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Physics department garners $4.5 million in federal stimulus funding

October 09, 2009

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-8085

Syracuse University’s Department of Physics in The College of Arts and Sciences has received almost $4.5 million in grants from the National Science Foundation through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

The grants will be used to continue the department’s collaboration with scientists from all over the world who are working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland; further collaborative research on dark matter; underwrite a new exhibition at the Milton J. Rubenstein Museum of Science and Technology (MOST) in Syracuse; and investigate how water molecules form in interstellar space.

The majority of the funding, $3.1 million, was awarded to the department’s experimental high-energy particle physics group, which has been continually funded by the NSF since the 1960s. The availability of stimulus funding enabled the group to avoid a cut in its base grant, which would have forced the group to cut three post-doctoral researchers from its staff, according to group leader Professor Sheldon Stone.

“The new stimulus funding enabled the NSF to increase its support for physics research,” Stone says. “Scientific research, over the long term, stimulates the economy. Many of the technologies physicists develop for their research are adapted for use in other areas, from computing and medical technologies to integrated circuits and superconductors. But that’s not why we do this work. The goal of being human is to find out about our surroundings and understand how things work. This eternal quest for knowledge benefits everyone.”

Stone is coordinating efforts to plan and develop new technologies for the LHC at CERN to detect and study the fundamental particles that comprise all matter in the universe. The group, which also includes faculty members Marina Artuso, Tomasz Skwarnicki and Steven Blusk, as well as post-doctoral researchers and graduate and undergraduate students, works on the LHCb, one of four particle detectors located in the LHC ring. The new funding will enable the group to move forward on building components for the next-generation detectors for the LHC.

Artuso has also received a separate $540,776 grant to develop new hybrid pixel sensors for a component of the LHCb, called the VELO. The goal is to improve the efficiency and sensitivity of the detector by an order of magnitude above what is currently possible. Artuso is a world leader in developing these kinds of sensors. The grant will also enable her to offer new research opportunities to graduate students to discover ways to apply this technology to other areas, such as medical imaging devices.

Richard Schnee, assistant professor of physics, will use a $390,000 NSF grant to further his collaborative research to detect dark matter. This is Schnee’s first independent grant from the NSF, which will help him expand his work in analyzing data from the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search experiment (CDMS). The CDMS detectors are housed in the Soudan Underground Laboratory north of Duluth, Minn.

CDMS is a collaboration of more than 50 scientists from 16 institutions funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the NSF and a number of other public and private organizations. Schnee, who came to SU just two years ago, is the CDMS science coordinator. He has been working with the CDMS collaboration since 1996, first as a visiting scholar at Stanford University and later as a post-doctoral researcher at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Schnee’s NSF funding will also support a graduate student to work on developing and testing new CDMS detectors in collaboration with researchers at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, as well as undergraduate student researchers. The funding will also be used to develop the third phase of the “Cosmic Connections” exhibit at the MOST. The exhibit will focus on what the universe is made of and how scientists know dark matter exists.

Professor Gianfranco Vidali received $528,461 from the NSF to expand his collaborative research into understanding how water originated on our planet. Water is the fundamental requirement for the development of life as we know it; however, scientists don’t know where the Earth’s water originally came from.

Scientists theorize the Earth incorporated water from the cloud of gas and dust that eventually coalesced to form the sun, planets and all of the celestial bodies in our solar system. But scientists do not know how water formed in that cloud, whether it came from somewhere else, or how it forms in other similar clouds in our galaxy that also coalesce to form planets in far away solar systems. The key, scientists believe, is learning how water forms on interstellar dust grains. This is the focus of Vidali’s research, which will be carried out in his SU laboratory and in collaboration with scientists from Italy, Israel, and at the NASA Astrobiology Institute of the University of Hawaii. Vidali is a member of the Institute’s scientific team.

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