The LSU College of Science faculty is made up some of the world’s leading scientific researchers and educators. With over 200 tenure-track from a variety of science disciplines, our faculty work hard to support science students as they progress through their courses and help provide a strong science and math foundation for the thousands of LSU students whose curricula require science and math classes.
Nuclear physicist and LSU alumnus Kristina Launey is one of the newest additions to the faculty in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. A second-generation physicist, Kristina was exposed to physics principles early by her father, a long-time physics professor at Sophia University in Palo Alta, California. Read the blog to learn more about Kristina and her exciting research.
College of Science: What was your earliest experience with physics?
Kristina: I would not lie if I say, I do not remember. My Dad, who has been a Professor of Physics at Sofia University for many years, had probably tried to explain “physics stuff” to me from my early days. He has continued to reveal the mysteries of physics to me while I was growing up… And I never ever regret!
College of Science: Tell us a bit about your research
Kristina: Atomic nuclei are ruled by quite interesting and intriguing physics. It’s the “condensed-matter physics” for nuclear matter – however, how exactly the strong force bonds protons and neutrons into diversity of nuclei is still not well understood and presents a foremost challenge. My colleagues and I in the nuclear theory group study nuclear structure and reactions from first principles (so-called “ab initio”) that are tied to the underlying physics of quarks and gluons. This powers our nuclear simulations with a predictive capability. This fundamentally differs from earlier phenomenological models, adjusted to experimental data for known nuclei.
The field of nuclear physics has changed. With the help of petascale supercomputers (a few millions times faster than an average laptop), we can provide nuclear structure information of unprecedented quality and scope. This helps us understand the fundamentals of the strong interaction, but is also key to finding answers to some of the biggest questions, from the tiny neutrinos to our universe (to mention a few): Is the neutrino its own antiparticle?, How are the elements formed?, or What are the conditions for successful fusion burning?
College of Science: What drew you to this research focus?
Kristina: Actually, it is “who” not “what.” This is my long-term mentor and colleague Roy P. Daniels Professor of Physics Jerry Draayer (who is also president and CEO of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, which manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility for the Department of Energy). He has made outstanding contributions to the understanding of the physics of the atomic nucleus at a fundamental level, while harnessing the power and further developing group theory and computational physics. His work and vision has motivated many to start the journey toward determining the complicated structure of nuclei.
College of Science: What do you get most excited about in talking about your research to audiences who are not scientists?
Kristina: The nice surprises and the new physics we discover! We are now writing and rewriting textbooks. Just recently, we were able to look inside a deformed nucleus of 20 particles. The complexity of this problem is enormous: presently, exact solutions exist only up to three particles and beyond this, numerical simulations are needed; our first-principle simulations for 20 particles required 50 million configurations compared to the impossible trillion configurations necessary in other ab initio models. Five years ago, we could not have even dreamed of performing such simulations.
Now is also the time when we start to unmask hidden features inside nuclei. Our ab initio approach utilizes a new, physically relevant basis or “coordinates.” Working with the “right” coordinates does make a difference – we see this all the time in physics – calculations become simpler or, even, solutions become feasible. Using this approach, we have exposed a novel, remarkably simple physical feature in atomic nuclei that is typically masked in other ab initio studies. This establishes, for the first time, the existence of a new approximate symmetry in atomic nuclei, emerging from the underlying physics of particles.
College of Science: What inspires you or keeps you motivated to pursue your research? What are the biggest day-to-day challenges in your field of research?
Kristina: No athlete can train hard without an aspiration to win the race. In my field, one can easily spend (long) days after (long) days working through complicated math or optimizing codes, but it is important to keep our eyes focused on what new physics we have learned today and will learn tomorrow. In computational physics, we also face the challenge of extracting essential information that might be lost in massive datasets (big data) – computers produce numbers but cannot give insights. It is our task to keep on searching for these insights; and even further, to use them to expand the reach of the theory, and not simply wait for better and bigger computers to come around.
College of Science: What are the biggest unanswered questions in your field of science/research?
