The Catholic University of America

Dec. 21, 2015

Physics Professor Receives Major Federal Grant for Research

  Tanja Horn


The nuclear physics group at The Catholic University of America, led by Associate Professor Tanja Horn, has been awarded a federal grant of $750,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a detection system that will provide a novel method for unveiling the mysteries of the fundamental structure of matter. In the field of nuclear science, the NSF typically approves only one or two Major Research Instrumentation projects a year.

The funding, over the course of three years, will enable Horn’s team to develop the first PbWO4-crystal based, rotable Neutral Particle Spectrometer (NPS). This instrument will be a central part of the CUA nuclear physics group’s program at the Jefferson Laboratory, one of the Nation’s flagship nuclear physics laboratories.

The NPS project will allow an international collaboration led by CUA, including 33 scientists from 14 institutions in seven countries, to perform cutting-edge research.

The NPS consists of a 3-foot by 3-foot highly segmented particle detector made from scintillating crystals preceded by a magnet used to sweep away particles other than those of interest. Horn will construct this device at the nuclear physics labs on campus with the help of undergraduate and graduate students, providing students with hands-on experience in advanced scientific research and techniques.

The NPS project will require collaboration with the University’s Vitreous State Laboratory (VSL), which was also essential for Horn’s previous research instrumentation project. Detailed measurements of the material properties of the detector’s scintillating crystals are made possible by taking advantage of the resources and expertise available in VSL.

Once the construction is completed the instrument will be transported to the Jefferson Laboratory.

The NPS project will continue the success of the recently completed $1 million aerogel Cherenkov detector project, which was also led by CUA. The project was focused on building a detector that identifies particles traveling faster than the speed of light in the detector medium by the shock wave in the electromagnetic field (Cherenkov radiation) that they emit. This detector is used to study reactions with particles carrying a so-called strange quark, which, although elusive, is one of the fundamental building blocks of matter.

This project provided training for 19 high school students, 13 undergraduate students, three graduate students, and two postdoctoral students. The project resulted in 28 research publications authored by students. Students from the group have received prestigious awards — the 2013 undergraduate Goldwater Scholar Award and the 2014 and 2015 Jefferson Science Associates Graduate Fellowships.

Student participation is a cornerstone of Horn’s work. “It is important in any field to pass along the knowledge and involve the next generation,” says Horn. Working in teams on research projects, she says, is a great learning tool for students in an environment in which they have minimal room for error.

Horn has been teaching physics at CUA since 2009 and has published more than 50 scholarly and peer reviewed articles and has given more than 30 invited talks at various National and International Conferences.
She has been awarded over $2 million in research funding since she joined the physics faculty. In 2011, she received CUA’s Young Faculty Scholar Award.




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