Published: Feb. 13, 2020

Cottrell Awards recognize young scholars who integrate scientific teaching and research

Dennis Perepelitsa, an experimental nuclear physicist at the University of Colorado Boulder, is one of 25 early career scholars in chemistry, physics and astronomy to win a 2020 Cottrell Scholar Award, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) announced last week. 

Dennis V. Perepelitsa Assistant Professor, Physics Department

Above: Dennis V. Perepelitsa, assistant professor of physics. Photo Courtesy of Dennis V. Perepelitsa.  At the top of the page: A rendering of a high-energy collision event recorded by the ATLAS Experiment in July 2018. ATLAS Experiment © 2020 CERN.


The group, which calls itself America's first foundation dedicated wholly to science, bestows Cottrell Awards on young scholars who are identified as leaders in integrating science, teaching and research. Each winner, who is chosen through a rigorous peer-review process, receives $100,000.

Perepelitsa, CU Boulder assistant professor of physics, won the award for his project, titled Next-Generation Experimental Probes of Hot and Dense Nuclear Matter.

Perepelitsa’s research takes place at the two large particle colliders around the world: the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider in New York. 

At these facilities, large nuclei are accelerated to ultra-relativistic speeds and brought into collisions which create Quark-Gluon Plasma. This ultra-hot, ultra-dense material is an exotic phase of matter which is composed of deconfined quarks and gluons, Perepelitsa explained in his proposal abstract. 

“Remarkably, this rare and evanescent phase of matter, which briefly pervaded the entire universe shortly after the Big Bang, appears to flow as an almost completely inviscid liquid. Understanding how this perfect fluidity emerges from the nature of the strong nuclear interaction between quarks and gluons is a fundamental challenge in modern nuclear physics,” he continued.

He proposes to address this question with a program at both colliders that capitalizes on rare, experimentally advantageous channels enabled by new collision data to be recorded in the early 2020s and state-of-the-art experiment/theory interfaces. 

Perepelitsa’s winning proposal also focuses on teaching. The next generation of Quark-Gluon Plasma research, as with many other fields of physics, will require scientists with significant technical skills, he wrote. To that end, physics professor Ethan Neil, Perepelitsa’s colleague at CU Boulder, had recently developed a scientific computing elective class for undergraduates.

“I propose to build upon these initial steps and create a comprehensive framework of computational physics material for use in upper-division courses," Perepelitsa wrote, adding that he would share the results with the physics-education community.

"This award will allow my group to significantly enhance our study of novel Quark-Gluon Plasma phenomena and potentially shed a light into the behavior of the early universe."

Perepelitsa expressed gratitude for the recognition and support, saying: 

“This award will allow my group to significantly enhance our study of novel Quark-Gluon Plasma phenomena and potentially shed a light into the behavior of the early universe. Modern physics is increasingly collaborative, with young people playing a major role in all aspects of the experiment. Today’s undergraduates are tomorrow’s expert physicists—this is why I’m so excited to make sure that young scientists in training have access to computational tools and methods.”

John Cumalat, chair of the CU Boulder Department of Physics, praised Perepelitsa’s initiative, noting that faculty members recognize the need to introduce computing in the mainstream courses but rarely have the time to provide consistent exercises that require computing expertise.

Perepelitsa’s plan “can have a major impact on our physics majors’ development and will better prepare our graduates for future research opportunities and careers,” Cumalat said, adding that Perepelitsa will play a leading role in institutionalizing scientific computing within the department.

Perepelitsa joined the CU Boulder physics faculty in 2016. He earned a PhD in physics from Columbia University and holds undergraduate degrees in physics and mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He won an Early Career Award from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2017, which provides $750,000 in research funding for his experimental nuclear physics program over five years.

“We are excited to welcome our 2020 class of Cottrell Scholars, 25 outstanding teacher-scholars in the physical sciences from across the country,” said RCSA President and CEO Daniel Linzer.

“The quality of the applicants and the many terrific proposals we receive can make it difficult to choose,” said RCSA Senior Program Director Silvia Ronco. “We look for innovative ideas that are likely to make a positive impact on science and on the education of tomorrow’s scientists.”

Once designated a Cottrell Scholar, several additional levels of competitive funding become available to develop initiatives to enhance science education or promote career growth.

New and established Cottrell Scholars also meet each year to share insights and inspiration at the Cottrell Scholar Conference. This year’s event, to be held July 8-10 in Tucson, Ariz., will focus on cultivating an entrepreneurial mindset through research and educational activities.

The full list of 2020 Cottrell Scholars is available at this link.

detector in various stages of construction

A view looking through the calorimeter system inside the cryostat of the ATLAS Experiment. ATLAS Experiment © 2004 CERN.