The Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) supports high-potential scientists and engineers in the early stages of their careers. Each year, more than 12,000 applicants compete for ~2,000 fellowship awards. NSF GRFP awards are highly sought and competitive. The fellowship is awarded to individuals in the early stages of their graduate study, who intend to pursue research-based graduate studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The program provides awardees with three years of financial support consisting of a $37,000 annual stipend and a $12,000 education allowance. UW–Madison contributes toward fringe benefits.
UW–Madison researchers key in search for neutrino emission from the brightest gamma-ray burst ever detected
On October 9th, 2022, an unusually bright pulse of high-energy radiation whizzed past Earth, captivating astronomers around the world. The luminous emission came from a gamma-ray burst (GRB), one of the most powerful classes of explosions in the universe. Named GRB 221009A, it triggered detectors at NASA’s Gamma-ray Burst Monitor and Large Area Telescope (both on board the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope), the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, and the Wind spacecraft as well as other telescopes that quickly turned to the GRB site to study its aftermath.
This record-shattering GRB is one of the closest and the brightest GRB ever spotted, earning it the nickname BOAT (“brightest of all time”). This GRB is believed to come from an exploding star and likely signals the birth of a black hole.
In a new study by the IceCube Collaboration, published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, UW–Madison researchers presented results of one of five searches for neutrino emission from GRB 221009A that leveraged the full detector range, covering nine orders of magnitude in energy. Because no significant emission was found across samples spanning 10 MeV to 10 PeV, the results are the most stringent constraints on neutrino emission from GRBs.
As some of the most energetic sources in the universe, GRBs have long been considered a possible astrophysical source of neutrinos—tiny “ghostlike” particles that travel through space and large amounts of matter unhindered. These high-energy neutrinos are of particular interest to the National Science Foundation-supported IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a gigaton-scale neutrino detector at the South Pole.
IceCube is run by the international IceCube Collaboration, which comprises over 350 scientists from 58 institutions around the world. The Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC), a research center at UW–Madison, is the lead institution for the IceCube project.
Previously, IceCube has performed searches for neutrino emission from GRBs, but thus far, a correlation has not been found between high-energy neutrinos and GRBs. The recent observation of GRB 221009A presented IceCube with the best opportunity yet to search for neutrino emission by GRBs.
“Not only was this GRB the brightest ever detected in gamma rays, it also occurred in a region of the sky where IceCube is very sensitive,” says UW–Madison physics professor Justin Vandenbroucke, who helped lead the analysis.
For the study, collaborators carried out five complementary IceCube analyses that encompassed the full energy range of the detector. Each analysis targeted a specific energy range, with the idea of covering as wide an energy range as possible. UW–Madison physics PhD student Jessie Thwaites was one of the main analyzers.
Thwaites performed a “fast response” analysis based on real-time data from the South Pole to search for high-energy (0.10 teraelectronvolts to 10 petaelectronvolts) neutrinos from the direction of the GRB. They chose two time windows: one three-hour window covering all of the triggers reported in real time, and one covering two days. Their analysis, which set strong constraints on neutrino emission from GRBs, was quickly reported to the community, within hours of the GRB being detected by the gamma-ray satellites.
“In the high energies, our upper limits are very constraining—they are below the observations from gamma-ray telescopes,” says Thwaites. “These upper limits, combined with the observations from many electromagnetic telescopes, give us more information about GRBs as potential particle accelerators.”
Because this GRB is so bright, and because it has been so well studied, IceCube is able to place constraining upper limits on neutrino emission models proposed for this specific GRB. These constraints will enable better understanding of how GRBs work.
The collaborators are already developing new methods to improve searches for neutrinos from GRBs and other transient astrophysical sources. In addition, future upgrades and proposed extensions of IceCube, including the IceCube Upgrade project and IceCube-Gen2, could be the key to finding high-energy neutrino emission from GRBs or other transients.
