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SMU Physicist Honored for Dark Matter Research

Jodi Cooley named fellow of American Association for the Advancement of Science

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU physicist Jodi Cooley has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Election as an AAAS Fellow is an honor bestowed by their peers upon the group’s members for scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

Cooley is one of 416 fellows to be honored during the 2019 AAAS annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Feb. 16. She is being honored for her contributions to the search for dark matter scattering with nuclei, particularly using cryogenic technologies. The nature of dark matter is unknown, but is believed to make up about 85 percent of the universe.

SMU physicist Jodi Cooley

“I feel incredibly privileged to have even been nominated for such an honor; to be further elected as a Fellow of the AAAS is humbling beyond words,” Cooley said. “I also feel an immense sense of gratitude toward all of those who supported me along this path: my family, my friends, and my mentors.”

Cooley, who joined SMU in 2009, is associate professor of experimental particle physics in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Professor Cooley is a distinguished scientist with a record of outstanding federal research support and innovative experimental design,” said Dedman College Dean Thomas DiPiero.  “In addition to her work in the lab and in the classroom, she also reaches out to the general public to explain the intricacies of particle physics in ways that are understandable and engaging.”

Cooley and her colleagues operated sophisticated detectors in the Soudan Underground Laboratory, MN. The Department of Energy and National Science Foundation announced they’ll provide funding to expand that research, so planning is now under way to move the experiment to an even deeper location, SNOLAB in Canada, to improve the search for dark matter. These detectors can distinguish between elusive dark matter particles and background particles that mimic dark matter interactions.

Cooley is a principal investigator on the SuperCDMS dark matter experiment and was principal investigator for the AARM collaboration, whose aim was to develop integrative tools for underground science. She has won numerous awards for her research, including an Early Career Award from the National Science Foundation and the Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Award from the Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

Cooley received a B.S. degree in applied mathematics and physics from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in 1997. She earned her master’s degree in 2000 and her Ph.D. in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin – Madison for her research searching for neutrinos from diffuse astronomical sources with the AMANDA-II detector. Upon graduation she did postdoctoral studies at both MIT and Stanford University.

The tradition of AAAS Fellows began in 1874. Currently, members can be considered for the rank of Fellow if nominated by the steering groups of the Association’s 24 sections, or by any three Fellows who are current AAAS members (so long as two of the three sponsors are not affiliated with the nominee’s institution), or by the AAAS chief executive officer. Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected. AAAS Fellow’s lifetime honor comes with an expectation that recipients maintain the highest standards of professional ethics and scientific integrity.

Each steering group reviews the nominations of individuals within its respective section and a final list is forwarded to the AAAS Council, which votes on the aggregate list. The Council is the policymaking body of the Association, chaired by the AAAS president, and consisting of the members of the board of directors, the retiring section chairs, delegates from each electorate and each regional division, and two delegates from the National Association of Academies of Science.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas.  SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.

 About the AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science ( as well as Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, a digital, open-access journal, Science Advances, Science Immunology, and Science Robotics. AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world. The non-profit AAAS ( is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, public engagement, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert! (, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS. See

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NIH Funds Collaborative Study of Cognitive Impairment in Older Asthma Patients

Led by SMU psychologist and UTSW psychiatrist, Dallas Asthma Brain and Cognition Study will use brain scans to explore relationship between inflammatory lung disease and brain function in older adults

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU psychologist Thomas Ritz and UT Southwestern Medical Center psychiatrist Sherwood Brown will lead a $2.6 million study funded over four years by the National Institutes of Health to explore the apparent connection between asthma and diminished cognitive function in middle-to-late-age adults.

The World Health Organization estimates that 235 million people suffer from asthma worldwide.

The study will build on the work Brown and Ritz have accomplished with a core group of researchers over a period of eight years. Their pilot data, gleaned from brain imaging and analysis of chemical changes, indicates that neurons in the hippocampus of young-to-middle-age adults with asthma are not as healthy as those in the control group without asthma. The hippocampus is that portion of the brain that controls long-term memory and spatial navigation.

“In our early study, we found that there were differences between healthy control participants and young-to-middle-age asthma patients in that the latter showed a slightly lower performance in cognitive tasks,” Ritz said. “We wonder how that looks in older age. When you have asthma for a lifetime, the burden of the disease may accumulate.”

The early findings also led his group to wonder if the impact on cognition is related to the severity of the disease.

“This all makes sense, but no one has looked specifically at how that relates to brain structure,” Ritz said.  “With this grant we will look at structures – the neurons and axons, the white and gray matter of the brain, how thick they are in various places. We look at what kind of chemicals have been accumulating, which are the byproducts of neural activity. We want to know how various areas of the brain function during cognitive tasks.”

The four-year project will allow researchers to study a sample of up to 200 participants who are between the ages of 40-69. In addition to Ritz and Brown, the research group includes Denise C. Park, director of research for the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas; Changho Choi, professor of radiology at UTSW; David Khan, professor of internal medicine at UTSW; Alicia E. Meuret, professor of clinical psychology at SMU, and David Rosenfield, associate professor of psychology at SMU.  SMU graduate students working on the grant are Juliet Kroll and Hannah Nordberg.

