Wright Lab alum Danielle Speller wins prestigious Packard Fellowship

October 21, 2022

Wright Lab postdoctoral alum Danielle Speller,  who is an assistant professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University,  has been awarded a 2022 Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, a prestigious early-career award for scientists that provides “flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields of study.” Each recipient receives $875,000 over five years.

The Packard Foundation website summarizes Speller’s research: “Outstanding questions surrounding missing mass in the universe and the behavior of fundamental particles hint that our understanding of particle physics is incomplete. The Speller Lab searches for new particles and never-before-seen radioactive decays using novel detection techniques to understand the origins and interplay of matter and light.”  More information is below:

A matter of mass

Most of us know that our universe is made of matter, and that matter has mass. But scientists still don’t understand everything about mass. Especially why some particles have smaller mass than others, or why some of their behavior doesn’t follow the standard rules. More than 80% of the mass in our universe appears to be “dark matter” that’s invisible to us. Speller is working to better understand these mysteries about the nature of matter and mass.

Current searches for physics beyond the Standard Model combine advanced instrumentation and quantum sensing techniques with nuclear and particle astrophysics, seeking answers that will offer new insight into fundamental physics and cosmology, says Speller. Her lab uses low-energy, cryogenic detection techniques to hunt for new particles that could be the constituents of dark matter and for rare types of radioactive decay. Currently, she’s looking for a class of dark matter candidates known as axions in hopes of studying how they behave. She’s also looking for a rare nuclear process called neutrinoless double-beta decay.

Each step Speller takes toward detecting evidence of either of these could reveal new pieces in the physics puzzle. “Each clue gives us a better idea of the most promising places to look for the next one,” she says.

Speller works on these problems with two top experimental nuclear and particle physics projects. The Haloscope at Yale Sensitive to Axion Cold Dark Matter (HAYSTAC) is a cutting-edge experiment looking for axions that is located at Yale’s Wright Lab. The Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE) in Assergi, Italy, is one of the leading searches for neutrinoless double-beta decay. (For more informationa bout Wright Lab’s involvement in CUORE, please see this article.)

The Packard fellowship is known for opening doors to high-risk, high-reward investigations. It will allow Speller to pursue promising but unconventional leads in her research, possibly leading to unexpected discoveries.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity that this presents for us to explore new avenues of detection,” Speller says. “I look forward to seeing what we can uncover.”

This article is adapted from an article by Sarah Tarney and Rebecca Shillenn published October 18, 2022 on the Johns Hopkins University Hub.

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