Investigating an Imbalanced Universe

  • Videoconferencing call with M/FURA students and Science Education staff

This videoconference includes the two students who are participating in the 2021-2022 M/FURA program and Science Education staff who provide program support. Asia Parker (top left) and Natalia Escobar (bottom right) with Science Education's Lisa Surles-Law (top right) and Rhonda Bell (bottom left).

Jefferson Lab research assistantship awardee combs through particle collisions for an answer to the puzzling matter-antimatter asymmetry problem

We live in an imbalanced universe. Perplexingly, it is made up of more matter than antimatter, which is sort of like matter’s evil twin: their properties are the same but opposite.

“This imbalance is throwing physicists off, because why would this world that is so symmetrical be imbalanced in this way,” said Natalia Escobar, a senior at Duke University who is exploring this asymmetry.

Escobar is one of two students participating in the 2021-22 Jefferson Science Associates Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship (JSA M/FURA). The assistantship supports individual projects that contribute to scientific or engineering aspects of the research program of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility.

“I was so stoked when I found out I got this award,” she said. “It’s a big deal to work with a national lab. I never thought I would have this chance. I also think it’s really cool to have an award recognizing minorities and women in physics, because as a minority and a woman in physics, I know it’s not a very common occurrence.”

Back in high school, Escobar didn’t really know what physics was. It was just another mandatory science class.

“It completely changed the way that I viewed learning,” she said. Before physics, Escobar could get through most classes using memorization. “But with physics, it wasn’t about memorizing so much as making it make sense in my brain. I actually had to understand the concepts and be able to apply them. That was eye opening for me and a fun experience.”

Despite enjoying physics as a high schooler, Escobar started as a premed student at the Honors College at Miami Dade College. But after her first year, she began research in an optical physics lab, where she was creating a finger-based blood pressure monitor. This second exposure stuck.  

“I really liked the research that I conducted and the overall experience,” she said. “It made me reevaluate whether I wanted to go into medicine.”

She took some physics classes her sophomore year and that “sealed the deal.”

After two years in community college, Escobar transferred to Duke University in the fall of 2020. She’s now a senior majoring in physics and minoring in computer science, which she added after realizing her research involves a lot of coding.

Honing in on nuclear and particle physics

At Duke, Escobar decided to explore physics beyond optics. She met with Haiyan Gao, Henry Newson professor of physics at Duke University and associate laboratory director for nuclear and particle physics at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Gao explained how her research studying tiny particles could have a big impact on physics. Escobar was in.

“I realized that the part of physics I love is understanding the really small stuff and how that has a huge effect on the rest of our lives,” Escobar said.

Escobar has been working in Gao’s lab ever since. Gao, who has been a scientific user at Jefferson Lab since the 1990s, nominated Escobar for the M/FURA position.

“I have mentored a large number of undergraduate students, and I found Natalia’s experience quite unique. She started at a new university during COVID, and her new experiences at Duke were essentially all Zoom-based. However, she was actively pursuing research experiences, which I found quite impressive,” Gao said.

For her M/FURA project, which started in August 2021, Escobar is looking for a possible explanation of the matter-antimatter imbalance in a specific section of the Standard Model of particle physics. The Standard Model is essentially a gigantic equation that describes the fundamental forces except for gravitational force and elementary particles of the universe. She’s investigating particular terms in one section of the equation involving the strong force with computer simulations of semi-inclusive deep inelastic scattering (SIDIS), a process that involves shooting an electron beam at a target.

“By better understanding these specific terms, we could figure out whether or not some of the assumptions that were made earlier in creating this equation were a good idea,” Escobar said.  

Data from SIDIS will also allow Escobar to study the structure of nucleons, the collective name for protons and neutrons. During SIDIS experiments, electrons hit particles called quarks inside nucleons, producing another kind of particle. Measuring this produced particle allows Escobar to extract structural information about the nucleon, which could be used to understand the matter-antimatter asymmetry, following a theoretical study performed by Ludovico Manna and Alessandro Bacchetta in Italy. 

This work builds on a previous project Escobar started through independent study with Gao. Previously, Escobar was simulating SIDIS events herself. Now, Duane Byer, a graduate student at Duke University who is also in Gao’s research group, is simulating more realistic SIDIS events that Escobar uses for her study.  Escobar’s work could offer a sneak preview of whether such a study is experimentally feasible using the proposed Solenoidal Large Intensity Device (SoLID) at Jefferson Lab. The SoLID detector will measure nucleon structure using SIDIS.  

Righting the imbalance in STEM with representation 

“Dr. Gao has been really inspirational to me, because she is a well-accomplished woman in physics. I think she’s awesome,” Escobar said. “Having women to look up to in these positions has been a really big game changer to motivate other women.”

Escobar believes that representation will help correct the inequality of women and minorities in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.

“It’s important to have these awards, because growing up, I always associated scientists with Bill Nye the Science Guy or any male figure,” she said. “I’d like to think that giving women the spotlight more will help the imbalance of predominantly men. And the same goes for the minority aspect as well.”

The JSA Minority/Female Undergraduate Research Assistantship is for minority or female full-time undergraduate students who wish to work on projects that are part of or are directly related to the scientific or engineering aspects of Jefferson Lab’s research program. This project is supported by the JSA Initiatives Fund Program, a JSA commitment to support programs, initiatives, and activities that further the scientific outreach, promote the science, education and technology of Jefferson Lab and benefit the lab's extended user community in ways that complement its basic and applied research missions. 

The second M/FURA awardee for the 2021-22 academic year is Asia Parker, who is working on code for machine learning applications with Fatiha Benmokhtar, an associate professor at Duquesne University. 

Through March 31, 2022, the M/FURA program is accepting student nominations for the 2022-2023 academic year. See the M/FURA webpage for more information.

Further Reading:
Music Major Finds a New Rhythm in Physics
Student’s Flexibility Leads Toward Greater Mobility for Others
Lifelong Exposure to Science Leads to Career in Physics

By Chris Patrick

Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office,


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