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November  18, 2008

Augie's Caceres wins top physics prize

(Gabriel Caceres will speak on "Searching for Dark Matter" at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 24 in Science 304. A reception will begin at 4 p.m.)

Augustana graduate Gabriel Caceres ('08) has won the top physics prize and a $3,000 scholarship in a research competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

He was one of five top national science students honored last week for their work in the inaugural Science and Energy Research Challenge (SERCh) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Top undergraduate research students from colleges and universities across the country competed in biological sciences, materials science and engineering, chemistry, physics and environmental science. Students presented abstracts, posters and oral presentations detailing high level research they completed as DOE undergraduate interns.

 Cecilia Vogel, associate professor of physics at Augustana, and her former student Gabe Caceres at the first Science and Energy Research Challenge (SERCh) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

How it came about: Gabriel Caceres was at Fermilab in the summer of 2007 working on a dark matter detection experiment called CDMS (Cryogenic Dark Matter Search). When he learned that he would be returning the next summer, he contacted Dr. Dan Hooper, a scientist in the Theoretical Astrophysics group at the lab, to work with him on the dark matter related project which won the Department of Energy award.

Background on the project: "The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) is a satellite which studied the cosmic microwave background (radiation left over from the very early universe)," he said. "You can also use this satellite to study signals from our galaxy, and it turns out there's an excess emission, called "WMAP Haze" which has not been explained. One proposed reason for this signal are dark matter particles annihilating in the Galactic Center. Our work then studied this possibility in the context of supersymmetry, a theory which, among other things, gives you an excellent dark matter candidate."

Why astrophysics? "I originally was interested in particle physics but through my research projects I got more involved in astrophysical work and that's how I ended up in an Astronomy and Astrophysics Department. My area of research is "particle astrophysics" which is where my dark matter work falls."

Cecilia Vogel, associate professor of physics at Augustana, traveled to Tennessee for the events. She said that more than 500 undergraduate projects were done at Department of Energy sites or were funded by the DOE. Of the 200 students who applied for the competition, only 84 were invited to compete.

"It was very awesome," she said of Caceres' project. "His research was cool and interesting: determining the properties that dark matter would need to have in order to account for the "haze" seen at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. And he knew his stuff down cold."

Caceres graduated from Augustana last spring with a double major in physics and philosophy.  Now a graduate student in astrophysics at Penn State, he did the research at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. His project was titled "Supersymmetric Dark Matter as the Source of WMAP Haze."

Caceres and the other first-place winners in each science category won $3,000 scholarships. The other winners are Kiran Rangaraj, University of California, Berkley, biological sciences; Diana Donati, materials science and engineering, University of California, Davis; and Pawan Rastogi; chemistry, Columbia University.

An entry in the environmental science category won the grand prize scholarship of $10,000. Garrett Marino of Hazlet, N.J., a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who interned this year at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, titled his project "False spring occurrence over the Southeastern United States, 1901-2007."

The Science and Energy Research Challenge is part of DOE's effort to encourage students to pursue careers in STEM areas -- science, technology, engineering and math.

"Folks from the DOE pleaded with those of us at primarily undergraduate institutions to "transform" students," said Vogel. "We need to turn them into the leaders and citizens of the future, who can do the basic or applied research to solve our energy problems -- or at least have the science knowledge and critical thinking skills to make good decision regarding energy policy and personal energy use."

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