In this first Fall 2021 edition of the Friday Newsletter, we celebrate a summer of achievement; look to the restart our speaker series; and showcase student excellence!
CHAIR’S WEEKLY MESSAGE
“Welcome Back Mustangs”
“How was your summer vacation?”
This question always makes me smile. It’s a vast misconception that faculty take a break for the entirety of the summer. In truth, summer is the time when many of us no longer face the obligation to teach and instead feast on the activity we hold most dear: research. This is not to discount the crucial role that our teaching faculty play in educating students during the summer and special terms. In fact, their commitment only makes the point more strongly: summer vacation for faculty is a myth.
So how was the summer? I think for most students, staff, and faculty, it was a mix. There was hope for normalcy early on and people threw themselves into their work. We began to gather again in the spaces we left 18 months ago. In-person teaching and research during the summer months paralleled cautious joy.
As we gather again for the first in-person regular term, we do so in the shadow of a surging Delta Variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Cases bloom in Dallas County. Commitments exist to encouragement, but not requirement, of the best set of options that would bring this pandemic to a final and definitive close. Mitigation delayed is pandemic prolonged. We have been told by University administration to expect cases to rise on campus in the first couple of weeks, but assured that this is just the same pattern we saw last year before the vaccines and that it’s not expected to actually cause a problem.
Perhaps this will be so. A virus unchecked chooses its own path. Pandemic projection models at the county level have the Delta Variant wave peaking anywhere from October to December. What happens on this campus remains to be seen.
Students face day-to-day uncertainties, too. Will they be contact traced to a COVID-infected person? Even if vaccinated, should they anyway quarantine knowing that the Delta Variant viral load can be equally high in vaccinated and un-vaccinated infected persons? (even if the health consequences are far worse for the un-vaccinated person, spreading the virus with a high viral load can happen with seeming equality among the two populations) Since we can’t know who is and is not vaccinated, who’s life is being put at risk if they make the wrong decision?
I hope that everyone will make the conservative decision and err on the side of the health of themselves and others. Get vaccinated and wear a mask. Do the latter especially if you feel even slightly unwell, regardless of whether masking is required or not. Personally, I am trying to stay positive about all of this while working to identify ways that faculty and students can establish safer environments for themselves and others.
I won’t lie to you, though: being back inside of a classroom with a couple dozen students was as exhilarating, thrilling, and energizing as it was two years ago. I have missed the teacher’s high that comes with engaging with active and excited students. I never feel more alive as an educator than when I am in that room with those students.
What did you do over your summer? What lies ahead in the next few weeks and months for all of us? In this first issue of the Friday Physics Newsletter of the academic year, we explore both of these questions and invite you to participate in the life, stories, and activities of our department. Our Department Speaker Series resumes August 30, though all other departmental social events are officially on hold until we see how the pandemic proceeds on our campus. Summer research and teaching activities were many and varied, and we bring you stories from the people who lived those experiences.
You, too, can write a chapter of your story in the Department of Physics. Welcome back, Mustangs!
Stephen Jacob Sekula
Chair, Department of Physics
Speaker Series Resumes in Hybrid Mode with Dr. Tom Runcevski (SMU) Presenting “Titan in a Jar”
You are cordially invited on August 30 at 4pm (FOSC 123 and virtually) to the first event of the Physics Department Speaker Series for Fall 2021. This Colloquium will be presented by Dr. Tom Runcevski, Assistant Professor in the SMU Department of Chemistry, and kicks off the August-September theme of “Exploring New Worlds.”
Titan, Saturn’s icy moon, is an ideal planetary body to study questions about the origin of life and the habitability of extraterrestrial environments. It features a nitrogen-based atmosphere, complex organic chemistry fueled by radiation from the sun and Saturn’s magnetosphere, ethane-based lakes on top of water-ice surface on the poles, organic dunes on the equator, and seasonal evaporation and precipitation of hydrocarbons in a process notably similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle. In light of an upcoming mission to Titan, Dr. Runcevski will discuss the importance of revisiting the fundamental chemistry of the smallest organic molecules that comprise the surface of Titan.
