outstanding contribution to cosmology

Cocconi Prize, outstanding contribution to cosmology


Kyle Dawson (right) and eBOSS co-leadership accept the Giuseppe and Vanna Cocconi Prize. CREDIT: COURTESY OF THE EUROPEAN PHYSICAL SOCIETY

The High Energy and Particle Physics Division of the European Physical Society (EPS) held its award ceremony at their annual conference on August 21, 2023, where they honored the field’s most influential research projects. The SDSS/BOSS/eBOSS collaboration won the Giuseppe and Vanna Cocconi Prize for an outstanding contribution to particle astrophysics and cosmology in the last fifteen years. The University of Utah was a key contributor to the BOSS and eBOSS collaborations.

“I joined the BOSS experiment when moving to the University of Utah. At the time, it felt like a gamble moving into a new cosmology experiment when starting as an assistant professor. It was clearly the right gamble to make as the experience has defined my career and has set me up to help plan large cosmology experiments over the next decade and beyond,” said Kyle Dawson, principal investigator of eBOSS and professor in physics and astronomy at the U.

The SDSS/BOSS/eBOSS projects are international collaborations involving hundreds of scientists that have fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.

Read the full story in @TheU.

How Magma is stored beneath Yellowstone

How magma is stored beneath yellowstone

Data from a major deployment of seismometers in 2020 is revealing new insights into the characteristics of the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone caldera, including how melt is distributed in the reservoir.


Jamie Farrell

Over the past few years, several new insights into the character of Yellowstone’s magma reservoir have been published. These results are largely based on seismic data—particularly on the variable speed of seismic waves in the subsurface.

Seismic waves record information about the subsurface structure and composition as they pass through the earth. From the seismic source to receiver, the travel time can be used to determine how fast the wave propagates. Hot or partially melted rock slows down the wave propagation in comparison to solid rock, so seismic waves that move more slowly than expected might indicate the presence of hot or molten material. A single source-to-receiver travel time measurement, however, only provides the average information along the wave path. It is therefore difficult to accurately characterize underground areas that can be extremely variable and complex—for example, beneath a volcano. More data are needed. Just like a digital camera, where more megapixels give you a better image, more seismic data provide better resolution of what the subsurface looks like.

Fan-Chi Lin

The current seismic network in Yellowstone is maintained by the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and consists of about 40 stations. The network not only detects earthquakes, but also offers important opportunities to probe the structure of the subsurface. Scientists have used seismic wave speeds from earthquakes occurring around Yellowstone and even hundreds of miles away to depict the current magmatic system beneath Yellowstone caldera, which consists of two reservoirs stacked atop one another—one containing viscous rhyolite magma at depths of 5–19 km (about 3–12 mi), and a second holding more fluid basaltic magma at 20–50 km (about 12–30 mi) beneath the surface. Based on seismic wave speeds, the melt fraction in the total reservoir system is less than 10% overall, assuming the liquid phase of the material (melt) is broadly distributed within the solid rock matrix. The upper reservoir contains more melt—perhaps up to 20% based on the most recent estimates—than the lower reservoir, but both are mostly solid.  This image, however, provides no information regarding the texture of the reservoir, or how melt might be stored—for example, evenly distributed, all in one place, or in small pods.

The University of Utah, in collaboration with the University of New Mexico and Yellowstone National Park, attempted to address this knowledge gap with a temporary deployment of hundreds of seismic sensors across the region. The field campaign was conducted from August to September 2020, when around 650 autonomous seismic sensors, or “nodes,” were set up along roads and trails. These are the same types of sensors that have been used to study the dynamics of Old Faithful and Steamboat Geysers. The 2020 seismic array was designed to passively record seismic waves generated by the ocean, known as microseisms. Although the energy from microseisms is small, it is detectable by modern seismometers even very far from the coast and has characteristics that make it ideal for studying the crustal structure beneath Yellowstone.

Read the entire article posted by Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Sin-Mei Wu, seismologist with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Jamie Farrell and Fan-Chi Lin, seismologists with the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Utah.


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Tommaso de Fernex, Math’s new department chair

Tommaso de Fernex is stepping into the role of Chair of the Department of Mathematics following Professor Davar Khoshnevisan’s notable six-year term.

“It is with great anticipation that I step into the seat of Chairman of the Department of Mathematics,” says de Fernex, who begins the role on July 1. “I am honored for this appointment and humbled by the faith the College of Science has in me. Under the strong leadership of Davar Khoshnevisan, the Department has been on a great upward trajectory, reaching new heights with exemplary faculty recruitment and record recognition, grants, and scholarships for undergraduate and graduate students. Davar and I have collaborated for some time about the outlook of the department and I see a bright future. I am fortunate to belong to such a community, with a first-class faculty, fantastic staff, impressive students, and postdoctoral fellows. I am looking forward to serving the Department in the coming years.”

“Tommaso is the perfect person to lead the Department of Mathematics,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “His towering international reputation and previous leadership experience will serve him well as he takes the department to new heights.” Trapa also took a moment to thank outgoing chair Davar Khoshnevisan. “I am grateful for the six years that Davar served in this role. He skillfully navigated the upheaval of the pandemic, hired an exceptional cohort of new junior faculty,  and significantly advanced the research and educational missions of the department.”

