back to news March 6, 2013

Physicist's NSF CAREER Award Assists Search for "Ghost" Particles

Amy Connolly’s recent five-year, $650,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help support her search for high-energy neutrinos, a type of elementary particle, traveling at the speed of light, which can travel cosmological distances unabated, existing all across the universe. These are sometimes called “ghost" particles because they are very hard to find due to their remote chance of ever interacting with regular matter. Only sophisticated experiments can catch and measure their properties.

The NSF awards recognize and encourage the careers of exceptional young researchers whose work shows promise of significant ongoing contributions to their fields.

The assistant professor of physics joined the department in 2010, “because of the strength of the particle astrophysics group and the Center for Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics.”

Connolly works with dozens of American and international collaborators on two projects in Antarctica, searching for ultra-high energy neutrinos from cosmic sources using a radio detection technique. ANITA (Antarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna) flies on a NASA balloon over the continent; ARA (Askaryan Radio Array) is being deployed deep in the ice near the South Pole. Connolly and her colleagues also are working to develop a prototype of a proposed "super-ANITA," called EVA (Eva Volt Antenna) that would be the world's largest airborne telescope.

“Finding them is an important challenge,” Connolly said. “They can help us learn more about the ultra-high energy universe and even particle physics at higher energies than those probed by the LHC (Large Hadron Collider).

“The neutrinos we are looking for are much more distant and of much higher energy than any extraterrestrial neutrinos that have been seen before, which so far have all been from the Sun or from a single Super-nova.”

Connolly’s experiments are being done in Antarctica, because, “Antarctic ice is a great medium in which to probe the universe for neutrinos at such high-energy. It allows us to observe a very large region to look for radio signals from the extremely rare neutrino interactions.”

The CAREER award provides an important assist to Connolly’s research. “It will help us move our work along,” she said, “allowing us to develop more effective simulation tools that model the data, push forward a cohesive plan across experiments, optimize our detectors and develop tools we can use uniformly.”

Three undergraduate and two graduate students, along with two postdoctoral researchers, help Connolly in the search.

Connolly teaches and is advisor to Graduate Women in Physics, a group involved in encouraging more young women to explore career options in physics. Connolly is looking into ways she can use the outreach component of her grant to enhance these efforts.

For the past five years, the physics department has hosted Girls Reaching to Achieve in Sports and Physics (GRASP), a week- long day camp that makes physics fun, relevant and accessible for middle school girls. This program has been so popular that its organizers now run two camps each summer back-to-back to try to accommodate as many applicants as possible.

Connolly has proposed the idea to bring former campers, who are now in high school, back to campus for another taste of physics at a more advanced level. She said, “I’d like to give them some hands-on activities, with equipment commonly used by physicists.”

Connolly also is reaching out to high school teachers, planning an afternoon campus workshop this fall that will educate teachers about current events in physics and astronomy.