Physics Prof Participates in Cutting-Edge Research


It’s summer, and for Dr. Emily Maher, an associate professor of physics at MCLA, that means one thing: another opportunity to spend some extended time working on the MINERvA experiment with scientists and engineers from across the globe. Together, they aim to learn more about a mysterious particle – the neutrino; the most abundant, but least understood, particle in the universe.

“Working on cutting-edge research in physics is exciting,” said Maher, who serves as the chair of MCLA’s Department of Physics. To work on this project, she travels to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Chicago, Ill. (right), where she looks at “parts of the universe that no one has ever seen in quite the way we see it.”

This is exciting, and reinvigorates my love of physics and research,” she added.

For example, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment made headlines earlier this year when, for the first time, scientists observed ripples in the fabric of space-time. These “gravitational waves” arrived to the earth from a cataclysmic event in the distant universe, and confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity.

“The physicists at Fermilab take part in many experiments,” Maher explained. “Some are at Fermilab, and some are at CERN (a European research organization based in Switzerland that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world) and other laboratories and telescopes around the world.”

Her experiences at Fermilab help Maher understand the newest – and typically complicated – theories and discoveries in physics. “In turn, I am able to explain this to my students, and tell them about all the extremely cool things happening now,” she said.

Maher, who recently was awarded MCLA’s Research Award for Senior Faculty for her work at Fermilab, was present when the observation of a second gravitational wave was announced. This allowed her to attend a colloquium about the event, which was given by one of the experiment’s  founders.

At Fermilab, she collaborates with some 15 institutions, where she brings MCLA to the forefront of the very latest work in physics.

“We have published approximately 17 papers since I joined MINERvA, and MCLA is listed as a collaborating institution on every one. We also have about five papers that will soon be or have been submitted to journals. These publications can only enhance MCLA’s reputation,” she said.

However, “The most important benefit, I believe, is to the students. By participating in this cutting-edge research, I am able to bring information back to the students that I wouldn't otherwise be able to.”

Another important benefit of her visits to Fermilab is the opportunity to reconnect with her colleagues.

“I work on MINERvA with about 40 collaborators from all over the world,” she explained. “While at Fermilab, I discuss research with them and catch up with everything they are doing.”

Understanding neutrinos, according to Maher, could lead to a deeper understanding of the universe.

“Doing this research reminds me of how amazing it is that we are measuring quantities that have either never been measured before, or have never been measured as precisely,” she added.

Although there currently are no practical applications for neutrinos, Maher said that, in the far future, neutrinos may be used to detect nuclear materials, or for communication over long distances or through unfriendly environments.

“The most exciting applications are usually the ones we cannot predict, so who knows what neutrinos will allow us to do in the future,” she said.

To read more about Maher’s research, go to