Peter Shawhan Awarded 2018 Kirwan Faculty Research and Scholarship Prize

University of Maryland Professor Peter Shawhan received the 2018 Kirwan Faculty Research and Scholarship Prize during the campus’ annual Faculty and Staff Convocation ceremony on September 12, 2018. The prize, which provides a $5,000 stipend, recognizes a faculty member for a highly significant work of research, scholarship or artistic creativity completed within the last three years.

“The Kirwan Prize for 2018 recognizes [Shawhan’s] leadership on a variety of aspects regarding the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, which provided the first detection of gravitational waves produced by colliding neutron stars, and [his] work in multimessenger astronomy,” said UMD President Wallace D. Loh.

Shawhan also received the USM Board of Regents faculty excellence award earlier this year.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Washington University in St. Louis, joined the UMD Department of Physics in 2006.

“I came to the University of Maryland because it has an excellent physics department with a lot of different research specialties,” Shawhan said. “I was also familiar with the university because I lived nearby when I was in high school. I participated in the Physics Olympics here and still have a pin from the event.”

Prior to joining UMD, Shawhan was a senior scientist at the California Institute of Technology working on gravitational waves. He first learned about the research field as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, where he earned a Ph.D. in physics in 1999.

“I was studying particle physics at Chicago,” Shawhan said. “But near the end of my Ph.D., my advisor, Bruce Winstein, called me up one evening. He said, ‘[LIGO Co-founder] Kip Thorne is going to be my house tomorrow. Why don’t you come over and talk about LIGO?’ And I got interested.”

Gravitational waves—which Albert Einstein predicted in 1916 as part of the theory of general relativity—are ripples in the fabric of spacetime. In 2015, the LIGO detectors located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington, detected gravitational waves for the first time. The finding led to the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics for Thorne, Rainer Weiss and Barry Barish.

As data analysis committee chair and a principal investigator of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC), Shawhan helped the collaboration conclude that the first gravitational waves detected came from the merger of two black holes that produced a single, more massive spinning black hole. In particular, Shawhan helped validate the analysis software that identified the black-hole merger signal a few minutes after the LIGO detectors recorded it. Shawhan also acted as a liaison with collaborating astronomers, performing rapid data analysis and sharing the results with them.

The detection of gravitational waves made it possible to study cosmological events using both gravitational wave detectors and electromagnetic telescopes, which can collect information about events using the entire spectrum of light. Shawhan led the LSC in developing this combined approach, called multimessenger astronomy.

“I first got into multimessenger astronomy in 2007, when a colleague donated telescope time so that some students and I could observe galaxies that our gravitational wave data suggested could be interesting,” Shawhan said. “We realized pretty quickly that it was hard work and we should leave it to professional astronomers, so we switched to collaborating with them.”

To quickly share information with astronomers collaborating with the LSC on multimessenger astronomy studies, Shawhan and his students developed a pipeline to rapidly process and check data from possible gravitational wave events. In addition, Shawhan recruited interested astronomers and helped them strategize about how to best follow up on gravitational wave observations.

Shawhan is particularly proud of the intense multimessenger astronomy campaign that followed the first detection of a merger event between two neutron stars—the dense, collapsed cores that remain after large stars die in a supernova explosion.

On August 17, 2017, gravitational waves from the merger arrived at the twin LIGO detectors. About two seconds later, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected a gamma-ray burst from the same source. Then, astronomers around the globe directed more than 70 space- and ground-based telescopes toward the event for follow-up observations.

Shawhan called the event one of the best moments of his research career.

“The neutron star merger event was the really spectacular breakthrough that we’d been hoping for,” Shawhan said. “It was just such a rich discovery. The fact that we had so many astronomers lined up to be ready to follow it up really paid off. “

UMD’s long history in the field of gravitational waves provided a boost to his research, Shawhan said. He specifically cited the influence of Physics Professor Emeritus Ho Jung Paik, who developed more sensitive detectors for gravitational waves and helped create the job opportunity that led Shawhan to UMD in the first place.

Today, UMD continues to provide Shawhan with opportunities to further his research.

“The physics department has been very supportive of my work on gravitational waves over the years,” Shawhan said. “It is also great to be able to collaborate with the Department of Astronomy, the Joint Space-Science Institute and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Through my involvement with them, I’ve become more involved in astrophysics. I’m actually getting involved in some space missions now!”

shawhan regalia pic 2018Provost Rankin, Peter Shawhan and President Loh

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Ted Jacobson Named Distinguished University Professor

Ted Jacobson has been named a University of Maryland Distinguished University Professor. This designation is the campus’ highest academic honor, reserved for those whose scholarly achievements “have brought distinction to the University of Maryland.” He was cited for his highly innovative work in black hole thermodynamics, the nature of spacetime, and gravitational physics.

