Physics professor wins prestigious KITP Scholar Award

Author: Naya Tadavarthy

Lan Nguyen 500

Lan Quynh Nguyen has been looking at the stars ever since her father showed her how to identify constellations on summer nights in her hometown in Vietnam. This passion for astronomy has earned the Notre Dame adjunct associate professor of physics a Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) Scholar Award, which will allow her to pursue her research on dark matter and gravitational waves in the institute’s collaborative and interdisciplinary environment. 

“It’s the top tier institute in theoretical physics,” Nguyen said. “It’s a real honor to get that award. I feel really grateful.”

Only six to eight faculty members from teaching-focused colleges and universities across the country receive the KITP Scholar Award each year, and Nguyen looks forward to the chance to exchange ideas and “chalk talk” with scientists from around the world. She will explore the theoretical aspects of using gravitational waves to observe dark matter.

Dark matter makes up about 27% of the universe, but scientists cannot see it using just a traditional telescope and the electromagnetic spectrum. Instead, gravitational waves, first detected in 2015, have become a new tool to illuminate this hidden aspect of the universe. 

“When we use gravitational waves, we can study not only the things we cannot ‘see,’ like black holes,” Nguyen explained, “but also ‘hear’ the sound from the objects to understand the inner structure, to have a detailed picture of our universe.” 

At the Kavli Institute, Nguyen will not do the experiments and observation herself but rather focus on computational methods to theoretically explain these phenomena. KITP’s unique format will aid Nguyen in these endeavors, as the Institute brings together experts from a wide range of fields for an extended period of time to develop and share ideas. Through the Scholars Program, Nguyen will travel to KITP’s campus at the University of California Santa Barbara for a total of six weeks between 2021 and 2023. 

Nguyen is excited to further her research with the faculty at this prestigious institution, whose website explains: “Research in conjunction with KITP programming has a greater impact on researchers than research conducted in conjunction with any other facility, according to a study whose findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” 

In fact, KITP’s fundamental principle of collaboration aligns with Nguyen’s own philosophy on the power of working together. 

“Especially in my field it’s an honor to collaborate with researchers from around the world,” she said. “Collaboration makes our research...more successful. We think that together we can go further.”