According to Vandenbroucke, “This GRB illustrates the capabilities of IceCube for real-time follow-up of astrophysical transients. IceCube views the entire sky, all the time, over a factor of a billion in energy range. There is likely a burst of neutrinos already flying towards us from some other cosmic source, and we are ready for it.”
+ info “Limits on Neutrino Emission from GRB 221009A from MeV to PeV using the IceCube Neutrino Observatory,” The IceCube Collaboration: R. Abbasi et al. Published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. arxiv.org/abs/2302.05459
IceCube performs the first search for neutrinos from novae
White dwarfs are very dense, compact objects that are one of the possibilities for the final evolutionary state of stars. If they happen to be in a binary system with another companion star, the white dwarf may pull material from the companion star onto its surface. In this case, if enough material is accumulated, a nuclear reaction may occur on the surface of the white dwarf, causing a luminous burst of photons called a nova. Historically, astronomers believed they were seeing stars being born, hence the name, although we now know that is not the case. In the past decade, GeV and even TeV gamma rays were discovered from novae, suggesting that neutrinos—neutral, nearly massless cosmic messengers—could originate from novae as well.
In a paper recently submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, the IceCube Collaboration presents its first search for neutrinos from novae using a subarray of the IceCube Neutrino Observatory, a gigaton-scale detector operating at the South Pole. Although significant emission from novae was not found, IceCube set the first observational upper limits on neutrino emission from novae.
According to Justin Vandenbroucke, professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and one of the study leads, “Novae, the little cousins of supernovae, are one of the longest known types of astrophysical transient. The discovery that they produce gamma rays was a huge surprise. Our neutrino analyses are starting to add to the modern understanding of these historical phenomena.”
Justin Marquez and Sam Kramer named L&S Teaching Mentors
Congrats to physics PhD students Justin Marquez and Sam Kramer on being named 2023-24 L&S Teaching Mentors!
The L&S TA Training & Support Team is responsible for welcoming and training hundreds of new TAs each year. Teaching Mentors are the heart of this crucial undertaking: they serve as facilitators at the annual L&S Fall TA Training event and provide mentorship throughout the semester. Those selected to be Teaching Mentors have not only a proven track record of excellence as educators, but also a strong desire to share their experience and mentor new TAs navigating their first year.
Twenty-one outstanding graduate students — including physics PhD student Soren Ormseth — have been selected as recipients of the 2022-23 UW–Madison Campus-Wide Teaching Assistant Awards, recognizing their excellence in teaching. Ormseth earned a Dorothy Powelson Teaching Assistant Award.
UW–Madison employs over 2,300 teaching assistants (TAs) across a wide range of disciplines. Their contributions to the classroom, lab, and field are essential to the university’s educational mission. To recognize the excellence of TAs across campus, the Graduate School, the College of Letters & Science (L&S), and the Morgridge Center sponsor these annual awards.
Ormseth is a graduate student in the Department of Physics specializing in detector physics. He has taught intermediate physics lab and intermediate electronics lab.
“The best teachers hone their communication skills to make subject material and lessons interesting, relevant, well organized, and right at that difficulty-sweet-spot. At the end of the day though, every student has their own unique way of looking at the world and engaging with a particular topic,” Ormseth said. “When it comes time to deliver a lecture, write a textbook, or create a presentation, a teacher needs to work on those communication skills. But when it comes time to engage with an individual student, the best thing that a teacher can do is be approachable, flexible, and willing to listen with the intent to understand the student’s perspective. Mastering these two teaching modes is a lifelong journey which never stops!”
Celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science!
February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and we’re more than happy to showcase some of our women physicists! We collected photos from women in the department, which you can see in a collage above. Some women also chose to share a bit about their research and/or what being a woman in science and woman in physics means to them. Those quotes are below.
Abby Warden, graduate student
My name is Abby Warden, a 5th year graduate student working in experimental high energy physics. My current work includes assembling Gas Electron Multiplier (GEM) chambers for electronics testing. GEMs are the newest muon sub detector that will be installed in the general particle detector, the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS).
