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Physics professor wins Cottrell Scholar Award for dark matter research, design of new physics seminar

One of the greatest remaining mysteries of the universe is the nature of so-called “dark matter.” First proposed by Lord Kelvin and Henri Poincaré in the early 20th century, dark matter, which is thought to account for nearly 85 percent of matter in the universe, has defied understanding ever since.

For assistant professor of physics Mariangela Lisanti, the question of dark matter has been a key driver of her research, especially after she came to the University in 2010. Now, having won a 2017 Cottrell Scholar Award, Lisanti will help bring enthusiasm for this question to a new generation of students.


The Cottrell Scholar Award, presented by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, honors professors for both research and teaching, selecting those “who produce significant research and educational outcomes,” according to the Research Corporation website. Lisanti was one of 24 award recipients for the year 2017, and the only one from the University. The award provides $100,000 over three years and is to be used for both research and teaching.

In terms of her research, Lisanti will continue her work on improving sensitivity to dark matter annihilation signals. Using data from the Fermi Large Area Telescope, Lisanti says she will explore both traditional and alternative modes of dark matter, which will allow for a broader search, according to a press release.

Lisanti will also use a portion of the grant to fund development of a new seminar class in the physics department. The physics department already has three underclassmen seminars — PHY 209, 210, and 211 — which serve as introductions to computational, experimental, and theoretical physics, respectively. This new seminar, however, aims to provide a different set of skills, focusing even more heavily on research and less on specific analytical tools, according to Lisanti.

“The primary goal … is to help students get involved in high-level research early on as undergraduates and to teach them the necessary skills to succeed at this, regardless of the specific area they choose to pursue,” Lisanti wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’

While the course is intended for prospective physics majors, it will be open to students from other disciplines as well, Lisanti said. Furthermore, the course will aim to cover a broad range of techniques, as well as both experimental and theoretical research, through different projects during the semester.

“The course will introduce programming and numerical techniques, as well as scientific writing and presentation skills,” Lisanti wrote in the email. “So that students can simultaneously learn about current open questions in the field, these projects will be designed around one of the greatest mysteries in physics today: the nature of dark matter.”


The seminar, which is scheduled to be offered in the spring of 2018, will be open to first-year students and sophomores.

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