Physics Professor Awarded Grant to Calibrate Particle Detector

Dr. Fatiha Benmokhtar, assistant professor of physics in the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Science, will lead a group of Duquesne undergraduate students to calibrate an enormous particle detector to study strange quarks—one of several unimaginably small building blocks that make up matter throughout the universe.

“The smaller the object you want to study, the bigger the device you have to use,” Benmokhtar said. “If you want to study cells, you use a microscope. If you want to study atoms, you use an electron-microscope the size of a desk. And if you want to study the nucleus of an atom, you use a particle accelerator bigger than Duquesne’s campus.”

Benmokhtar’s current research in experimental nuclear physics will help improve just such a particle accelerator at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia. Benmokhtar was awarded a $183,000 grant to be dispersed over three years from the National Science Foundation to, with the help of student researchers, develop data analysis software that will be used to calibrate a classroom-sized particle detector called a Ring Imaging Cherenkov detector (RICH), which is part of the larger accelerator. The RICH is used to separate and identify different types of charged particles as they pass through materials within the detector. In this instance, Benmokhtar and her team are calibrating the detector to isolate kaons, the particles that contain strange quarks.

“This is an incredible grant for a department like ours. We are small and have no Ph.D. or postdoctoral programs, so our researchers are all undergraduates. It’s a wonderful opportunity to offer my students this level of experiential learning,” Benmokhtar said.

Construction of the RICH is a joint effort of researchers from Italy, England, Germany, Chile, and the U.S., including Benmokhtar and her team who will conduct their research on Duquesne’s campus and at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility where the RICH will be installed.