Learn more: https://www.physics.smu.edu/web/seminars/
Welcome New ATLAS Post-Doctoral Researcher Dr. Sijing Zhang
We are very pleased to introduce Dr. Sijing Zhang, who has joined the SMU ATLAS group as a post-doctoral researcher. Dr. Zhang recently completed her Ph.D., which was conducted jointly between the Institute for High-Energy Physics (IHEP) in Beijing and the French National Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics (Institut national de physique nucléaire et de physique des particules, IN2P3) in Lyon.
Her thesis research was conducted using the CMS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. She searched for evidence of a Standard Model-like Higgs particle with a mass between 70-110 GeV (lower than the established Higgs boson mass of 125 GeV). This search is challenging because of the low mass range, but is enhanced by the use of the diphoton final state of Higgs particle decay.
She looks forward to making great contributions to Higgs physics analysis in the ATLAS experiment as a member of the SMU ATLAS group. Dr. Zhang only just arrived in Dallas after a long journey from China to the United States. She is currently spending her time getting familiar with the campus and the culture at SMU as she establishes herself here in Dallas. Dr. Zhang will be formally introduced to the department at the first Department Speaker Series event on Monday, August 30. Please welcome her to the SMU ATLAS group and the department, and wish her much success at SMU!
Incoming Ph.D. Candidates Receive the Second Annual Charles W. Tittle Starting Line Awards
Created in 2020, the Starting Line Award in honor of Charles W. Tittle provides early financial support to our newest graduate students in recognition of their potential for future excellence, with the intent to help them bridge between the undergraduate and the graduate experience. Dr. Tittle had an extraordinary career in nuclear physics that took him from research at what is now University of North Texas to SMU, where he first was on the faculty in the school of engineering and later served as Chair of the Physics Department, then on the Faculty Senate. It is said that he always ran, never walked, everywhere he went on campus. We want our graduate students to have a good start so they can get running toward their goals.
This year’s recipients received, in addition to the baseline award, a one-time pandemic hardship addition to the award. This recognizes the challenges that many new graduate students have faced due to travel restrictions, costs, and competition for rental properties in the region. This is a unique time that merited consideration for an additional amount this year now that we are gathering again in person.
The recipients of this award are the first-year students entering our Ph.D. program:
- Mohammed Aboelela
- Cody Holz
- Rebecca Moore
- Austin Mullins
Congratulations to our newest Ph.D. candidates as you embark on your research careers.
Graduate Student Work and Community Space Opens, including the Hyer Ed Cafe
A new graduate student office, work, and community space is now open in Fondren Science Building 16. This suite hosts 10 physics graduate students, with personal desks for each student as well as conference tables for collaborative work and mobile whiteboards. A lounge area promotes relaxed conversation, and one corner of the space is devoted to a cafe-style kitchen layout.
This cafe space is dubbed “The Hyer Ed Cafe” in honor of the first president of SMU, physicist Robert Stewart Hyer. The artwork for the sign was created by SMU Physics Alum Mayisha Nakib (BS’15), currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The space will be used to host refreshments prior to Department Speaker Series events, as well as routine coffee breaks when we resume social activities later in the semester.
This space is primarily dedicated to facilitating graduate student work and study. Guests of graduate students, such as faculty mentors or colleagues or other members of the department, are welcome to use the space along side those students. There is also a coffee club, with rules and a sign-up sheet posted next to the coffee machines in the Hyer Ed Cafe. The current cost is $0.50 per tea bag or per single/double espresso or cup of drip coffee.
Departmental Social Events On Hold Until Late September
Apart from the Department Speaker Series, which is conducted in hybrid mode with a limited refreshment service beforehand, the department will freeze all other social events until the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic on campus can be understood. We will review the data in four weeks and make a decision about how to proceed beyond that.
Events currently on hold are the Hbar Coffee Bar on Wednesdays and Friday Department Lunch.
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of your activities in research, the classroom, and beyond are very welcome!
QuarkNet Program Continued to Shine in Summer 2021
By Prof. Simon Dalley
The SMU Particle Physics group sponsored its annual QuarkNet teachers’ workshop July 12-14. This year we hosted a group of 11 teachers from Dallas-area public and private schools and four QuarkNet Fellows. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, we held a Virtual Enquiry-Based Learning workshop. Shown below are participants in the Zoom meeting.
