U-M collaboration to receive DOE grant to diversify physics

September 20, 2023
Concept illustration of a diverse group of students studying physics in a lab. Image credit: Nicole Smith, made with Midjourney

The University of Michigan, Black Hills State University in South Dakota and Benedictine University in Illinois have received a $1.125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to recruit students of diverse backgrounds into the field of physics.

The grant, Reaching a New Energy Sciences Workforce, is awarded to the institutes with the aim of recruiting students from diverse backgrounds into the science and technology fields. The grant will focus on including rural students, Native American students and students from underserved urban backgrounds.

The universities developed this collaboration at the Sanford Underground Research Facility, or SURF, in Lead, South Dakota, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. SURF was constructed in a former gold mine. Its sensitive equipment is located deep underground, where the detectors researchers build are protected from cosmic rays. One of the lab’s key focuses is the search for dark matter, a hypothetical form of matter.

Through the collaboration, a U-M graduate student based at SURF will lead a team of BHSU undergraduates and work with BHSU to develop research knowledge and infrastructure.

Bjoern Penning
Bjoern Penning

“These universities are playing a double role. They have a strong educational role in their communities, and their researchers teach a tremendous amount, but they don’t have graduate students or postdoctoral researchers to assist with research. Despite that, they make important impacts to the experiment,” said Bjoern Penning, U-M associate professor of physics and principal investigator of the grant.

“This grant enables us to work with these universities to develop a strong science track record. In the long term, we hope to attract undiscovered talent into science. They are doing fantastic work and I think we’re losing out on talent and potential by not trying to attract students like this.”

Each summer, a cohort of six to eight BHSU and Benedictine undergraduate students will spend 10 weeks performing research at U-M, where they will also gain professional, writing and research skills. Following the summer program, the students will continue in a year-long project at their home institution for further research and professional development.

Brianna Mount
Brianna Mount

“In this collaborative effort, our institutions each bring unique strengths to the table,” said Brianna Mount, associate professor of physics at BHSU. “The University of Michigan, a global research leader, is actively engaged in significant scientific endeavors. BHSU has close proximity to SURF, while Benedictine University’s proximity to Fermilab is equally advantageous.

“By working together, our universities can ensure a wider range of students from various backgrounds enter graduate school for STEM while strengthening the research programs at smaller colleges.”

Penning and Mount are both actively involved in the LZ dark matter experiment at SURF, which laid the foundation for this collaboration. Additionally, a cohort of Benedictine University undergraduates will work with Benedictine physicist Matt Wiesner and U-M physicist Marcelle Soares-Santos at Fermilab. Wiesner and Soares-Santos work together on dark energy and cosmology research.

Finally, Penning also developed the UN/EARTH exhibit with Gina Gibson, BHSU professor of digital communication and first artist-in-residence at SURF. The exhibit, which features Gibson’s work, “explores science and art from a mile underground,” according to the exhibit announcement. It is presently on display at the U-M Museum of Natural History.