De Fernex is a recipient of the National Science Foundation Grant from 2020 through 2023 and has contributed to nearly 50 publications, with more than 50 invitations to conference talks.

Former Associate Department Chair from 2017 to 2019, De Fernex works in algebraic geometry. The main focus of his research has been on the study of singularities and birational geometry of algebraic varieties and the structure of arc spaces and other valuation spaces. He started his studies in Italy, obtaining his Laurea in Mathematics (summa cum laude) at the University of Milano in 1996 (roughly the equivalent of a B.S.) and completing a Dottorato di Ricerca in Mathematics (the equivalent of a Ph.D.) at the University of Genova in 2001. During these studies, de Fernex spent one semester visiting the University of Hong Kong in 1999 and then moved to the U.S. where he obtained a Ph.D. in Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2002.

From 2002 to 2005, de Fernex was a Hildebrandt Research Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan and spent the academic year of 2005-2006 as a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies before joining the faculty at the University of Utah.

As incoming chair, de Fernex will continue his passion for algebraic geometry with focus on the study of singularities and birational geometry of algebraic varieties such as log canonical thresholds, multiplier ideals, questions of rationality and the structure of arc spaces and other valuation spaces. In fact, he’s scheduled to speak in December of this year in Pipa, Brazil at a conference on “Algebraic Geometry and Related Topics.”

Mathematical Biology Adds Up

Mathematical Biology Adds Up

The intersection between biology and math may seem like a large divide, but in reality, these disciplines gives rise to fascinating research approaches.

Jody Reimer, an assistant professor at the U, has double appointments in biology and math. “Biology is very messy,” Reimer states. “There’s this feeling of wanting to find universal principles or general theories. There’s nothing that refines your thinking better than having to write something down as an equation.”

Reimer is from a small town in Manitoba and completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba. From there, she completed her master’s degree at the University of Oxford. “It’s like the Disneyland of academics,” she jokes, referring to the prestigious university, the oldest in the English-speaking world. “It feels like you’re in a movie about being an academic.” She then moved back to Canada and completed her PhD at the University of Alberta before coming to the U as a postdoctoral researcher to work with Fred Adler and Ken Golden. In 2022 she became an assistant professor in math and biology. 

“My work is very interdisciplinary,” Reimer says. “I typically collaborate with biologists, but it was harder to meet folks in biology while working strictly in the math department.” Her joint appointment in biology and math facilitates collaborations with faculty and researchers in both. Within the intersection of math and biology, Reimer works with ecological research projects, specifically with sea ice.

Sea ice is considered the “soil of the ocean,” as Reimer puts it. The algae within sea ice are “more similar to a terrestrial system of plants growing than they are to a marine system. So marine organisms are growing on a terrestrial-like substrate.” Reimer explains that as an environment, sea ice is very dynamic. If the air temperature changes by ten degrees, the physical characteristics of the ice changes as it melts or freezes in response to the change in temperature. That also changes the fluid permeability of the ice, thus changing the microbial habitat in dramatic ways.

“What the environment looks like determines what can grow there,” Reimer states. “The little algal cells in the ice are also ecosystem engineers. They secrete these exopolymer substances to protect themselves, and that ‘goo’ changes the physics of the ice.”

Since change in temperature affects environments like sea ice in such significant ways, it’s an important area of research in regards to climate change. Research into how remote areas, such as Antarctica and the Arctic, are impacted by climate change as the planet warms by a few degrees is important, especially for polar regions. Reimer is using mechanistic models, which are well-suited to understanding climate change and environmental change as they allow us to explore the implications of previously unobserved environmental conditions.

The policy implications of research like this includes knowing what is vulnerable to climate change and needs protecting. “It’s hard to push for protections for areas if you don't know what you're protecting,” Reimer says. “Which areas are ecologically important and which areas are ecologically vulnerable?”

A woman tags a sedated polar bear.

Photo Credit: Evan Richardson

Reimer had her work on ringed seals in Alaska used in a court case when Alaska attempted to appeal the placement of ringed seals on the Endangered Species List. “It’s kind of unprecedented,” she says, in regards to why ringed seals were placed on the list. “I think polar bears are the first species that were listed, not because they're currently in danger, but because climate change forecasts suggest future population declines.” Reimer continues, saying their listing “was partially based on mathematical modeling work actually showing our best understanding of how polar bear populations respond to Arctic warming. This is how climate change is going to influence them. And it was enough to get them listed.” Ringed seals are listed for the same reason, and Reimer was encouraged to see her own modeling work contribute to that decision.   

Today, Reimer has found a home in Salt Lake City as she gets settled into her new lab in the south biology building. The challenge of being posted in two different departments as a tenure-line faculty member, even in the same college, is having double the administrative load, including showing up at two different faculty meetings and being on committees. With research that relates to both biology and math, things become comparable and quantifiable when they take the form of a mathematical equation, arguably a necessary tool for the great steamship of science to keep plowing the waters of knowledge and understanding.

By CJ Siebeneck
Science Writer Intern


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