The afternoons were taken up with a coding workshop for physics teachers, led by QuarkNet Fellows Joy Scales, Tiffany Coke and Jeremy Wegner. This included an introduction to Jupyter by modeling kinematic graphs, as well as handling data from CERN, star catalogs, and tectonic plates. QuarkNet staff member Shane Wood led various online data activities, including Shuffling the Particle Deck, Quark Workbench, Rolling with Rutherford, as well as introductions to the MINERvA master class and World Wide Data Day. SMU faculty also gave presentations and took questions on their research. Dr. Joel Meyers spoke on Echoes of the Big Bang while Dr. Krista Lynne Smith spoke on Black holes and the galaxies they live in.
The SMU QuarkNet center is organized by Dr. Simon Dalley and funded by the National Science Foundation. This article is based on the annual QuarkNet report submitted by the program. http://smuphysicsweb.wixsite.com/quarknet
Proposal for Observing Time on the Very Large Telescope a Success!
Prof. Krista Lynne Smith had an eventful summer, and is pleased to report that her proposal as Principle Investigator for 24 hours of time on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) was accepted. This cycle was particularly challenging owing to a large over-subscription rate for observing proposals. Only 10% of proposals were accepted.
SMU undergraduate researcher, Andrea Reyes, has been collaborating with Prof. Smith and was a Co-Investigator on the proposal. The SMU team will be using the MUSE instrument to observe ionized gas velocities and morphologies in Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) host galaxies. The goal is to understand how AGN-driven outflows affect star formation and the galaxy’s overall evolution. Andrea’s work over the previous six months leading up to the proposal was pivotal to the proposal’s success, as it allowed the SMU team to provide a pilot program and proof of concept.
This achievement underscores the excellence of students at SMU, and indicates the kinds of frontier opportunities naturally available to our students. Such opportunities are made possible by the research interests of the faculty and their commitment to striving for great discoveries, which in turn attracts external funding that reflects and supports the potential of that work. It is also fantastic for any student to achieve this kind of funded proposal as a milestone early in their career. Andrea’s research this past summer was funded by an SMU Hamilton Research Scholar award.
The observations will occur October 2021 – March 2022. Prof. Smith and Andrea will be joined this fall by Ph.D. candidate Macon Magno. The observations supported by this successful proposal will provide fertile new material for Andrea and Macon’s research projects.
Two Higgs Are Better Than One!
This is reprinted from the ATLAS Physics Briefing that was prepared for the European Physical Society meeting in summer 2021. SMU physicist Prof. Allison Deiana and former SMU post-doctoral researcher Dr. Tulin Varol (Academia Sinica, Taipei) were major contributors to both the analyses and the writing of this briefing.
Since the discovery of the long-sought Higgs boson, scientists have been working to understand its properties and interactions with other particles – as well as its interaction with itself, its “self-coupling”. One of the long-term goals of the LHC is to measure the Higgs-boson self-coupling, which in turn can give us clues about the formation of the Universe. This self-coupling can only be measured directly by studying the production of pairs of Higgs bosons (HH).
However, Higgs-boson-pair production in the Standard Model is very rare – a factor of thousand less likely than for the production of a single Higgs boson. While this is currently beyond the reach of the LHC, multiple extensions of the Standard Model predict enhancements to the HH production rate. The resonant production of HH could occur through the decay of an intermediate, high-mass particle – such as a graviton or an additional Higgs boson – which would be observed as a peak of excess events in a narrow kinematic range. Alternatively, they could appear in non-resonant production, where such a narrow peak is not expected.
This week, at the EPS-HEP 2021, the ATLAS Collaboration presented the latest search for resonant and non-resonant HH production, including the two dominant production mechanisms of the Standard Model (gluon fusion and vector-boson fusion). Physicists analysed data collected by the ATLAS detector from 2015 to 2018 (LHC Run 2), looking for events where one Higgs boson decays into a pair of bottom quarks and the other decays into a pair of tau leptons (HH→bbττ). They narrowed the search further, looking at events where both tau leptons decay hadronically, or where one decays into an electron or muon with associated neutrinos while the other decays hadronically.
