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Professor Earns NSF CAREER Grant to Advance Nuclear Physics Research

Grant will also provide access to high-level research for students typically underrepresented in laboratory science

Posted in: Homepage News, Research, Science and Technology

Two men in lab coats under the yellow light of the lab.
Assistant Physics Professor Kent Leung, left, and Eric Swanson, a Physics major, discuss experiments in the nuclear physics lab’s “clean room.” Swanson will conduct research at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee this summer.

Montclair State University Assistant Physics Professor Kent Leung and the students in his nuclear physics lab are asking big questions about the universe. Questions like: “How did matter emerge following the Big Bang?” “Are there any undiscovered particles and forces out there?” and “How do we describe the forces that hold neutrons together?” With these questions and others, they’re looking to further understand the vital role neutrons play in the universe.

With the help of a five-year $616,289 CAREER Grant from the National Science Foundation, Leung aims to create a new experimental nuclear physics research program that will work toward finding answers to those questions.

“Neutrons participate in all four fundamental forces of nature – and perhaps in undiscovered forces too – making them an ideal system for expanding our knowledge in fields spanning nuclear physics, particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology,” Leung says. “Despite being the most abundant subatomic particle on Earth, neutrons have remained elusive experimentally because of their lack of electric charge and limited lifetime outside the atom before decaying. However, these same properties make them an ideal testbed and probe for new science.”

The NSF CAREER grant builds on a five-year $436,000 grant Leung was awarded last September from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which supports equipment for research into the neutron’s extremely small electric dipole moment, which has never been observed. The electric dipole moment is a measure of how electric charge is distributed within a neutron. Determining its value could shed light on fundamental problems in physics, including how more matter than antimatter was leftover after the Big Bang or the existence of new particles that might explain dark matter.

The research is performed as part of two collaborations: the neutron Electric Dipole Moment at the Spallation Neutron Source and the Compton scattering at the High Intensity Gamma Ray Source. These collaborations combine the expertise of top scientists from universities and national laboratories spanning North America (22 institutes in the former and 10 in the latter) to work toward shared scientific goals.

Physics Professor Kent Leung
Physics Professor Kent Leung’s CAREER Grant from the National Science Foundation will help fund a new experimental nuclear physics program at Montclair State University.

“What I find exciting about my field is that I get to build state-of-the-art scientific instruments in my lab, take them to big particle accelerators across the country, analyze and pore over data with my collaborators – all to try to answer big questions about our universe,” Leung says.

As part of this new program, Leung seeks to support students before, during and after their time at Montclair State University, offering research experiences in nuclear, particle and quantum physics to students who don’t typically have such opportunities.

“Students from Bergen and other nearby community colleges will be offered funded summer research opportunities in Montclair’s newly renovated nuclear physics lab to build skills, confidence and contacts at a four-year university,” he says.

A seated woman gestures at a computer monitor as a standing man looks on.
Sophomore Sarah Estupinan-Jimenez shows Leung her data on the spring-like forces inside protons and neutrons that hold them together. Estupinan-Jimenez will conduct a fully funded, 10-week research internship at Duke University this summer.

Part of the NSF CAREER grant will fund Montclair undergraduates conducting summer research at the Triangle Universities Nuclear Lab, hosted by Duke University, as well as at the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos National Labs. These national facilities are considered among the crown jewels of the nation’s research and innovation ecosystem.

“Our undergraduates will interact with graduate students and faculty from world-class universities, reducing their entry barrier for advanced degrees,” says Leung. “Through their research, students will develop hands-on skills relevant to high-tech sectors such as cryogenics, medical imaging instrumentation, ultra-high vacuum technologies and quantum information science.”

Sophomore Sarah Estupinan-Jimenez, who has been analyzing data on cryogenic liquid helium and hydrogen experiments as a research project, will conduct research at a particle accelerator at Duke University this summer. She will also participate in courses on nuclear and particle physics, career development and scientific communication alongside a cohort of a dozen students from across the country. She will then bring her newly acquired experiences and skills back to Montclair in the fall.

“We’re looking to understand how nuclear matter interacts in nature, which makes up everything that exists around us,” says Estupinan-Jimenez, who credits Leung with helping her get to a place to be able to earn the Duke research spot. “He really focuses us on going beyond what’s required and pushing for excellence.”

Eric Swanson, a sophomore Physics major, will be working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee this summer as part of a yearlong funded fellowship. He will further work he started with Leung on measuring protons in polymers containing different isotopes of hydrogen with nuclear magnetic resonance.

“It’s a large joining effort to try to increase our ability to measure neutrons,” which is an exciting prospect for Swanson, who wants to be a nuclear physicist some day.

In addition to his new research and student-mentoring program, Leung plans to launch a gen-ed course at Montclair State University titled “Physics for Future Presidents” to introduce physics’ ability to address key societal challenges.

A standing man gestures at scientific equipment on a table as a seated woman looks on.
Junior Earth and Environmental Science major and Physics minor Tori Woznick, right, will be working with Leung this summer.

Junior Earth and Environmental Science major Tori Woznick, who is minoring in Physics, applied to work in the lab with Leung this summer after taking a physics course with him. She will be co-mentored by Assistant Chemistry Professor Amrita Sarkar this summer as a interdisciplinary effort on synthesizing the ultra-high purity polymers required in nuclear physics experiments.

“He genuinely cares about the students he teaches,” she says. “And I think it’s going to be a great learning experience.”

Students training with Leung in the nuclear physics lab are learning hands-on skills relevant to high-tech sectors that College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings says will be useful when they enter the workforce or continue with graduate studies.

“Dr. Leung is an academic role model who values both research and education, and we are proud of the work he is doing to include underrepresented students in the lab,” Billings says. “His efforts are a wonderful example of how Montclair State University leads the way in providing access and excellence for students in STEM education.”

Story by Editorial Director Laura Griffin. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters.

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