Dr. Camilla Galloni, Post-doc
Seen some muons? Working on the muon detector of the CMS experiment: GE11 installed in 2020 and successfully operated is the precursor of the GE21 and ME0 detectors now being constructed for the high luminosity LHC upgrade. This big “camera” takes “snapshots” of particles produced in high energy proton collisions and helps understand the fundamental interactions of nature.
Elise Chavez, graduate student
I’ve always been drawn to figuring out how the world works and it led me to my research and passion of learning how the universe works fundamentally at the subatomic level. I work with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) that lies along the Large Hadron Colider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva. Being a woman in physics is a strange duality. There are times when I feel empowered and times I feel very small. It is strength, confidence, and understanding, but it is also alienating, discouraging, and conflicting. It has taught me a lot about people and myself. It gave me a passion to help and support women and minorities in physics because it is for everyone. Diversity is what helps discovery thrive and I hope one day that it can be solely an uplifting experience.
Dr. Charis Koraka, post-doc
Curiosity, along with kindness and compassion are some of the greatest human qualities and those that make societies prosper. The quest of understanding the laws and properties of the universe, has always been a driving source and what made me turn to physics. With perseverance, nothing is impossible!
Wren Vetens, graduate student
My experience as a woman in physics has been marked by perseverance, community, and solidarity. There is still much to be done to achieve equality within the field of physics but we can do our part by standing up for and supporting each other, especially supporting our juniors and those who are disabled, LGBTQ+, and/or POC. I chose physics because I am compelled to always look deeper when I have questions about the nature of life, the universe, and everything. The very same drive that led me to study Physics also led me to coming to terms with my own identity as a queer person, nonbinary person, and transgender woman. Suffice to say, I would not be who I am today without physics or without my gender, and really the two are simply manifestations of that drive. I am currently wrapping up my PhD in experimental particle physics as a part of the CMS collaboration and hoping to graduate this year. My research topic is a search for the unique signature of a long-lived composite particle made of six quarks, which could in principle be produced at the LHC and detected with the CMS detector.
Prof. Tulika Bose
I am an experimental particle physicist working on the CMS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider. I love being part of a large international physics collaboration looking to answer some of the most fundamental questions in physics today – what is responsible for dark matter ? What is the matter-antimatter asymmetry in our universe due to ? Are there new exotic particles out there ? We try to answer these questions using our detector, cutting-edge instrumentation, modern software (incorporating Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning) and high-performance computing!
I study plasma astrophysics: how electric and magnetic fields interact with charged particles in astrophysical systems. This is an incredibly broad field and I enjoy all of it – how sunspots and solar flares work, how a single proton can acquire the energy of a hard hit tennis ball, and what the blotchy rings imaged around supermassive black holes are really telling us, to give just a few examples.
Having the time and capacity to study these things has been an incredible privilege. I’m grateful to my parents, who thought my mind was worth developing, and to my many wonderful teachers, colleagues, and students – I hope I do as well by them as they did and do by me. I’m grateful to the social infrastructure that gave me food, water, and shelter, cured my illnesses, and allowed me reproductive freedom of choice so I could become a person who lives her dreams.
Haddie McLean, outreach specialist
I love that my job allows me to bring physics to children, our next generation of scientists. I want to show them that physics is fun and it’s for everyone. I hope to inspire them to pursue a career in science.
IceCube analysis indicates there are many high-energy astrophysical neutrino sources
Back in 2013, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory—a cubic-kilometer neutrino detector embedded in Antarctic ice—announced the first observation of high-energy (above 100 TeV) neutrinos originating from outside our solar system, spawning a new age in astronomy. Four years later, on September 22, 2017, a high-energy neutrino event was detected coincident with a gamma-ray flare from a cosmic particle accelerator, a blazar known as TXS 0506+056. The coincident observation provided the first evidence for an extragalactic source of high-energy neutrinos.