Kristina: The field of nuclear physics is deeply connected to a vast array of astrophysical phenomena. One of the biggest questions is how the elements are formed, the so-called nucleosynthesis. It occurs during violent processes in the cosmos, such as stellar core collapse or neutron star mergers, but it is actually ruled by what happens at distances that are millionth of a nanometer – it is ruled by nuclei and their reactions. Another big question is how protons and neutrons come together to form a plethora of nuclei with variety of properties. Through the development of novel theoretical and computational strategies, many intricate and enigmatic physical processes are now beginning to be unraveled. This is indeed quite interesting physics for students to explore and make future discoveries!
College of Science: What are you most proud of in your career so far?
Kristina: I have been very fortunate to work with many talented students – undergraduate and graduate, as well as REU students. Addressing a 60-year-old puzzle, the elusive Hoyle state in Carbon-12 essential for astrophysics, started as the REU project of Ali Dreyfuss (currently, a graduate student with me), who published her pilot findings in the leading Physics Letters B journal. Another graduate student, Grigor Sargsyan, has discovered new features of the nuclear interaction and has recently started to tackle the challenging Calcium-48 that can help addressing one of the most fundamental problems in physics today: if the neutrino is its own antiparticle. I work closely with Jerry Draayer’s graduate students Robert Baker, who has achieved first ab initio descriptions of nuclei beyond the lightest species (Phys. Rev. Lett. in preparation), and David Kekejian, who has provided further insight into the deformation of nuclei. I am also proud with the outstanding work and achievements of my undergraduate students: Harvey Shows has been recently awarded the prestigious Astronaut Scholarship Foundation (ASF) scholarship (http://www.lsu.edu/science/news_events/cos-news-events/LSUASF2016.php); Sean Laughlin has shown impressive work on improving code efficacy; Logan Woosely has explored short-lived nuclei inaccessible to experiment; as well as undergraduates from previous years (to mention a few): Greg Tobin, who was admitted to LSU’s Medical School, and Mia Ferris, who graduated with Honors from LSU, have unveiled how collectivity and clustering is formed in nuclei and published in Phys. Rev. C; Jonathan Curole is now a graduate student in nuclear physics at Indiana University Bloomington; REU student Madeline Miora, whose studied research focuses on nuclear superfluidity, was awardedhas received the CEU award at the 2015 DNP APS meeting, together with and received an honorable mention for a best poster.
College of Science: What excites you most about being at LSU?
Kristina: LSU is home to the physics department and I am proud to be a part of its world-leading research. It is also home to LIGO, the place that can now “hear” gravitational waves, and to CAMD, the particle accelerator we have in our “back yard.” Last but not least, LSU is home to many amazing people who are ready to help and give to those in need, as seen in the aftermaths of the recent historic flooding.
College of Science: Louisiana is known for its food and eclectic culture. What have you enjoyed most about being in Louisiana?
Kristina: The hospitality! Also, I love the food, I have learned to eat boiled crawfish, and I have enjoyed the best bread pudding. I also like the plantations and the unique perspective they reveal about local history.
College of Science: What courses will you be teaching?
Kristina: I am currently teaching Electricity & Magnetism for technical students. I have also taught undergraduate-level computational science to physics majors. I plan to teach the graduate-level nuclear physics course next year.
College of Science: What is your approach to teaching and what can students expect from your classes?
Kristina: I love teaching. In high school, I remember how fascinated I was when in class when I heard for the first time how particle accelerators worked. Now I have the chance to unveil the mysteries of physics to my students. And yet, I believe that a good teaching should go beyond the lessons in physics, it should give lessons for life. I often engage my students during class, ask them to work in group and to think through a concept; they work on projects, help each other; and I try to foster good work ethic and consideration to people around. I hope that this would prepare the students to become good and creative professionals, team players, and future leaders. However, I cannot do this on my own. Students are the “main component” of teaching. With physics being a subject that requires a lot of practice to be mastered, students should expect to devote great effort and considerable time. And of course, I am always there to help.
You can learn more about LSU’s nuclear theory research efforts at http://www.lsu.edu/physics/PetaApps. The website also includes an Educational Outreach center, where interested students may find helpful tools.