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James Younkin
James Younkin


NIU grad student wins $40,000 fellowship

Physics James Younkin will contribute
to Large Hadron Collider experiment

February 1, 2010

by Tom Parisi

Following a nationwide competition, NIU Ph.D. student James Younkin has won a $40,000 graduate fellowship to contribute to the study of particle interactions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), located within the CERN research facility near Geneva, Switzerland.

CERN is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory, and the LHC, dubbed by the media as “the discovery machine,” is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. It is built to smash protons moving at nearly the speed of light into each other in order to recreate conditions a fraction of a second after the big bang.

Younkin, a 28-year-old from Spartanburg, S.C., was one of only four U.S. graduate students to be awarded the year-long fellowship from the LHC-Theory Initiative Group. The group provides LHC experimentalists with theoretical calculations and guidance to help them recognize known particles and potentially new particles produced by proton collisions.

The fellowship covers tuition and fees and a research salary. Most of Younkin’s work will be done at NIU, although the fellowship will include expenses for travel, possibly to CERN, for conferences.

“Jim is a talented and hard­working student. He was selected for this fellowship because of his demonstrated ability to solve difficult problems that may be a key to deciphering the results from the LHC experiment,” says NIU Distinguished Research Professor Stephen Martin, an internationally known theorist in high energy physics who serves as Younkin’s adviser.

“Jim will become the first NIU student to earn a Ph.D. in the area of theoretical high­energy physics,” Martin adds.

Younkin earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of William and Mary in Virginia before arriving at NIU. In 2008, he won NIU’s Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant award. Last year, he won the physics department’s outstanding Ph.D. student award. He expects to earn his Ph.D. at the completion of his fellowship in May 2011.

“I came to NIU specifically to study with Dr. Martin, and it’s worked out really well,” says Younkin, who already has two published papers. “I’ve been able to accomplish quite a few things while I’ve been here. Dr. Martin works very hard to find opportunities for me.”

Martin himself has been instrumental in the refinement and extension of a popular theory known as supersymmetry. Established in the 1970s, the theory predicts that for each known fundamental particle, such as an electron or quark, a yet-to-be-discovered “superpartner” must also exist.

Younkin’s fellowship research will focus on the expected LHC production rate of some of these hypothesized particles and their discovery signatures. “Jim has already proved himself with state-of-the-art calculations of the properties of new composite particles that may appear at the Large Hadron Collider,” Martin says.

Mankind has long been in search of the building blocks of nature. Particle accelerators, such as the LHC and Fermilab’s Tevatron, smash protons together to create more fundamental particles. The more powerful the collider, the deeper scientists can probe the structure of the subatomic world.

The LHC, which began producing collisions in November, is so much more powerful than its predecessors that it will explore vast amounts of new territory. New theories are needed to help scientists interpret data.

All of the particles predicted by the Standard Model of Particle Physics, or the theory that attempts to explain how the fundamental building blocks of the universe interact, have been discovered in recent decades. But scientists know the model is incomplete; for example, it doesn’t explain or incorporate gravity.

“We don’t have enough data to understand for certain what is out there yet, but a number of extensions of the Standard Model could make sense for mathematical reasons, such as the superpartners predicted by the theory of supersymmetry,” Younkin says.

“It’s also always possible that the LHC experiment will produce something that we don’t expect whatsoever,” Younkin adds. “That’s exciting, too.”