Five MIT researchers receive awards from the American Physical Society

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The American Physical Society (APS) recognizes outstanding scholars in physics. Recently, MIT affiliates William A. Barletta, Ronald Fernando Garcia Ruiz, Katelin Schutz, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and Phiala Shanahan earned APS prizes for their work.

William Barletta

Barletta, an adjunct professor of physics, earned the Exceptional Service Award from the APS Division of Physics of Beams for his contributions to both the APS and to the field of accelerators and beams.

Barletta has several areas of interest within intermediate energy physics. His work at MIT has mainly centered around the design and use of high-current cyclotrons, cylindrical particle accelerators, for both academic and industrial applications. Barletta investigates free electron lasers (FEL), which are very bright, high-current ion beams that can be applied in various chemical, biophysical, surface, and materials sciences. One FEL device that he designed and built was used as a monopole electromagnetic radiation source.

Barletta has also spent much of his career studying how particles may move through accelerators, namely linacs, colliders, and cyclotrons, for high energy and nuclear physics. Barletta produced patented work in ion beam technology, formulating a device that could detect a single ion passing through a channel.

The APS Division of Physics of Beams (DPB) Exceptional Service Award recognizes a member of the APS DPB who has made outstanding contributions to the field of accelerators and to promoting the objectives of the DPB.

Barletta obtained a PhD in experimental high-energy physics from the University of Chicago in 1972. In addition to his role at MIT, Barletta is an adjunct professor of economics in the Faculty of Economics, University of Ljubljana, and director emeritus of the Accelerator Division Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He currently chairs three APS committees: The Forum on International Physics, APS Panel on Public Affairs, and the Division of Physics of Beams.

Ronald Fernando Garcia Ruiz

Assistant professor of physics Garcia Ruiz is recognized with the Fundamental Physics and Innovation Award, a convening award through APS and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which will enable him to host a workshop for leading experts in molecular physics and nuclear science.

Garcia Ruiz’s experimental work centers around the development of laser spectroscopy techniques for the study of radioactive atoms and molecules. His research employs laser spectroscopy that uses atoms and molecules made up of short-lived radioactive nuclei. This enables his lab to measure the properties of subatomic particles, and provides unique insight into a multitude of nuclear phenomena. Garcia Ruiz hopes to illuminate new information about the fundamental forces of nature, the properties of nuclear matter at the limits of existence, and the search for new physics beyond the Standard Model of particle physics.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Convening Awards support small scientific meetings to enable experts to gather for discussions and presentations. With his grant, awarded in 2019, Garcia Ruiz is collaborating with Caltech assistant professor of physics Nick Hutzler to prepare a workshop entitled “New Opportunities for Fundamental Physics Research with Radioactive Molecules.” The workshop, which will take place July 2021, will assemble world-leading theoreticians and experimentalists working in molecular spectroscopy, nuclear physics, precision measurements, and radioactive beam science.

Garcia Ruiz earned his PhD in 2015 at KU Leuven in Belgium and was based at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), working on laser spectroscopy techniques for the study of short-lived atomic nuclei. In 2018, he was awarded a CERN Fellowship, where he led several experimental programs concerning nuclear science, atomic physics, and quantum chemistry. Garcia Ruiz has received several prizes for his contributions to these research areas, including the 2018 Nuclear Physics Group Early Career Prize from the Institute of Physics in UK, and the Early Career Award from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2020. He joined MIT in January 2020.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Prescod-Weinstein, a research affiliate at MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society and a recent Dr. Martin Luther King (MLK) Jr. postdoc at MIT, received the 2021 Edward A. Bouchet Award for contributions to theoretical cosmology and particle physics and for her efforts in promoting inclusivity in physics.

Prescod-Weinstein held a three-year MLK Fellowship at MIT between 2011 and 2014, where she was mentored by professors Edmund Bertschinger and Alan Guth, and also worked with Professor David Kaiser. During her time at MIT, Prescod-Weinstein was jointly appointed to the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research, as well as the Department of Physics as a researcher at the Center for Theoretical Physics. Her theoretical work examines particle physics, cosmology, and astrophysics. In particular, much of her research concerns the possible role of axions, a hypothetical elementary particle, in dark matter. Dark matter refers to the matter that is believed to comprise about 80 percent of the universe, yet is not directly observable to scientists. Her research inquires if the axion can form a Bose-Einstein condensate, which would enable many axions to act together and form one larger particle. Addressing this question could reveal much about how galaxies and other structures were formed. While at MIT, she mentored Black, Latinx, and Native students, and was awarded the School of Science Infinite Kilometer Award for her contributions.