But looking for these events was just the start – physicists then needed to account for several background processes that result in a similar signature in the ATLAS detector. To do so, they made extensive use of machine-learning techniques, including boosted decision trees and (parameterised) neural networks. These algorithms made it possible to separate the shape of signal and background far more effectively than any single kinematic variable could do alone.
The new ATLAS analysis provides the most sensitive probe to Standard Model HH production to date, and represents a factor of four improvement over the previous version of the analysis. As well as profiting from a much larger dataset, physicists benefited from much-improved methods to identify the jets that arise from the decays of bottom-quarks and tau leptons, which are extremely challenging to distinguish from backgrounds. The team expected to be able to set a limit on the rate of HH production of 3.9 times the Standard Model production, but in the end there were slightly more events in data than predicted, pushing the observed limit to 4.7 times the Standard Model prediction.
The HH→bbττ signature is one of several Higgs-boson-pair processes being studied by the ATLAS Collaboration, and it provides the highest sensitivity yet to the rare Standard Model process. Though Higgs-boson-pair production has not yet been observed, the combination of this important channel with other searches – and the inclusion of the upcoming LHC Run-3 dataset – should enable ATLAS physicists to close in on this exciting process.
Original Physics Briefing from the ATLAS Collaboration: https://atlas.cern/updates/briefing/two-Higgs-better-one
Prof. Allison Deiana
Dr. Deiana’s research focus is the “Energy Frontier” of particle physics. She is a member of the ATLAS Collaboration and uses proton-proton collision events produced by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) to study the fundamental particles of our universe and how they interact with one another. Her current top priority is the study of the Higgs boson’s ability to couple with itself, and she is probing this through Higgs production and decays involving top quarks and tau leptons.
Prof. Joel Meyers Reports on a New Pair of Papers on Gravitational Waves and Subtle Anisotropies in the Cosmic Microwave Background
Prof. Joel Meyers, SMU Post-doctoral Researcher, Dr. Cynthia Trendafilova, Noah Pearson (BS’21), along with collaborators from UT Austin, completed their paper describing a novel technique to search for low-frequency gravitational waves (arXiv:2107.02788). The core idea is to closely monitor the higher frequency gravitational waves, such as those produced by galactic binaries that will be detected by the upcoming LISA mission. “Galactic binaries” refer to the large population of co-orbiting objects, like pairs of black holes, neutron stars, or white dwarf stars, that emit gravitational waves within our galaxy.
Low frequency gravitational waves passing through our galaxy will subtly alter our observations of these higher frequency waves, thereby allowing missions like LISA to gain sensitivity to a frequency range of gravitational waves that would otherwise not be constrained with the instrument.
Prof. Joel Meyers also reports that a paper completed earlier this year and co-authored with Ph.D. candidate Eric Guzman has now been published in Physical Review D (PRD 104.043529, arXiv:2101.01214). This paper explores machine learning techniques to reconstruct sources of secondary anisotropies in the cosmic microwave background. Specifically, their approach was applied to inhomogeneous reionization and weak gravitational lensing. They showed that the developed architecture, ResUNet-CMB, performs nearly optimally for this problem.
Profs. Olness and Sekula Bring in New Researchers to Enhance Focus on Nuclear Structure and the Higgs Particle
Prof. Fred Olness and Prof. Stephen Sekula have increased their collaboration in collider physics over the past year. This effort has been especially enabled by existing SMU theoretical physics leadership in proton and nuclear structure. That excellence and leadership helped to make the case for the construction of a new instrument to enable tomographic mapping of nucleons and nuclei: the Electron-Ion Collider (EIC). Prof. Sekula joined this effort last year to help build the subsequent physics case for the design of the EIC and especially particle detector experiments. This past summer, Sekula joined a proto-collaboration named ATHENA (A Totally Hermetic Electron-Nucleus Apparatus) aimed to propose a detector design to the U.S. Department of Energy in December, 2021.
