APS News

APS Selects Mohta as New Congressional Fellow

A mathematical physicist from Cambridge, Massachusetts, is the new APS Congressional Fellow for 2005-2006. Vivek Mohta, who recently completed his graduate study at Harvard University, will spend the next year broadening his congressional experience through direct involvement with the legislative and political process.

Vivek Mohta
Vivek Mohta

The APS Congressional Fellowship program is intended to provide a public service by making individuals with scientific knowledge and skills available to members of Congress. In turn, the program enables the scientists selected to gain experience in the political process.

Mohta received BS degrees in both mathematics and physics from MIT in 1999, and recently earned a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University with a thesis on applications of chiral perturbation theory, with a particular emphasis on pentaquark masses.

Quarks normally exist in groups of two (mesons) or three (baryons), but the theory of quantum chromodynamics holds that groupings of four quarks and one anti-quark should be possible. In 2003, a research group in Japan announced the first experimental evidence for a pentaquark, a finding that was quickly confirmed by other groups who reported sightings of the elusive particle. But other studies produced null results, stirring up a controversy over the existence of the five-quark states. The most recent experimental results from CEBAF at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility also found no evidence for the pentaquark, as reported at the 2005 APS April meeting in Tampa, Florida (see APS News, June 2005).

The brisk debate surrounding the conflicting results is one reason Mohta chose to apply chiral perturbation to the pentaquark. “It’s one of those great examples of how science actually works, all that controversy and excitement,” he says, an experience that is so different from “the sterile picture that’s often presented in textbooks.”

Mohta has a long-standing interest in public service, having been active as an undergraduate at MIT in delivering food to homeless shelters in the Cambridge, MA area, as well as raising funds for education projects in underserved communities in India. “I was always interested in service, but I thought of it as a separate thing,” says Mohta; like his peers, he had his day job, and performed community service on evenings and weekends.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caused a shift in his thinking towards a more outward focus. “I had to stop and think about what I was doing and why I was doing it, and reflect on what effect my work would have on the world,” he says. He found himself volunteering more of his time, first to organizing panel discussions on foreign affairs, and later to the political arena. He was a volunteer for the gubernational campaign of Robert Reich, as well as for a local city council campaign.

Mohta soon found himself branching out into the political arena. In 2004, he was an organizer for South Asian Americans for Kerry. That same year, he also worked with an interdisciplinary non-proliferation study group as part of MIT’s Security Studies Program.

After completing his doctoral thesis, Mohta began looking at various opportunities for applying science to societal problems, and moving into science policy. That’s when he decided to apply for the APS fellowship. This summer, he is working at the National Academy of Science’s Committee on International Security and Arms Control. “It’s a nice transition between academia and policy,” he says. “It’s an academic setting in which policy work is done.”

Following an intensive orientation process organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mohta will choose where to spend his fellowship year: either working in a Congressional office, or with one of the many associated committees. His policy interests include nuclear proliferation, and he would like to continue his work in that arena. However, “I also want to explore security-related issues beyond nuclear proliferation to see how it fits into the broader context,” he says.

For more information about the APS Congressional Fellowship program, see  http://www.aps.org/policy/fellowships/congressional.cfm.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff