Alumna wins a Department of Energy Early Career Research Award

Sowjanya Gollapinni, M.S. ‘09, Ph.D. ‘12, was pursuing a master’s in physics at the University of Hyderabad (UoH) in India when Wayne State University Associate Dean Dr. Ratna Naik, then the chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, paid UoH a visit. Naik gave a presentation on WSU, the physics department, its research programs, what life is like in the U.S. for international students and careers that are available after graduate school. 

“It was a very convincing presentation,” Gollapinni says. 

As a student specializing in particle physics theory, she was particularly interested in WSU’s strong particle physics program. After doing some of her own additional research, Gollapinni wrote Naik about her interest and the chair encouraged her to apply. Moving to a new country to pursue rigorous graduate studies is a huge decision, Gollapinni says, but Naik’s visit convinced her to take the leap. 

Gollapinni says her learning in India was much more theoretical. When she came to Wayne State, her research took an experimental focus, a welcome change that came with a sharp learning curve but also made her a better scientist. She largely credits her doctoral advisor, Dr. Paul Karchin, for helping make the transition as smooth as possible. 

“He was an outstanding teacher and mentor and a wonderful human being. He had immense patience and kindness towards students and truly strove for his students’ success.”

As a particle physics student, Gollapinni studied the field’s ultimate question: What is the world made of at the most fundamental level? Our understanding of what we know to be fundamental has changed over time, she says. 

“In the 19th century, we thought atoms were fundamental, but later we learned that they are made of even smaller particles called nucleons (protons and neutrons) and electrons. Today we know nucleons are not fundamental and that they are made up of what are called quarks.” 

Her doctoral research sought to find evidence that quarks, too, are made up of substructures. 

“Well, I ended up not finding any evidence for any structure inside quarks (if I did, I probably would have won a Nobel prize!), but it still was a very significant result excluding the energies where we cannot probe this yet.” 

As a student in Karchin’s group, which works on the Compact Muon Solenoid Experiment (CMS) at the CERN Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland, Gollapinni was a part of a different groundbreaking discovery: the Higgs boson - the particle that gives mass to other particles. 

“It was an amazing moment.” 

Although Gollapinni spent only about a month in Geneva throughout her entire program, yet cites it as her most impactful experience as a doctoral student. 

“When I was a student, CMS had roughly about 3000 collaborators from all around the world. Now I hear the number has gone up to 4000. It was my first time working in such a big collaborative environment. It was very interesting to see how people interact, meet, discuss and come together with the best science that they proudly announce to the world.” 

Gollapinni spent most of her Ph.D. at a U.S.-CMS hub at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, where students attended meetings, took part in CMS operator shifts, and interacted with the larger U.S.-CMS community. 

After completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Kansas State University, she now holds an adjunct faculty appointment at The University of Tennessee - Knoxville in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and recently became a senior scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico. 

This past summer she earned a prestigious Department of Energy Early Career Research Award. The funding will go toward building the LANL physics division’s Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) effort on which Gollapinni will take the lead. DUNE will be built at 1.5 miles underground in an abandoned gold mine in Lead, South Dakota and will receive neutrino particles from Fermilab 800 miles away. 

“The sheer size of the DUNE experiment (imagine a football stadium) and the precision with which it plans to make physics measurements is unprecedented and comes with many challenges from construction to data analysis. This is also what makes it most interesting to work on.” The experiment will attempt to answer why we live in a matter-dominated universe, she says. In a big way, DUNE is the culmination of years of research that began for Gollapinni at Wayne State. 

Her advice for aspiring physicists? 

Science is collaborative work, she says. “Diversity is integral to everything we do. Recognizing that and actively contributing towards building an inclusive work environment is a social responsibility of everyone who does science and is as important as the science we do.”

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