Olness’s and Sekula’s partnership was further bolstered in the spring by the receipt of a generous SMU Dedman College Dean’s Research Council Grant to support their effort to study the impact of the EIC on knowledge of the strange quark and its contribution to nuclear structure. This allowed a new first-year Ph.D. candidate, Rebecca Moore, to join the effort in August. Rebecca brings past experience in work at the interface of theory and experiment from the ATLAS Experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).
In addition, Prof. Sekula was joined in his ATHENA work by Hamilton Research Scholar Stephanie Gilchrist and area high-school student Justine Choi, who interned with his group for the summer. Stephanie and Justine studied the impact of identifying charged kaons and electrons, respectively, on the kinds of particle jet identification needed to study the strange quark inside the nucleus.
Prof. Sekula’s work on the ATLAS Experiment at the LHC continued apace this summer. Ph.D. candidate Chris Milke continues to drive the study of two-Higgs production at the LHC, when an emphasis on the vector-boson production mechanism which will be simultaneously sensitive to the Higgs self-interaction, its interaction with singular vector bosons (W and Z), and its coupling to two vector bosons simultaneously. Chris continues to write his Ph.D. thesis on this subject with a thesis defense expected in Spring 2022. Prof. Sekula and Chris were joined by rising second-year Ph.D. candidate Sully Billingsley, who studied the possibility of identifying bottom-quark-initiated jets using hardware-level trigger algorithms, emphasizing matching muons to jets in that system.
Prof. Olness and Prof. Sekula had an exciting summer and look forward to furthering their collaboration to better understand the nucleus, and in doing so better constrain future Higgs measurements at the LHC.
At the Intersection of French Automotive Design and Particle Theory
By Prof. Pavel Nadolsky, Ryan Guess, Lucas Kotz, Maximiliano Chávez, and Varada Purohit
Can inspiration from the French automotive design be applied in particle theory? A group of undergraduate and graduate students led by Professors Aurore Courtoy (Instituto de Física, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) and Pavel Nadolsky (SMU Department of Physics) developed a method to parametrize probabilities for finding quarks and gluons in protons using Bézier curves, originally introduced to design advanced cars in France in 1950’s, such as the celebrated Citröen DS. This summer, the group developed a C++ program Fantômas to parameterize a variety of parton distribution functions (PDFs) using this method.
Here is what the students say about their experiences.
Ryan Guess (SMU). “The Fantômas project gave me an opportunity to learn about more advanced physics than I did in my classes. I was able to learn about the parton distribution functions and the structure of protons in general. I learned how to use Mathematica as a real programming language instead of just a tool to solve complex integrals. I also learned how to program and work on projects in a collaborative fashion.” [We are grateful to The Office of Engaged Learning at SMU for supporting Ryan’s work via Richter Fellowship.]
Lucas Kotz (SMU). “Over the summer, Fantômas presented me with an opportunity to develop my C++ knowledge beyond the basics as well as gain a deeper understanding about the PDFs. It was fascinating to use Bezier curves, which were invented to design the body of the Citröen DS, for our code as well. One of our memorable moments was when we the C++ code started to work for the first time and we were able to replicate the input PDF curves from just a few control points we had.” [We thank the university for providing the research assistantship that supported Lucas’s participation.]
Maximiliano Chávez (UNAM). “The Fantômas project is important for me because I got the chance to improve the skills I acquired throughout my physics and programming courses, while working with a talented group of physicists. It was exciting to get progressively better results with the PDF parameterizations by working little-by-little each day and reviewing the progress with my teammates. I am also thankful for participating in a project which seeks solutions to current physical problems and in which teams work at the same time all around the world.”
Varada Purohit (SMU). “I worked on developing a C++ code for fitting input points using a Bézier curve. It is remarkable to see that this method is an elegant alternative to the ‘black box’ machine learning methods for parameterizing the PDFs. When developing the code, I faced a challenge of programming inversion of an arbitrarily-sized matrix. Though finding the inverse is easy on paper, it is not a trivial computation when you program it yourself. I learned that one has to give a thought when deciding on the method to be used. It must be efficient as well as accurate.”