“This is how neuroimaging works today – it is a team sport,” Ritz said. “You cannot do it on your own. You have to strike up collaborations with various disciplines.  It’s very exciting because it is stimulating and interesting to collaborate with colleagues in different areas.”

The study, scheduled to run through May 31, 2022, will allow the research team to examine several possible factors that may impact cognition in people with asthma.

“Is it lack of oxygen?  That’s a very good question,” Ritz said. “But it cannot be the full story.  Real lack of oxygen only happens in severe asthma attacks and in most cases, people having an asthma attack are still well saturated with oxygen.

Carbon dioxide levels are often too low in asthma patients – but it is uncertain whether that is a .”

Another possibility, he said, is that the problems with disrupted sleep experienced by many people with asthma might relate to cognitive function.

“Just imagine you how you perform after lack of sleep,” Ritz said. “In the long run, we know sleep is important to the health of our brain. If over a lifetime you’ve had interruptions in sleep, it may impact your neural health.”

This research is being supported by the National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under grant number 1R01HL142775-01.

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New Smithsonian Exhibit Reflects the Passion of SMU Professor and an Army of Student Fossil Hounds

Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas opens Nov. 9 at National Museum of Natural History

DALLAS (SMU October 15, 2018) – Once the exhibit opens, “Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” will allow visitors to visually dive into the cool waters off the coast of West Africa as they existed millions of years ago when the continents of Africa and South America were drifting apart. It’s a unique opportunity to examine fossils of ancient marine reptiles and learn about the forces that continue to mold life both in out of the ocean.

But the back story is just as fascinating: SMU Emeritus Professor of Paleontology Louis Jacobs and his SMU colleague Michael Polcyn forged a partnership with collaborators in Angola, Portugal and the Netherlands to explore and excavate Angola’s rich fossil history, while laying the groundwork for returning the fossils to the West African nation. Back in Dallas Jacobs and Polcyn, director of the University’s Digital Earth Sciences Lab, and research associate Diana Vineyard went to work over a period of 13 years with a small army of SMU students to prepare the fossils excavated by Projecto PaleoAngola.

The result is a dynamic exhibit opening Nov. 9 in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History featuring large vertebrate marine reptiles from the Cretaceous Period — mosasaurs, marine turtles and plesiosaurs. This exhibit will mark the first time Angolan fossils of colossal Cretaceous marine reptiles will be on public display.

“It turns out that Angola is the best place on the surface of the earth to see the rocks that reflect and show the opening of the South Atlantic and the split between South America and Africa,” Jacobs said. But the war of independence in Angola that began in 1961 and ended (after civil war) in 2002 effectively prevented scientists from working this rich fossil zone for nearly 40 years after continental drift and plate tectonics became accepted scientific theory.

When Jacobs and the team arrived to begin digging on the coast of Angola in 2005, they were first on the scene to record this fascinating record of sea life that existed as the South Atlantic Ocean grew between two drifting continents.

SMU students did the important, time-consuming lab work

Over the past 13 years, the fossils were shipped back to Dallas, where over 100 undergraduate students have worked in basement laboratories to painstakingly clean and preserve the fossils. Some were paleontology students, most were not – but they seem to share an appreciation for their unique role in sharing new knowledge.

“Getting fossils out of rocks is a time consuming, labor-intensive operation,” Jacobs said. “But every time a student removes a grain of sand off a fossil, they have the excitement of seeing ancient life that no one else in the world has ever seen. On top of that, these fossils are going on exhibit at the Smithsonian and then back to their own homeland. That gives our students an opportunity that they simply could not get anywhere else. And what’s not to like about that?”

The Smithsonian exhibit, made possible by the Sant Ocean Hall Endowment fund, will immerse visitors in a marine environment from the Cretaceous Period, which began about 145 million years ago and ended about 66 million years ago. It features lively animations and vivid paleoart murals of life beneath the waves courtesy of natural history artist (and longtime Jacobs collaborator) Karen Carr. The exhibit brings to life 11 authentic fossils from Angola’s ancient seas, full-size fossil reconstructions of a mosasaur and a marine turtle, as well as 3-D scanned replicas of mosasaur skulls. Photomurals and video vignettes will take visitors to field sites along Angola’s modern rugged coast, where Projecto PaleoAngola scientists unearthed the fossil remains from this lost world.

“Because of our planet’s ever-shifting geology, Angola’s coastal cliffs contain the fossil remains of marine creatures from the prehistoric South Atlantic,” said Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the National Museum of Natural History. “We are honored by the generosity of the Angolan people for sharing a window into this part of the Earth’s unfolding story with our visitors.”

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas. SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world. For more information, visit SMU on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

About the National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is connecting people everywhere with Earth’s unfolding story. The museum is one of the most visited natural history museums in the world with approximately 7 million annual visitors from the U.S. and around the world. Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts. It is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. For more information, visit the museum on its website and on Facebook and Twitter.

