Martinez Outschoorn and Yang selected for NSF CAREER Awards

Siv Schwink

Assistant Professors Verena Martinez Outschoorn and Liang Yang of the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have each been selected for 2017 NSF CAREER Awards. The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award of the National Science Foundation is conferred annually in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars by integrating outstanding research with excellent education. Receipt of this honor also reflects great promise for a lifetime of leadership within recipients’ respective fields.

Assistant Professor Verena Martinez Outschoorn. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Assistant Professor Verena Martinez Outschoorn. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Martinez Outschoorn is a member of the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. She will use the 5-year grant to develop and implement new analytical tools to search for exotic Higgs boson decay modes, which ultimately could reveal new physics beyond the standard model (SM) and could shed light on the nature of dark matter. She and her group are also collaborating with ATLAS colleagues in the development of new electronics upgrades to the experiment that would allow for the effective triggering and recording of extremely rare and difficult-to-detect Higgs events.

Martinez Outschoorn is additionally developing an outreach program that enlists undergraduate and graduate student volunteers from Physics Illinois to share the excitement of physics with elementary and middle-school students, grades 4 through 8. The project brings concepts of particle physics into school classrooms in an interactive way and provides opportunities for young students to interact with physicists at work, both locally and at CERN.

Martinez Outschoorn earned a bachelor’s degree in physics and math from Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude in 2005. She continued on at Harvard to earn her master’s (2008) and doctoral degrees (2011) in physics. Before joining the faculty at Physics Illinois in 2014, she worked as a Lederman postdoctoral fellow at Fermi National Laboratory, focusing on the CMS experiment at CERN.

Asstistant Professor Liang Yang. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Asstistant Professor Liang Yang. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Yang will use his CAREER Award to develop novel analysis techniques for investigations of neutrinos, ubiquitous yet mysterious particles. Yang is co-spokesperson of the Enriched Xenon Observatory (EXO-200) experiment, currently in its Phase-II data taking. By searching for neutrinoless double beta decay, an exotic nuclear process, the EXO-200 collaborators hope to shed light on fundamental properties of neutrinos, including whether neutrinos are Majorana particles, i.e., their own anti-particles. A Majorana neutrino coupled with charge-parity (CP) violation could generate physical mechanisms responsible for the matter- antimatter asymmetry in the Universe.

The search for neutrinoless double beta decay will also shed light on the neutrino mass generation mechanism and put limits on the absolute scale of neutrino mass. Yang’s group at the U. of I. led the upgrade of the EXO-200 front-end electronics system, enhancing the detector’s energy resolution. He and Prof. Michelle Dolinski at Drexel University are currently overseeing the 3-year Phase-II data taking.

Yang plans to offer several EXO-200-centered research projects for undergraduate and graduate students at the U. of I. He is additionally developing an educational program to strengthen science education at the middle-school level, working in tangent with the U. of I. College of Education. He plans to organize workshops for middle-school teachers that will offer advanced training in hands-on activities for physical-science teaching, in accordance with New Generation Science Standards. Yang will also work with undergraduate student volunteers to improve outreach programs to middle school students.

Yang received his bachelor's degree in physics from Yale University in 1999. He received his master's (2003) and doctoral degrees (2006) in physics from Harvard University. He worked as a research associate at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory from 2007 to 2011. He joined the faculty at Physics Illinois in 2012.

These CAREER grants are supported by NSF’s Division of Physics.

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