Prof. Nadolsky Notes Achievements beyond the Fantômas Project
Prof. Nadolsky writes: “The research in our theoretical physics group has been exceptionally lively this summer, in spite of the restrictions on in-person meetings and travel caused by the pandemic. CTEQ-TEA parametrizations of the proton structure published in 2019 by our group are in wide use by computations and experimental analyses at the Large Hadron Collider and other facilities. These parameterizations are obtained in a large-scale data analysis of measurements in dozens of experiments using a theoretical analysis framework developed at SMU and high-performance computing at the SMU M2 cluster. With this unique framework, we can address physics questions about global interconnections between the LHC measurements and experimental constraints from other experiments. In the summer our group published several articles exploring these topics.
“For example, our recent article with Alberto Accardi (Jefferson Laboratory), Tim Hobbs and Xiaoxian Jing (SMU) has discussed how precision measurements of electroweak symmetry breaking parameters at the LHC depend on the treatment of nuclear effects in experiments at much lower energies. We continued development of an effective statistical technique introduced by Tim Hobbs, Boting Wang, Prof. Olness, and myself to understand complex multidimensional probability distributions in large-scale fits of parton distribution functions. In particular, experimental constraints on PDFs in global fits by various groups can be compared apples-to-apples with this technique regardless of large differences in methodologies used by the groups. These comparisons will guide the update of the PDF4LHC recommendation on the usage of parton distributions in a wide range of LHC experiments.
“As a convener of a Topical Group dedicated to the Hadron Structure and Forward QCD at the Snowmass’2021 study, I am particularly pleased to see vigorous interest in our research community to understand the structure of strongly interacting particles in three dimensions using a combination of diverse experiments and state-of-the-art advances in quantum field theory and data-analytical methods. Given our extensive experience of studying the proton structure at SMU, we offer theoretical guidance on promising ways to compare results of the three-dimensional tomography at the Electron Ion Collider with theoretical predictions from non-perturbative quantum field theory and simulations of hadrons on a discretized latttice.”
Prof. Pavel Nadolsky
Prof. Nadolsky works on the theoretical physics of elementary particles, which explores physical objects at tiniest distances accessible to modern science. He aims to study the most basic forces existing in nature and microscopic events that drive the evolution of the Universe since its very beginning. His most recent efforts focus on predicting quantum interactions at the newly built Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.
Congratulations to Prof. Stephen Sekula on his promotion to Full Professor
by Prof. Fred Olness
We are pleased to congratulate Professor Stephen (Steve) Sekula for his recent promotion to the rank of Full Professor, the highest professorial rank at SMU. Promotion to Full Professor indicates that the candidate has achieved a high level of significant work in research, teaching, service to the university and the community of practice, and other substantive contributions. Please find below information about his background and research plans for the coming years.
Professor Stephen Sekula
Dr. Stephen Sekula received his B.S. degree from Yale University in 1998. He then earned his Ph.D. in 2004 at the University of Wisconsin – Madison performing searches for leptonic B decays (B+ → τ+ντ) with the BaBar experiment. Upon graduation he did postdoctoral studies at both MIT and Ohio State University before joining the SMU Faculty in 2009. He was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2015.
As a member of the ATLAS collaboration, Dr. Sekula contributed to the early measurements of the Higgs boson decay modes and played a leading role in the first observation of the Higgs to bottom quarks in 2018. The discovery of this long-sought decay of Higgs boson was a significant step forward in the quest to understand how the Higgs enables fundamental particles to acquire mass. Dr. Sekula continues to work on the ATLAS project and is also a member of the Electron-Ion Collider (EIC) ATHENA pro-collaboration where he serves as a co-convener of the “Jets, Heavy Flavors, Electroweak, and Beyond the Standard Model” working group.
Dr. Sekula has received a number of prestigious teaching and research awards including the Texas Section of the APS Robert S. Hyer Award for Undergraduate Research, SMU Altshuler Outstanding Teaching Professor, Rotunda Outstanding Professor Provost’s Golden Mustang Teaching Award, and numerous Honoring Our Professors’ Excellence (HOPE) Awards.
