Developing Detectors for Scientific Research and Medicine

  • Cynthia Keppel

Jefferson Lab’s Cynthia Keppel will receive $1 million for research as a newly appointed U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Distinguished Scientist Fellow

NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Cynthia Keppel, leader of Experimental Halls A and C at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, has been named a DOE Office of Science Distinguished Scientist Fellow. She is one of three 2020 DOE National Laboratory scientist fellows who will receive $1 million to devote to a project of her choosing over the next three years.

“It feels beyond great to receive this recognition!” Keppel exclaimed. “Imagine waking up one day and your lab director calls to say guess what… It seemed almost unreal, definitely one of the best surprise calls ever.”

According to the DOE announcement, Keppel received the highly competitive award for her “contributions to the exploration of the quark structure of hadrons and nuclei through electron scattering, and creating successful collaborations across disciplines, including electron and neutrino scattering, theory and experiment, and nuclear and medical applications.”

Jefferson Lab Director Stuart Henderson said, “It’s fantastic to see Cynthia recognized for her scientific accomplishments in nuclear physics and for the work she has done in bringing together researchers from different disciplines to tackle tough problems. Her work expands the boundaries of our knowledge and saves lives at the same time.”

Keppel plans to use the award to bring together a collaboration of six institutions to further develop new detector technologies to benefit both nuclear physics research and cancer radiation therapy. The collaboration will work to dramatically improve GEM detector systems. Primarily used in nuclear and particle physics, GEM or gas electron multiplier detector systems are designed to allow for precise detection of subatomic particles.

“These are high spatial resolution detectors, so they can differentiate between particle positions quite clearly. Think of a picture going from blurry to clear by using more pixels to cover an area; that is improved spatial resolution. They are also designed to take a smaller signal and amplify it, while maintaining the excellent spatial resolution,” she said.

This last property, while a plus for most nuclear and particle physics experiments, is a hindrance to some new potential applications of GEM technology. When they are bombarded with a lot of particles too quickly, they lose their ability to differentiate between individual particles in time.

Keppel and her colleagues plan to develop and implement several ideas for never-before-attempted technologies to modify the detectors, so that they still provide high-precision spatial resolution but may be installed in very high-rate environments. The planned detector developments are well-matched to other ideas for speeding up the GEM systems’ ability to record data by adapting newer electronics to the GEM systems.

“I don’t think these improvements were even possible before some of the newer electronics that we’re now seeing for readout were made available,” Keppel explained.

She says, if successful, these and other planned improvements will pay off big for nuclear physicists who are now in the planning stages for several technically difficult, future experiments.

“We’ve been challenged from quite a few angles to work on this. There are many upcoming nuclear physics experiments that would benefit from improving these detector systems, for example enabling new types of effective targets for nuclear physics studies of structures beyond the protons and neutrons,” she said.

She says the improved detectors would also allow for more precise targeting for cancer patients who are being treated with proton and other radiation therapies. Installing GEMs in the proton therapy suite would allow doctors to not only use proton radiation to treat cancer, but also to provide high-resolution imaging of patients’ tumors and organs around the cancer.

With the one-time total award of $1 million in funding, DOE Office of Science Distinguished Scientist Fellows are expected to develop, sustain and promote scientific and academic excellence in research through collaborations between institutions of higher education and national laboratories.

Of the six institutions included in Keppel’s project, five are based in Virginia. The institutions involved in the project include two research institutions: Jefferson Lab and the University of Virginia. Also involved are two Historically Black Colleges and Universities: Hampton University and Virginia Union University. Finally, two clinical cancer research and treatment centers are involved: the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute and the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan.

Keppel currently manages two of the four experimental halls in Jefferson Lab’s Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility, a DOE User Facility. She is a prominent, award-winning nuclear physicist and a spokesperson for 11 Jefferson Lab experiments focusing broadly on precision proton/neutron structure studies and novel detection techniques.

She is the 2019 Distinguished Lecturer on the Application of Physics for the American Physical Society Forum on Industrial and Applied Physics. She is an APS Fellow, and her intellectual property has received both Medical Technology Breakthrough and R&D 100 awards (2018). She received the APS SESAPS Francis G. Slack Award (2016), and the Virginia Outstanding Faculty (2000) and Outstanding Scientist (2011) awards. She received an NSF CAREER award while in a previous joint position as an endowed professor at Hampton University and Jefferson Lab staff scientist.

At Hampton University, she served as director of the HU Nuclear and High Energy Physics Research Center. She serves as senior executive director of the HU Proton Therapy Institute (consulting), which she helped to establish, and is community faculty at the Eastern Virginia Medical School.

She earned her Ph.D. in 1995 from The American University for research at the DOE’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, and her B.A. in 1984 from St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD. She has served on the APS DNP Executive and Program Committees, the NIH National Advisory Research Resources Council, the Board of the Pediatric Proton Foundation, and as chair of the National Nuclear Physics Summer School Committee. She served as director of the Hampton University Graduate Studies program at Jefferson Lab Summer School for more than a decade. She is an author of more than 150 peer-reviewed scientific publications and is active in applying nuclear physics techniques to medical technology development, where she holds several patents.

Further Reading
Department of Energy Names Three Office of Science Distinguished Scientists Fellows
From the Early Universe, to Protons, to Cancer Therapy
Jefferson Lab Scientist Awarded Distinguished Lectureship
Jefferson Lab-Affiliated Researchers Honored as APS Fellows
Award-Winning Nuclear Physics Technology Monitors Cancer Treatments
JLab Researcher Receives Award for Excellence in Service to Physics
Distinguished Hampton University Professor Joins Jefferson Lab as Experimental Hall Leader
Virginia Outstanding Scientists of 2011 Announced

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, 757-269-7263,


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