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2020 Apker Award Finalists

September 8, 2020 | Leah Poffenberger

On August 9 and 10, seven bright young physicists presented their research to the selection committee for the LeRoy Apker Award, given in recognition for outstanding achievement in physics by undergraduate students. This annual selection meeting is typically held in Washington, DC, but this year the Apker Award finalists set out to impress a panel of distinguished physicists with their talks given over Zoom.

This year’s Apker Selection Meeting featured three finalists from non-PhD granting institutions, who presented on August 9, and four finalists from PhD granting institutions, who gave their talks on August 10. Over the two-day meeting, the finalists wowed the selection committee with their research topics ranging from the search for dark matter to understanding exotic materials.

The 2020 Apker Award finalists are (in order of presentation): Gerrit Farren (Haverford College), EliseAnne Koskelo (Pomona College), Ryan Beman McMillan (Amherst College), Joseph Farah (University of Massachusetts Boston), Cara Giovanetti (Princeton University), Salvatore David Pace (Boston University), and Nicholas Poniatowski (University of Maryland).

Each finalist will receive an honorarium of $2,000, $1,000 for their undergraduate institution’s physics department in support of undergraduate research, and a certificate. Two winners, chosen by the Selection Committee, will each receive an award of $5,000 for themselves, $5,000 for their undergraduate physics department, a certificate, and reimbursement for travel to a future APS meeting to give an invited talk on their research. The recipients of this year’s LeRoy Apker Award will be announced in October.

In thirty-minute talks, each finalist had the chance to present their undergraduate research, paying special attention to their direct contributions, and to demonstrate knowledge in their respective fields. After each talk, the Selection Committee had 15 minutes to ask the finalists questions.

To start off the meeting, Farren spoke on his research efforts to untangle the mystery of dark matter by placing constraints on axions, a popular dark matter candidate. Using information on the dynamics of the structure of the cosmic microwave background and how axions would contribute to those structures, Farren has been able to establish possible mass constraints on the axion and demonstrate its potential as a dark matter particle.

Next, Koskelo presented an effort to transform noise from a nuisance to a tool to enhance the resolution of high-resolution imaging techniques. Her work culminated in an analytical model of stochastic resonance in thermoreflectance imaging that can help maximize resolution and lower the noise floor in future experiments.

McMillan rounded out the first day of talks, sharing his investigations of the DNA condensation process for applications in the fabrication of biomolecular origami nanostructures. His research focused on the role of protamine proteins in formation of DNA multi-loop toroid structures.

The second day of the Apker Selection Meeting kicked off with Farah sharing his research into better characterizing the shape of black hole shadows. With inspiration drawn from a shadow he saw in a teacup, Farah helped to develop a better approximation for the black hole shadow shape which can contribute to better analysis, modeling, and imaging of black holes.

Giovanetti followed with a talk on her use of known cosmological parameters to place constraints on the mass of ultra-light, sub-GeV dark matter. Her research used existing data on the expansion rate of the universe and the CMB power spectrum to model what dark matter mass candidates would allow for the universe we see today, ruling out some mass ranges that are currently being investigated by experiments.

Next, Pace presented his research in theoretical condensed matter physics, which was an effort to further understand quantum spin ice, a class of rare-earth pyrochlore magnets. Pace helped develop models of quantum spin ice at low, previously unmodeled energies and developed calculation methods to determine the electrodynamic interactions within the material.

To finish out the selection meeting, Poniatowski spoke on his work delving into behavior of cuprates in their strange metal state—a state where electrical resistance is linked to temperature. Through theoretical analysis and then experimentation with specially grown cuprates, Poniatowski helped to further the understanding of strange metals for their use as high temperature superconductors.

For more on the APS LeRoy Apker Award, which is made possible through a donation by Jean Dickey Apker, visit the Apker Award Page.

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