MIT physics professors Guth and Tracy Slatyer nominated Prescod-Weinstein for the Bouchet Award, which is offered to a distinguished minority physicist who has made significant contributions to physics research and the advancement of underrepresented minority scientists. Prescod-Weinstein was selected as this year’s recipient both for her extraordinary contributions to theoretical cosmology and particle physics, and her immense efforts in increasing inclusivity in physics, including co-creating Particles for Justice. Particles for Justice is a group of individuals working to combat racism, misogyny/sexism, ableism, transphobia, queerphobia, xenophobia, anti-Indigeneity, and other biases within the field of physics.

Prescod-Weinstein now serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and a core faculty member in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire. She earned her PhD at the University of Waterloo and Perimeter Institute in 2011. She previously earned a master’s degree in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California at Santa Cruz and a bachelors in physics and astronomy and astrophysics at Harvard College. Prescod-Weinstein’s book, “The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, and Dreams Deferred,” will be available in March 2021.

Katelin Schutz

The APS has awarded Schutz, a Pappalardo Fellow and an Einstein NASA fellow at the MIT Department of Physics, the J. J. and Noriko Sakurai Dissertation Award in Theoretical Particle Physics for an exemplary thesis in the area of theoretical particle physics. Schutz is the first woman to win this award since its establishment in 2012. 

Schutz’s work, at the interface of theoretical particle physics, astrophysics, and cosmology, questions what our universe is made of by considering how astrophysical systems would be affected with the addition of new particles and interactions. She seeks to refine the existing Standard Model of particle physics, which is known to be an incomplete description of our universe. A major focus of her work is to determine what dark matter is truly made of. She is also interested in the electroweak hierarchy problem, the strong-CP problem, the origin of the neutrino mass, and the nature of dark energy.

The 2020 J.J. and Noriko Sakurai Dissertation Award in Theoretical Particle Physics recognizes exceptional young scientists who have performed original doctoral thesis work of outstanding scientific quality and achievement in the area of theoretical particle physics. Schutz received her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley in 2019, with the support of graduate fellowships from the Hertz Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Her dissertation, entitled “Searching for the invisible: how dark forces shape our universe,” was supervised by UC Berkley physicist Hitoshi Murayama.

Prior to pursuing her PhD, Schutz was an undergraduate student at MIT, where she conducted Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs with Max Tegmark, Alan Guth, David Kaiser, and Tracy Slatyer. She will start a professorship at McGill University in 2021.

Phiala Shanahan

The Maria Goeppert Mayer Award went to assistant professor of physics Shanahan for producing key insights into the structure and interactions of hadrons and nuclei. Shanahan’s theoretical research in nuclear and particle physics focuses primarily on illuminating the structure and interactions of hadrons and nuclei. Hadrons are subatomic particles, like the proton and neutron, that are built from more fundamental particles called quarks. Shanahan’s recent work has focused in particular on the role of gluons in this structure. Gluons are elementary particles which act to connect — or glue — together quarks to form hadrons.

Using analytic tools and high performance supercomputing, she recently achieved the first calculation of the gluon structure of light nuclei. Shanahan has also studied the role of strange quarks (one of the types or “flavors” of quarks) in the proton and light nuclei. Such investigation has helped to sharpen theory predictions for dark matter cross-sections in direct detection experiments.

Shanahan has been selected for the APS 2021 Maria Goeppert Mayer Award, which recognizes outstanding achievement by a female physicist in the early years of her career. Shanahan was slated for the award thanks to her key insights into the structure and interactions of hadrons and nuclei, using numerical and analytical methods. Her use of machine learning techniques in lattice quantum field theory calculations in particle and nuclear physics also made her ideal for the award. Shanahan was also profiled in Science News as a “Science News 10 Scientists to Watch.”

Shanahan grew up in Adelaide, Australia, and obtained her BS from the University of Adelaide in 2012 and her PhD, also from the University of Adelaide, in 2015. She joined the MIT physics faculty in July 2018.