The identification of this source was possible thanks to IceCube’s real-time high-energy neutrino alert program, which notifies the community of directions and energies of individual neutrinos that are most likely to have come from astrophysical sources. These alerts trigger follow-up observations of electromagnetic waves from radio up to gamma-ray, aimed at pinpointing a possible astrophysical source of high-energy neutrinos. However, the sources of the vast majority of the measured diffuse flux of astrophysical neutrinos still remain a mystery, as do how many of those sources exist. Another mystery is whether the neutrino sources are steady or variable over time and, if variable, whether they vary over long or short time scales.
In a paper recently submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, the IceCube Collaboration presents a follow-up search that looked for additional, lower-energy events in the direction of the high-energy alert events. The analysis looked at low- and high-energy events from 2011-2020 and was conducted to search for the coincidence in different time scales from 1,000 seconds up to one decade. Although the researchers did not find an excess of low-energy events across the searched time scales, they were able to constrain the abundance of astrophysical neutrino sources in the universe.
This research also delves into the question of whether the astrophysical neutrino flux measured by IceCube is produced by a large number of weak sources or a small number of strong sources. To distinguish between the two possibilities, the researchers developed a statistical method that used two different sets of neutrinos: 1) alert events that have a high probability of being from an astrophysical source and 2) the gamma-ray follow-up (GFU) sample, where only about one to five out of 1,000 events per day are astrophysical.
“If there are a lot of GFU events in the direction of the alerts, that’s a sign that neutrino sources are producing a lot of detectable neutrinos, which would mean there are only a few, bright sources,” explained recent UW–Madison PhD student Alex Pizzuto, a lead on the analysis who is now a software engineer at Google. “If you don’t see a lot of GFU events in the direction of alerts, this is an indication of the opposite, that there are many, dim sources that are responsible for the flux of neutrinos that IceCube detects.”
They interpreted the results using a simulation tool called FIRESONG, which looks at populations of neutrino sources and calculates the flux from each of these sources. The simulation was then used to determine if the simulated sources might be responsible for producing a neutrino event.
“We did not find a clear excess of low-energy events associated with the high-energy alert events on any of the three time scales we analyzed,” said Justin Vandenbroucke, a physics professor at UW–Madison and colead of the analysis. “This implies that there are many astrophysical neutrino sources because, if there were few, we would detect additional events accompanying the high-energy alerts.”
Future analyses will take advantage of larger IceCube data sets and higher quality data from improved calibration methods. With the completion of the larger next-generation telescope, IceCube-Gen2, researchers will be able to detect even more dim neutrino sources. Even knowing the abundance of sources could provide important constraints on the identity of the sources.
“The future is very exciting as this analysis shows that planned improvements might reveal more astrophysical sources and populations,” said Abhishek Desai, postdoctoral fellow at UW–Madison and co-lead of the analysis. “This will be due to better event localization, which is already being studied and should be optimized in the near future.”
+ info “Constraints on populations of neutrino sources from searches in the directions of IceCube neutrino alerts,” The IceCube Collaboration: R. Abbasi et al. Submitted to TheAstrophysical Journal. arxiv.org/abs/2210.04930.
Decades of work at UW–Madison underpin discovery of corona protecting Milky Way’s neighboring galaxies
Two dwarf galaxies circling our Milky Way, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, are losing a trail of gaseous debris called the Magellanic Stream. New research shows that a shield of warm gas is protecting the Magellanic Clouds from losing even more debris — a conclusion that caps decades of investigation, theorizing and meticulous data-hunting by astronomers working and training at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The findings, published recently in the journal Nature, come courtesy of quasars at the center of 28 distant galaxies. These extremely bright parts of galaxies shine through the gas that forms a buffer, or corona, that protects the Magellanic Clouds from the pull of the Milky Way’s gravity.
“We use a quasar as a light bulb,” says Bart Wakker, senior scientist in UW–Madison’s Astronomy Department. “If there is gas at a certain place between us and the quasar, the gas will produce an absorption line that tells us the composition of the clouds, their velocity and the amount of material in the clouds. And, by looking at different ions, we can study the temperature and density of the clouds.”