Within the research community, Steve has served on the American Physical Society’s Division of Particles and Fields (DPF) Program Advisory Committee as well as U.S. Department of Energy HEP Comparative Review Panels. At SMU he has served as the Director of Graduate Studies in Physics, is currently the Research Principle Investigator representative on the Information Technology Leadership Council (ITLC), and currently serves as Physics Department Chair. Additionally, Steve was a Faculty Advisor to the SMU Hunt Leadership Scholar Program and a Faculty Affiliate for Morrison-McGinnis Residential Commons.
Faculty on Approved Leaves from Teaching in AY2021-2022
Four faculty are on approved leaves from teaching at various times during this academic year. In the Fall term, Prof. Joel Meyers is on a research leave. In the Spring term, Profs. Allison Deiana, Fred Olness, and Ryszard Stroynowski are on approved leaves, the latter two of which had been deferred to now by the circumstances of the pandemic in AY2020-2021.
Faculty on research leaves should have no teaching duties. Service obligations should be reduced to a level of their choosing during that period. All four of these leaves were intended to emphasize and seize key opportunities in their respective research programs. The Department looks forward to seeing the impact of their dedication to the research environment!
Administrative Staff and Main Office Operations
Research Operations Administrator Michele Hill and Academic Operations Administrator Lacey Breaux returned this summer to in-person work in the Physics Main Office (FOSC 102). While the office door may be closed, our department administrators are working hard and can be available to work with you on research- and academics-related matters (respectively). The administrative staff’s work is extensive and sometimes requires commitments outside the Main Office. However, they can be reached during regular business hours using Microsoft Teams, email, or phone.
If you have something to share please feel free to send it along. Stories of students in research, the classroom, internships or fellowships, awards, etc. are very welcome!
Jasmine Liu Elected to Two-Year Term on SuperCDMS Graduate and Postdoc Organization
Ph.D. candidate Jasmine Liu was elected to a two-year term as a Representative for the SuperCDMS Graduate Student and Postdoc Organization (GSPD). In this role she represents the GSPD to the collaboration. Her position involves soliciting opinions and addressing concerns expressed by graduate students and postdocs within SuperCDMS, facilitating communication between the GSPD and broader SuperCDMS collaboration, and to organize group activities.
SuperCDMS is a collaboration of about 100 scientists from 26 institutions in 5 countries. The experiment is designed to detect dark matter if it can scatter off of atoms, even rarely and at low energy. The project is current in an upgrade phase, SuperCDMS SNOLab, which is under construction in the SNOLab facility in Sudbury, Canada.
Ishwita Saikia Explores the Dark Matter Frontier in the French Alps
Ishwita Saikia attended the Les Houches Dark Matter Summer School. In addition to lectures by experts from around the world and discussions with the lecturers and participants, the program included social meals and outdoor activities. The Les Houches School of Physics offers detailed and engaging programs, but limits participation through a competitive application process. Ishwita was one of only about 40 students who were invited to participate in person, even more limited than in previous years due to the pandemic. Jasmine Liu was also accepted into this year’s program but as one of a larger number of remote participants.
Dark Matter (DM) is the substance that appears, based on multiple lines of observational evidence, to comprise about 26% of the total matter-energy budget of the Universe. It comprises about 80% of all matter in the Universe. While the evidences of its existence are numerous and compelling, its true nature is still a mystery and a subject of intense research.
This topic naturally lies at the intersection of different research fields. DM is obviously a problem of astrophysics and cosmology, but the solution could possibly come from fundamental particle physics, which could provide the new elementary particle that is the DM. For this reason, a coordinated approach among different disciplines is crucial to achieve progress.
The Les Houches School on Dark Matter aimed to train the next generation of students and young researchers in the field with two main guidelines in mind. The first was to begin with the basics, as much as possible avoiding any one specific theoretical (or experimental) prejudice on the nature of the problem of DM. The second was to make the most of the interdisciplinary nature of the topic, approaching it from the cosmological, astrophysical and particle physics points of view via the participation of experts/lecturers from different field.
The exploration of DM happened in the classroom and in the outdoors. Recreational activities were a chance for students, faculty, and other participants to discuss a variety of topics while taking in the natural beauty and awe of the French Alps. The village of Les Houches lies very close to Mt. Blanc and is about one hour from the CERN Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. The school provided extensive travel support for students, as well as all meals and housing.
