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SMU physicist wins prestigious $1 million NSF career award

Research focuses on detecting the particles that are believed to make up dark matter

Physicist Jodi Cooley
Jodi Cooley

March 5, 2012

DALLAS (SMU) – SMU physicist Jodi Cooley has received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award of more than $1 million for her research toward detecting the particles that are believed to make up dark matter. NSF Early Career Development Awards are given to junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research in American colleges and universities.

Cooley, assistant professor in the Department of Physics in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Science, is an experimental particle physicist and is part of the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search. SuperCDMS is a collaboration of 14 institutions from the U.S. and Canada, and Cooley is SMU’s principal investigator for the group.

Scientists theorize that more than 80 percent of all matter in the universe is dark matter, which consists of material that cannot be seen or detected by conventional means. Cooley’s research in the SuperCDMS project is conducted in the Soudan Iron Mine in Soudan, Minn., where researchers are shielded from cosmic-ray radiation as they use detector technology to “listen” for the passage of dark matter through the earth. Cooley’s research uses sophisticated equipment to optimize the chances of detecting “weakly interacting massive particles,” also known as WIMPS, which are the particles hypothesized to make up dark matter.

As the analysis coordinator for the predecessor to the SuperCDMS project, CDMS-II, Cooley reported results in 2009 that the experiment may have captured a glimpse of WIMPS. "We now know that these tantalizing candidates were not WIMPs, just background particles mimicking the behavior of WIMPs," Cooley said. The search continues, she said, and SuperCDMS is one of the leading experiments in the field.

“Her CAREER Award will enable Professor Cooley to extend this research with additional measurements at higher levels of sensitivity and simulations, placing SMU in a leadership role in this cutting-edge field of physics,” said James Quick, SMU associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies

As Cooley explains it, the key to detecting dark matter is to classify and reject all of the things that can “fake it.” 

“I like to solve interesting problems,” Cooley said during a recent presentation to students and faculty members at the University of Texas. “To me, one of the most interesting puzzles is that 85 percent of matter in the universe is missing. We’re trying to figure it out, but it’s a hard problem.”

Cooley’s long-term educational goal is to increase public appreciation for science.  To this end she plans to provide high-school science teachers and SMU undergraduates opportunities to participate in dark matter research in her laboratory.

Cooley joined SMU in 2009.  She was a post-doctoral scholar in the Physics Department, at Stanford University from 2004-2009 and a post-doctoral associate in the Laboratory for Nuclear Science at MIT from 2003-2004. Cooley received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003, a Master of Arts in physics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000, and a Bachelor of Science in applied math and physics from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1997.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…” NSF is the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In the past few decades, NSF-funded researchers have won more than 180 Nobel Prizes.