The temperature, location and composition — silicon, carbon and oxygen — of the gases that shadow the passing light of the quasars are consistent with the gaseous corona theorized in another study published in 2020 by UW–Madison physics graduate student Scott Lucchini, Astronomy professors Elena D’Onghia and Ellen Zweibel and UW–Madison alumni Andrew Fox and Chad Bustard, among others.
That work explained the expected properties of the Magellanic Stream by including the effects of dark matter: “The existing models of the formation of the Magellanic Stream are outdated because they can’t account for its mass,” Lucchini said in 2020.
“Our first Nature paper showed the theoretical developments, predicting the size, location and movement of the corona’s gases,” says Fox, now an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and, with Lucchini, a co-author of both studies.
The new discovery is a collaboration with a team that includes its own stream of former UW–Madison researchers pulled out into the world through the 1990s and 2000s — former graduate students Dhanesh Krishnarao, who is leading the work and is now a professor at Colorado College, David French, now scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, and Christopher Howk, now a professor at the University of Notre Dame — and former UW–Madison postdoctoral researcher Nicolas Lehner, also a Notre Dame professor.
UW–Madison research leading to the new discovery dates back at least to an inkling of hot gases seen in a study of stars in the Magellanic Cloud published in 1980 by the late astronomy professor Blair Savage and his then-postdoc Klaas de Boer.
“All that fell into place to allow us to look for data from the Hubble Space Telescope and a satellite called the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, FUSE — which UW also played an important role in developing,” Wakker says. “We could reinterpret that old data, collected for many different reasons, in a new way to find what we needed to confirm the existence of a warm corona around the Magellanic Clouds.”
“We solved the big questions. There are always details to work out, and people to convince,” D’Onghia says. “But this is a real Wisconsin achievement. There aren’t many times where you can work together to predict something new and then also have the ability to spot it, to collect the compelling evidence that it exists.”
Two UW–Madison graduate students, including physics grad student Margaret Fortman, have been awarded 2022 Google Fellowships to pursue cutting-edge research. Fortman received the 2022 Google Fellowship in Quantum Computing, one of only four awarded.
Google created the PhD Fellowship Program to recognize outstanding graduate students doing exceptional and innovative research in areas relevant to computer science and related fields. The fellowship attracts highly competitive applicants from around the world.
“These awards have been presented to exemplary PhD students in computer science and related fields,” Google said in its announcement. “We have given these students unique fellowships to acknowledge their contributions to their areas of specialty and provide funding for their education and research. We look forward to working closely with them as they continue to become leaders in their respective fields.”
The program begins in July when students are connected to a mentor from Google Research. The fellowship covers full tuition, fees, and a stipend for the academic year. Fellows are also encouraged to attend Google’s annual Global Fellowship Summit in the summer.
Fortman works to diagnose noise interference in quantum bits
Fortman, whose PhD research in Victor Brar’s group specializes in quantum computing, will use the fellowship support to develop a diagnostic tool to probe the source of noise in superconducting quantum bits, or qubits.
Quantum computing has the potential to solve problems that are difficult for standard computers, Fortman said, but the field has challenges to solve first.
“The leading candidate we have for making a quantum computer right now is superconducting qubits,” Fortman said. “But those are currently facing unavoidable noise that we get in those devices, which can actually come from the qubit material itself.”
Fortman works with a low-temperature ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope on the UW–Madison campus to develop a microscopic understanding of the origins of noise in qubits. She fabricates superconductors to examine under the microscope to identify the source of the noise, and hopefully be able to develop a solution for that interference.
In her time as a graduate student at UW–Madison, Fortman said she has enjoyed collaborating with colleagues in her lab and across campus.
“It’s pretty cool to be somewhere where world-renowned research is happening and to be involved with that,” she said. “My PI and I work in collaborations with other PIs at the university and they’re all doing very important research, and so it’s really cool to be a part of that.”
