Dr. Rupak Mahapatra, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M University, has been recognized with a 2010 United States Department of Energy Early Career Research Award for his achievements and future potential in high-energy particle physics research.
Mahapatra, who studies dark matter and, specifically, detection of the weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) it is believed to consist of, is among 69 early career scientists nationwide and one of four from Texas selected to receive a total of $85 million in funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The five-year research grants, announced last week by DOE Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, are part of the DOE’s new Early Career Research Program designed to strengthen the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the early years of their careers — a critical stage with great impact on a scientist’s later, more formative work.
“This investment reflects the Administration’s strong commitment to creating jobs and new industries through scientific innovation,” Chu said. “Strong support of scientists in the early career years is crucial to renewing America’s scientific workforce and ensuring U.S. leadership in discovery and innovation for many years to come.”
Eligible researchers must be untenured, tenure-track assistant professors at U.S. academic institutions or full-time employees at DOE national laboratories with a Ph.D. earned within the past 10 years. Their research topics also must fall within the scope of the Department’s Office of Science’s six major program offices: advanced scientific computing research; basic energy sciences; biological and environmental research; fusion energy sciences; high-energy physics or nuclear physics. Special consideration was given to projects that directly promote the objectives of the ARRA — job creation, preservation and economic recovery.
Mahapatra was awarded a total of $750,000 over five years by the DOE’s Office of High-Energy Physics for his proposal, “Ton Scale Germanium: Beyond Zeptobarn WIMP Cross-section.” His proposal was selected from a pool of about 1,750 university- and national laboratory-based applicants through peer review by outside scientific experts.
“It’s the biggest news that can come for an early-career scientist,” Mahapatra says. “It’s unbelievably good news, and I’m really excited to have received this award.”
The award is a momentous step forward for Mahapatra, already widely regarded as an expert in high-energy particle physics and dark matter, a mysterious substance thought to comprise about one-fifth of the energy and 85 percent of all matter in the Universe. He came to Texas A&M in December 2008 after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota (2000) and completing postdoctoral work at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During the past decade, he has made several notable contributions to dark-matter investigation, including designing and building particle detectors for the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment, for which he serves as a principal investigator at Texas A&M. Conducted a half-mile underground in a mine in Soudan, Minn., and managed by the DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the CDMS experiment uses advanced detector technology and analysis to enable cryogenically cooled Germanium and Silicon targets to search for the rare recoil of dark matter particles.
Thanks to the additional financial support of his DOE grant, Mahapatra expects Texas A&M to take on a lead role in dark matter research as well as the CDMS experiment’s next phase, dubbed the SuperCDMS experiment and involving larger, more advanced detectors currently being developed by his team.
“My proposal was to significantly improve the current detector technology as established by Stanford University and to fabricate the next-generation detectors,” he explains. “My plan in the next five years is to eventually move the dark matter effort from its main base at Stanford University to Texas A&M and to have A&M become the centerpiece for building particle detectors. This award really provides the boost we need to do that.”
Optimistic about the future of uncovering dark matter — what he describes as “one of physics’ most important quests” — Mahapatra says he is grateful for the opportunity to conduct his research at Texas A&M.
“I want to thank the College of Science for all of the support as well George Mitchell for his contributions to the Department of Physics and Astronomy which will really move us ahead in the next few years,” Mahapatra adds. “This is what made it possible for [me to win] this award.”
Find more information on the U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Research Program and a complete list of award winners.
Learn more about Mahapatra’s research and Texas A&M’s involvement in the CDMS experiment.