Center for Nuclear Femtography Theorist Awarded SESAPS 2019 Francis Slack Prize
Simonetta Liuti is recognized for her inexhaustible dedication to femtography research and guiding the next generation of physicists
NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Demonstrated dedication to nuclear physics and to opening doors to all who would contribute to the field have earned Simonetta Liuti the 2019 Francis Slack Prize, given by the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society (SESAPS). The award, which recognizes distinguished physicists in the southeastern United States who have made significant impacts within the physics community, was presented to Liuti at a ceremony in Charlottesville, Va. on Nov. 8.
Liuti is a professor of physics at the University of Virginia and is an active member of the community of nuclear physicists who conduct research at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, known as the Jefferson Lab Users Organization. She is also an executive committee member of the lab’s Center for Nuclear Femtography and a past chair of SESAPS.
Femtography is a composite word made of “femto,” which is a measurement scale referring to 10-15 meters and “graphy,” which refers to imaging, like photography or cartography. When Liuti describes her work in femtography, she likens it to the popular Dr. Seuss book, “Horton Hears a Who,” in which entire microscopic worlds exist on mere particles of dust.
“As human beings, we look up at the sky and we tend to look at ten or 12 orders of magnitude above us,” Liuti explains. “That distance is the extra-galactic scale and it’s far away from us. We know there’s a lot that we haven’t discovered out there. There’s a whole world happening far, far away. Thinking about it equivalently, there are whole worlds to explore in the other direction—distances that are very small compared to the distances that we are used to imagining in far-away galaxies. With femtography, we are looking at the structure of matter at incredibly tiny scales.”
In her research, Liuti divides her efforts between working toward designing an effective microscope that would enable researchers to more effectively study the structure of particles and between truly understanding the origin of mass and spin.
“Spin is one of those quantities that is difficult to render,” she said.
However, through the outreach arm of the Center for Nuclear Femtography based at the University of Virginia, her team has been able to create a virtual reality tool that mimics the functionality of an electron microscope for the observer.
“You can follow an electron as if you’re riding on top of it,” she explains. “This tool can be used by schools and museums for education, and we’re also developing another aspect of this tool that we will be able to use to explore our data in 3D.”
Her leadership within the field of physics also extends beyond the discipline of femtography to include significant efforts to promote women and minority opportunities in physics, as well as focusing on ushering in the next generation of physicists through undergraduate inclusion in her research. One way that she furthers those goals it to ensure to include undergraduate students who work alongside other faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.
“I like to put the emphasis on the young people, because this is the world that they will be figuring out,” she says. “They’ll be continuing this research decades from now. They also come out with the best and most novel ideas. They’ve been a powerful resource—not just workforce—but resource in the sense of novelty of ideas and they’ve helped shape the thinking process.”
As chair of the SESAPS group, Liuti took the initiative to address the necessity of promoting women and minorities in physics.
“Physics is largely a white, male world,” observes Liuti. “We are missing out. I believe that there’s an enormous potential out there that lies in the underrepresented minorities that we are not tapping into. It’s a matter of creating opportunities for minorities and women.”
Indeed, according to the American Physical Society, fewer than eight percent of Ph.D.s in physics go to minorities, including African Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indian/Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. And according to the American Institute of Physics, while women earn more than half of all bachelor’s degrees, just 21% of bachelor’s degrees in physics go to women, and women make up only 16% of faculty members in physics departments.
To help pave the way for more women in physics, Liuti participated in organizing the southeastern branch of the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CuWiP) in January 2019.
“CuWiP is a three-day conference that happens at ten sites in the U.S. and Canada,” she explains. “We have a keynote speaker, job fairs, graduate school fairs, inspirational talks from women in physics and panels. I planned downtime for students so that they had a chance to connect with one another. Then, we have one moment in which we all connected with women from the nine other conferences through the internet. All the women wave at a camera pointed towards each auditorium. It was a fun moment, and I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
For Liuti, physics and her work with the Center for Nuclear Femtography based at the University of Virginia is all-encompassing, occupying her thoughts and activities 24/7.
“I think that’s why I was nominated for this award,” she laughs. “My colleagues may have nominated me because they see how hard I’ve been working on the center and on the conference last year. I’ve been here working with the undergrads and organizing the conference around-the-clock.”
More about the Francis G. Slack Award
According to the APS web site, the Francis G. Slack Award was created to honor excellence in service to physics in the southeastern U.S. The award is named for Francis G. Slack, a distinguished Vanderbilt University scientist who was a charter member of the Southeastern Section and who contributed significantly to its development. The award recognizes those who have worked unselfishly to bring about significant new research facilities to the region, or significantly raised the stature of physics in the region or the nation through a range of leadership, service or outreach efforts.
By Carrie Rogers
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