Jacobson received his Ph.D. at the University of Texas and held postdoctoral appointments at the Observatoire de Meudon and Institute Henri Poincaré, Paris; the University of California at Santa Barbara, and Brandeis University before joining UMD as an assistant professor in 1988. He has since held appointments at the University of Bern, the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, the Université de Paris VII and the Institute d’Astrophysique in Paris, the University of Utrecht and the Schrödinger Institute of Vienna. Jacobson is a Distinguished Visiting Research Chair at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, where he spent part of a 2013-14 sabbatical. He has been a Simons Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara, and in 2015 was co-coordinator of its six-month research program Quantum Gravity Foundations: UV to IR.

Jacobson is a member of the Maryland Center for Fundamental Physics and the Joint Space-Science Institute and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Physical Society. He was an invited speaker at Stephen Hawking’s 75th birthday conference in 2017, where he spoke on "Hawking radiation, infinite redshifts, and black hole analogues”.

He is a UMD Distinguished Scholar-Teacher, and he co-developed the College Park Scholars Program Science, Discovery and the Universe

His work has been featured in the lay press, including The Economist and He has written for Scientific American, including a cover story, “Echoes of Black Holes.  In 2010, the New York Times published a feature story on gravity and highlighted Jacobson’s 1995 paper “Thermodynamics of Spacetime: The Einstein Equation of State”.  This paper showed that Einstein's equation for the curvature of spacetime derives from thermodynamic principles applied to entanglement entropy of the quantum vacuum. The idea was inspired by black hole thermodynamics, one of his main research foci. His other research interests have included laboratory analogs of black holes, astroparticle and gravitational tests of relativity, and relativistic plasma physics.

Maissam Barkeshli Receives NSF CAREER Award

Ten University of Maryland faculty members earned Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation in the past fiscal year.

The five-year awards are the NSF’s most prestigious in support of junior faculty members who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

Additions to the Physics Teaching Faculty

Hailu B. Gebremariam has accepted an appointment as a full-time lecturer.  He holds a bachelor's and a master's degree in physics from Addis Ababa University, an ICTPHailuHailu Gebremariam diploma in high energy physics from the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics and a master's degree in physics from Syracuse University. He received his UMD doctorate in 2005 under Ted Einstein, with the thesis Terrace Width Distribution and First Passage Probabilities for Interacting Steps. Prior to accepting his new position, he was an assistant professor at Montgomery College and a part-time lecturer in the Department of Physics.

Matt sjpgMatt SeversonMatt Severson has accepted an appointment as a full-time lecturer. He holds bachelor’s degrees in atmospheric sciences and meteorology and in physics and mathematics from the University of South Alabama, and received his UMD Ph.D. in 2015 under Rabi Mohapatra, with the thesis Neutrino Mass and Proton Lifetime in a Realistic SUSY SO(10) Model.  Prior to accepting his new position, he was a part-time lecturer in the Department of Physics.

Inaugural Schmidt Science Fellow Joins CNAM

Wes Fuhrman, who recently completed his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins University, has joined the Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials (CNAM) to conduct a one-year research program funded by the Schmidt Science Fellowship program. Fuhrman was one of 14 fellows chosen from 220 applicants for the first round of Schmidt funding.

Fuhrman received his bachelor’s degree at the University of California, Irvine, focusing on magnon decay dynamics and quantum game theory. At Hopkins, his interests turned to strongly interacting topological materials. This is also a focus area for CNAM researchers, making UMD an ideal place for Fuhrman to carry out a highly collaborative, multi-disciplinary research program focused on exploring the prospects of new technologies based on topological and correlated electron materials.

About the fellowship:

Schmidt Science Fellows, in partnership with the Rhodes Trust, aims to develop the next generation of science leaders to transcend disciplines, advance discovery, and solve the world’s most pressing problems. Schmidt Science Fellows was launched in 2017 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt and is a program of Schmidt Futures, delivered in partnership with the Rhodes Trust. The program has an initial commitment of at least $25m for the first three years.

The fellowship includes a $100,000 stipend and participation in a global meeting series. According to the program, fellowship recipients choose “leading laboratories at elite institutions that conduct exciting new research."