learners of all ages.”

When the campus formally opens next month, Mount said students from around the world would be able to access a website and propose experiments in a place where the volume of dust particles is measured per cubic foot, and where scientists around the globe could share a microscope and discuss their observances in real time.

While terms such as “gamma, alpha and beta radiation,” and “anti-matter, dark-matter, quantum effects, and "WIMPs” tend to get lost on the layman, student researchers at Black Hills State have never been more excited about the opportunities before them.

Madison Jilek, of Spearfish, “Maddy” to her friends, has been working with liquid nitrogen and calibrations of the first experiments at the Underground Campus designed to minimize and record radiation generated by materials within their own instrumentation.

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“I dig it,” said Jilek, who made her first trip underground on her 18th birthday, April 22, 2014. “I really like building experiments, but my favorite, favorite thing is that people from throughout the nation come here, which exposes me to physicists from various institutions.”

BHSU student Karin Humar said she was excited about the opportunities for educational outreach, and that she would return to her native Slovenia with a better grasp of ground-breaking physics research being conducted by a collaboration of scientists throughout the world.

Clad in coveralls, knee-high rubber boots, safety glasses and a hard hat, Humar seemed transfixed by the tunnels and narrow-gauge railroad running through the dark and dank former mine, in stark contrast to the brightly lit and colorfully painted clean rooms of BHSU’s new underground campus.

“It’s wonderful,” she said, before reluctantly entering a cage that would take 10 minutes to propel her from nearly a mile underground back to the earth’s surface. “It’s amazing.”

Sanford spokeswoman Constance Walter agreed and said, despite the snowy day, the future of scientific inquiry in the Black Hills was bright.

“It’s a whole new era here,” she said. “It’s an exciting time with so much potential.”

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