In the words of smu students and graduates who sorted, cleaned and preserved fossils for Projecto Paleoangola

Pictured (L to R): Yasmin Jackson, Tania Doblado Speck, Harrison Schumann and Evan Snyder

Evan Snyder (SMU 2019)

“This experience allowed me to work on a project far bigger than myself. Exhibits just like this one excited me as a young child and led to my study of science. I’d love to think that my work will have the same impact on kids today. Working on this project also taught me how to work on challenging and stressful tasks with the right balance of confidence and care to meet deadlines with quality work.”

Yasmin Jackson (SMU 2019)

“I was able to go to the Smithsonian for the first time through this project. I really liked being able to see all of the different exhibits that are currently in the museum and imagine what our exhibit will be like in the midst of all of it.”

Harrison Schuman (SMU 2019)

“Dr. Jacobs is an inspiring individual to be around. Despite being a world-class expert in paleontology, he made himself very approachable and was always personally invested in all of the students working on the project. This kind of attitude encourages students like me to pursue careers in science.”

Alexandra Lippas (SMU 2011)

“It is because of Dr. Jacobs that I was able to be a part of this project. He encouraged students from other branches of science to work on this study. I think it demonstrates that different perspectives can lead to great discovery.”

Connor Flynn (SMU 2014)

“My time in the lab will be a source of stories for years to come and a point of pride for a lifetime. Its lessons in patience, care and passion for the labor will never be forgotten. Dr. Jacobs’ words ‘There’s nothing so broken you can’t fix it,’ carried me through more lab accidents than i care to admit — both at SMU and beyond.”

Jennifer Welch (SMU 2019)

“Dr. Jacobs is so incredibly smart, I could point out any part of the vertebrae and he would tell me what it’s for, why it was there, how that impacted the life of the animal and the stories that told about the land where the animal lived.”

Stephen Tyler Armstrong (SMU 2012)

“As an engineering major, this project exposed me to areas of research and career paths I would otherwise not encountered. It was really interesting to work so closely with those conducting the research to learn about a subject outside of my realm.”

For more information about undergraduate students working in SMU’s earth sciences labs.

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SMU Physicist Explains Significance of Latest Cern Discovery Related to the Higgs Boson

Stephen Sekula says observation of the Higgs particle transforming into bottom quarks confirms the 20th-century recipe for mass

DALLAS (SMU) – Scientists conducting physics experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider have announced the discovery of the Higgs boson transforming, as it decays, into subatomic particles called bottom quarks, an observation that confirms that the “Standard Model” of the universe – the 20th century recipe for everything in the known physical world – is still valid.

This new discovery is a big step forward in the quest to understand how the Higgs enables fundamental particles to acquire mass. Many scientists suspect that the Higgs could interact with particles outside the Standard Model, such as dark matter – the unseen matter that does not emit or absorb light, but may make up more than 80 percent of the matter in the universe.

After several years of work experiments at both ATLAS and CMS – CERN detectors that use different types of technology to investigate a broad range of physics –have demonstrated that 60 percent of Higgs particles decay in the same way. By finding and mapping the Higgs boson interactions with known particles, scientists can simultaneously probe for new phenomena.

SMU played important roles in the analysis announced by CERN Aug. 28, including:

  • Development of the underlying analysis software framework (Stephen Sekula, SMU associate professor of physics was co-leader of the small group that included SMU graduate student Peilong Wang and post-doctoral researcher Francesco Lo Sterzo, that does this for the larger analysis for 2017-2018)
  • Studying background processes that mimic this Higgs boson decay, reducing measurement uncertainty in the final result.

“The Standard Model is the recipe for everything that surrounds us in the world today.  Sekula explained. “It has been tested to ridiculous precision. People have been trying for 30-40 years to figure out where or if the Standard Model described matter incorrectly. Like any recipe you inherit from a family member, you trust but verify. This might be grandma’s favorite recipe, but do you really need two sticks of butter? This finding shows that the Standard Model is still the best recipe for the Universe as we know it.”

Scientists would have been intrigued if the Standard Model had not survived this test, Sekula said, because failure would have produced new knowledge.

“When we went to the moon, we didn’t know we’d get Mylar and Tang,” Sekula said. “What we’ve achieved getting to this point is we’ve pushed the boundaries of technology in both computing and electronics just to make this observation. Technology as we know it will continue to be revolutionized by fundamental curiosity about why the universe is the way it is.

“As for what we will get from all this experimentation, the honest answer is I don’t know,” Sekula said. “But based on the history of science, it’s going to be amazing.”

About CERN

At CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe. They use the world’s largest and most complex scientific instruments to study the basic constituents of matter – the fundamental particles. The particles are made to collide together at close to the speed of light. The process gives the physicists clues about how the particles interact, and provides insights into the fundamental laws of nature. Founded in 1954, the CERN laboratory sits astride the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva.

About SMU

SMU is the nationally ranked global research university in the dynamic city of Dallas.  SMU’s alumni, faculty and nearly 12,000 students in seven degree-granting schools demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit as they lead change in their professions, communities and the world.