Two Yale researchers won grants from the National Science Foundation that may help reveal the secrets of the particles and life forms in the Universe.
In August and September, the NSF announced that both astronomy professor Debra Fischer, who studies exoplanets, and physics professor Bonnie Fleming, who researches neutrinos, won the Major Research Instrument (MRI) Program grant. The first grant, received on Aug. 1, will provide Fischer with almost $2 million to build a novel Extreme Precision Spectrograph for Exoplanet Studies. With the spectrograph, Fischer’s lab hopes to discover 100 earth-like planets where the existence of life is most probable. Meanwhile, on Sept. 1, Fleming won the grant, worth over $500,000, to build a Time Projection Chamber to measure neutrino interactions in the LAr1 Near Detector.
Fischer suggested that the fact that both winners of the grants are women denotes progress for women in the physical sciences.
“Ten or 20 years ago, most NSF review panels would have been composed exclusively of men, and unintentional subtle biases may very well have prevented the major research in instrumentation awards from going to two female professors at Yale,” Fischer said.
Still, Fischer noted that there remain long-standing challenges for women in the physical sciences, ranging from being shunned the lab to facing sexual harassment. Although this discrimination was more overt for her predecessors, gender issues still appear in subtle ways, she said.
According to a report released by the NSF on grant recipients in fiscal year 2013, women submit only 25.3 percent of grant proposals. But, Fischer noted, the NSF has shown that it is serious about increasing diversity.
“NSF has a long history of encouraging a broadening of participation in mathematics, science and engineering because NSF believes diversity is key to good science,” Ivy Kupec, a spokesperson for the NSF said in an email. “In fact, scientific research relies on having an assortment of perspectives and experiences, which goes beyond gender differences. When we expand our outlook, we can more effectively solve problems and advance science.”
Deputy Provost of Science and Technology Steven Girvin said he was pleased that Yale won two proposals this year, which is fairly uncommon for any university. He added that Yale submits three MRI grants a year from a pool of internal applicants, and receives, on average, one every two years. Girvin added that because Fischer’s grant is for a higher amount than the average grant, it had to pass an even higher bar of quality.
This was the second year Fischer applied for the NSF grant, which she described as a “critical game-changer”.
“We definitely needed this grant,” Fischer said. “I was sitting here in July thinking if the grant doesn’t come through, this might be the end of the whole project, and we’d have to let everybody go and say we fought the good fight, but we didn’t make it.”
Head of the Fischer’s instrument lab Colby Jurgenson said the spectrometer, which measures the light and absorption spectra from stars, is critical for finding the earth-like planets that orbit these stars, but the next step in the process would be to analyze and characterize them. He added that the earth-like planets could potentially show different snapshots in the stages of evolution, and could answer the age-old question of whether life forms exist outside of earth.
On the other hand, Fleming’s experiment will investigate the possibility of a fourth neutrino, one without an electric charge. Neutrinos are subatomic particles that were previously thought to have a mass of zero.
But in recent years, scientists have discovered that neutrinos have a small amount of mass and are capable of changing from one type of neutrino particle to another in a process known as neutrino oscillation. With the NSF-funded detector, Fleming will be able to better measure these neutrino oscillations with the hope of confirming the existence of a fourth neutrino. As of now, scientists only know of the existence of three neutrinos.
Fleming said the discovery would be revolutionary to both particle physics and the way scientists understand the composition of matter and the universe. The MRI grant is the second Fleming has received to build a detector.
Fleming promised that post-docs, graduates and undergraduates will all be working together to build the detector. In building the first detector, several undergraduates were crucial in stringing 6,000 wires at the perfect tensions in the Yale Wright Lab, Fleming said.
The NSF’s MRI proposal deadline for 2015 is Jan. 22.