Augustana Earns Major Grants from National Science Foundation for Physics Research

From left to right: Dr. Nathan Grau, Dr. Eric Wells and Dr. Drew Alton of the Augustana Physics Department each earned grants through the National Science Foundation. 

The Augustana University physics department is the recipient of three major grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) totaling $294,000. 

The grants will provide opportunities for AU undergraduates to engage in cutting-edge physics research on campus, and at labs around the world, over the next several summers.

In addition to the opportunity for students, University officials said the fact that each tenure-track member of the department received successful funding illustrates the caliber of the physics research happening today. Typically, the NSF funds about 15-20 percent of the grant applications it receives.

Grant details include: 

  • A $155,000 grant, awarded to Dr. Eric Wells, professor of physics, is funded by the NSF’s experimental atomic, molecular and optical physics program. The grant, which runs for three years, will provide financial support for two students to participate in research examining laser control of molecules each summer. The grant will also cover costs associated with travel to Manhattan, Kansas, for work in collaboration with physics researchers at Kansas State University.
  • A $120,000 grant, awarded to Dr. Nathan Grau, associate professor of physics, will provide financial support for two students to participate in high-energy nuclear physics research each summer. This research with the PHENIX and sPHENIX collaboration will examine the strong nuclear force responsible for the binding of protons and neutrons in the nucleus.
  • A $19,000 grant, awarded to Dr. Drew Alton, associate professor of physics, is a one-year extension of a previous grant that supports Augustana’s participation in a dark matter experiment at Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso in Italy.

In addition to providing support for the students, Augustana physics officials said the research projects will give students opportunities to collaborate in larger research settings than one normally associates with Augustana University. One of Dr. Grau’s students is presenting at a national physics conference this month. Dr. Wells’ and Grau’s students travel to large labs and interact with dozens of Ph.D. physicists. Dr. Alton’s and Grau’s students participate in phone and video meetings as parts of collaborations with hundreds of physicists.

The work of Augustana student researchers has earned praise from scientific researchers throughout the U.S.

Dr. Cristiano Galbiati, professor of physics at Princeton University, said Augustana undergraduate researchers have provided fundamental help for the DarkSide project.

“From running shifts for data taking and detector checking, to performing analysis of data on the dark matter search, to carrying out research (to take the) project (to) the next stage of the experiment, the DarkSide project benefits from their help,” Galbiati said.

Dr. Itzik Ben-Itzhak, distinguished professor and director of the J.R. Macdonald Laboratory at Kansas State University, agreed. 

“The collaboration between Augustana and Kansas State has enhanced the education of Augustana students for many years. Our joint efforts have been quite fruitful, producing several publications that Augustana undergraduates have been able to make key contributions to. Furthermore, a few of these students have gone on to pursue graduate studies in atomic, molecular, and optical physics at Kansas State,” Ben-Itzhak said.

Student and faculty collaborative research also helps broaden the body of knowledge that exists today.

“Professor Nathan Grau is a leader of physics in PHENIX," said Dr. Yasuyuki Akiba, spokesperson of the PHENIX experiment. "As a convener of (the) Physics Working Group, he reviews and guides physics analysis, and helps to produce many physics results of PHENIX and PHENIX in publications (such as) Physical Reviews and Physical Review Letters. PHENIX Collaboration and RHIC have greatly benefited (by the) collaboration with Professor Grau."

Beyond providing students with key hands-on learning opportunities, AU physics officials said the grants also pave the way for Augustana faculty and student researchers to discover and share significant findings that could change our understanding of molecular bonding, the internal structures of the proton, and/or improve our understanding of large-scale structures like galaxies. 

Watch physics majors and faculty members visit with KELO-TV about their research and the NSF grants

Kelly Sprecher
Director of Media Relations