Fortman is excited to have a mentor at Google through the PhD Fellowship, having been paired with someone who has a similar disciplinary background and who is a research scientist with Google Quantum AI.
“He can be a resource in debugging some parts of my project, as well as general mentorship and advice on being a PhD student, and advice for future career goals,” Fortman said.
The second UW–Madison student who earned this honor is computer sciences PhD student Shashank Rajput, who received the 2022 Google Fellowship in Machine Learning.
X(ray) marks the spot in elemental analysis of 15th century printing press methods
In 15th century Germany, Johannes Gutenberg developed a printing press, a machine that allowed for mass production of texts. It is considered by many to be one of the most significant technological advancements of the last millennium.
Though Gutenberg often receives credit as the inventor of the printing press, sometime earlier, roughly 5,000 miles away, Koreans had already developed a movable-type printing press.
There is no question that East Asians were first. There is also no question that Gutenberg’s invention in Europe had a far greater impact.
He adds: “But even if we don’t, we can learn a lot about early printing methods, and that will already be a big insight.”
These texts include pages from a Gutenberg bible and Confucian texts, and they’re helping investigate these questions. The team includes 15th century Korean texts experts, Gutenberg experts, paper experts, ink experts and many more.
How did two physicists end up participating in a seemingly very non-physics cultural heritage project? Bergmann had previously worked on other historical text analyses, where he pioneered the application of a technique known as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging.
In XRF imaging, a powerful machine called a synchrotron sends an intense and very small X-ray beam — about the diameter of a human hair — at a page of text at a 45-degree angle. The beam excites electrons in the atoms that make up the text, requiring another electron to fill in the space left by the first (all matter is made up of atoms, which contain even smaller components called electrons).
The second electron loses energy in the process, and that energy is released as a small flash of light. A detector placed strategically nearby picks up that light, or its X-ray fluorescence, and measures both its intensity and the part of the light spectrum to which it belongs.
“Every single element on the periodic table emits an X-ray fluorescence spectrum that is unique to that atom when hit with a high-energy X-ray. Based on its ‘color,’ we know exactly which element is present,” says Gardezi. “It’s a very high-precision instrument that tells you all the elements that are at every location in a sample.”
With this information, researchers can effectively create an elemental map of the document. By rapidly scanning a page across the X-ray beam, they can create a record of the XRF spectrum at each pixel. One page can produce several million XRF spectra.
This summer, Bergmann and Gardezi were part of a team that used XRF scanning at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California to produce elemental maps of several large areas from original pages of a first-edition, 42-line Gutenberg Bible (dating back to 1450 to 1455 A.D.) and from Korean texts dating back to the early part of that. century.
They scanned the texts at a rate of around one pixel every 10 milliseconds, then filtered the data by elemental signature, providing high-resolution maps of which elements are present and in what relative quantities.
In a way, the work is like digging for treasure from an old map — Gardezi says the researchers do not know exactly what they are looking for, but they are most interested in the unexpected.
For example, she recently presented early results of scans to the team, to demonstrate the approach had worked and that the researchers could separate out different elements. It turns out this isn’t what the team found most interesting.
“Instead, these scholars spent 15-to-20 minutes talking about, ‘Why is (this element) present?’ and coming up with hypotheses,” Gardezi says. “As physicists, we wouldn’t even recognize if something is surprising or not. It’s really this interdisciplinary aspect that tells us what to look for, what the smoking gun is.”
As more questions arise based on the elemental analyses, Bergmann and Gardezi will help guide the team to address those questions quantitatively. They are already planning to recreate some early printings in the lab — with known types, papers and inks — then compare these XRF scans with the originals.
The research may never definitively determine if Gutenberg knew about the Korean presses or if he developed his press independently. But without access to the original presses themselves, these texts hold the only clues to understanding the nature of these transformative machines.
“The more you read about it, the more you learn that there is less certainty about several things related to early printing presses,” Bergmann says. “Maybe this technique will allow us to view these prints as a time capsule and gain invaluable insight into this watershed moment in human history.”