Undergraduate Students Awarded Hamilton Research Scholar Fellowships
We are proud to report that multiple SMU undergraduates have received generous support from the Hamilton Research Scholar Program. The Department is grateful to the Dedman College Interdisciplinary Institute and the Hamilton family for their generous support for and cultivation of excellent undergraduate researchers. Please find below a brief explanation of each student’s proposed work.
Faith will study the plate-out of radon, a radioactive naturally occurring gas. Specifically, she will conduct these experiments on polycarbonate samples. This is a material widely used in experiments designed to search for dark matter. Such experiments demand low radioactive contamination of materials. Studying the plate-out of radon, which can induce radioactivity in materials, on more materials will help to verify the trends observed in previous work on copper samples while also providing greater understanding of the interaction between radon gas and other types of materials. She is supervised by Prof. Jodi Cooley.
Stephanie will continue into the next phase of work she conducted over the Summer of 2021. She has been contributing to the ATHENA proto-collaboration, a group of physicists who will propose the construction of a new experiment for the Electron-Ion Collider at Brookhaven National Laboratory. She has so far developed a framework for identifying charm-quark jets using individually selected particles called “Kaons.” This has been done in fast simulation of the ATHENA detector. Her next phase of work will utilize full simulation of a prototype detector, revisit the existing work, and update it using multivariate and/or machine-learning approaches. The work is aimed to contribute to the proposal for ATHENA, due to the Department of Energy in December. She is supervised by Prof. Stephen Sekula.
Andrea will be continuing her analysis of the impact on host galaxies of AGN-driven outflows using radio imaging and optical integral field unit imaging, searching for spatial correlations between outflows traced by radio emission and regions of high-velocity ionized gas. This work will lead to insights into how accretion on to central supermassive black holes affects star formation and evolution of the black hole’s host galaxy. She is supervised by Prof. Krista Lynne Smith.
If you are an alum of the doctoral, masters, majors or minor programs in Physics at SMU, or have worked in our program as a post-doctoral researcher, and wish to share news with the community, please send your story to the Physics Department and we’ll work with you to get it included in a future edition.
Bryson DeChambeau to Receive the 2021 SMU Emerging Leader Award
Bryson DeChambeau, who studied physics at SMU before pursuing his professional golf career, was selected to receive the 2021 Emerging Leader Award, one of SMU’s Distinguished Alumni Awards. The ceremony for this event is scheduled for September 30, 2021. You can purchase tickets to the event at the following link.
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How to Support Physics at SMU
Thank you, our community, for keeping in touch with us, supporting us, and enhancing us as a physics department. We are sustained by letters and emails keeping us informed of your careers, life changes, and interests; by your generous donations to the department through general or targeted contributions; by your participation in department events; and by the memories and feelings you share with others regarding your experiences with our department.
We are grateful for the financial support of our donors, especially for contributions to the department that provide discretionary funding that can be spent on student awards and scholarships, student travel and research, teaching enhancement, and community-building activities. More than ever, we rely on these donations to enhance teaching and research excellence. In 2020-2021, despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, friends, alumni, and members of the department stepped up and donated to our Department. Many of these were small donations, but the totality of their impact was clear.
These gifts helped us to sustain our non-endowed Undergraduate Physics Scholarship and again award this to an outstanding, upcoming physics major. They allowed us to offer for the first time in many years an award that recognizes an outstanding graduate researcher. Your generosity helped us to support faculty with new teaching technology, enhancing the limited support that was provided by the University to facilitate virtual teaching last year. Those technology investments continue to permit classes to run even when challenged by the ongoing pandemic, and represent a long-term impact on our department that enhances teaching and research excellence.
Should you prefer to make your donation electronically by credit card on a secure server, please visit https://www.physics.smu.edu/web/giving. Click on the fund in which you are interested and then follow the instructions to conclude your secure transaction.
If you wish to first engage with a Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences Development Officer to discuss your gift or other options including estates, trusts, gifts in kind, or planned giving, please contact Clayton Ellis, Director of Development for Dedman College, by phone at (214) 768-9202 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.