Published: Jan. 21, 2021

CU Boulder physicist plans to use the award to pursue cutting-edge plasma-physics research

Michael Litos, assistant professor of physics at the University of Colorado Boulder, has won an Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The CAREER Program, one of the NSF’s most prestigious awards, supports early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The award also includes $650,000 in support of research, which for Litos will be used to advance plasma-physics research.

Michael Litos

Michael Litos

Litos said the “grand vision” underlying his research is the “democratization of cutting-edge research tools and techniques” that serve scientists in disciplines that range from physics, biology, chemistry and materials science. 

Specifically, much of his research field is focused on creating compact and affordable versions of the most advanced X-ray laser light sources—which are currently only available at national laboratories—by harnessing the “incredible properties of plasma (ionized gas) in various novel ways.” 

Litos noted that there are two primary components that compose these X-ray laser light sources: the electron accelerator and the X-ray radiator. “Researchers in my field have focused almost exclusively on ways to use a plasma-based approach to miniaturize the accelerator,” he said, adding: 

“My research project takes a different angle by focusing instead on the radiator part of the light source and asking the question, ‘What if we replace the conventional magnet-based radiator with a plasma?’” 

This approach would allow scientists to not only miniaturize the light source, but also gain “several interesting new degrees of flexibility, to boot,” Litos said. 

This research project will investigate these possibilities through experimental and theoretical methods, with the most critical experiments being carried out at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory's new FACET-II facility in California.

“Winning this award is certainly an enormous honor, and I am incredibly grateful for it,” Litos said, adding that it provides an opportunity to fund the research of promising young students who will carry out much of the work. 

“They are the engine that drives research forward; it would go nowhere without them,” he said. “Their success and the success of the research project itself are one and the same.”

Litos NSF

His project aims to help increase African American representation in physics PhD programs by providing a strong undergraduate research experience to students recruited from Historically Black Colleges and Universities in coordination with the NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates summer internship program run by CU Boulder. 

Additionally, his project will establish a new annual summer school retreat for graduate-level plasma physics students studying in Colorado to broaden the students’ educational exposure to different sub-fields of plasma physics, provide networking opportunities, and enhance their sense of community as plasma physicists, Litos’ proposal abstract states.

John Cary, CU Boulder professor of physics, said the award is well deserved: “Mike Litos has been a great addition to the physics department and brings exciting new fields, experiments of plasma acceleration of charged particles and associated radiation generation, to the University of Colorado.”

Litos earned his PhD in physics from Boston University in 2010 and joined the CU Boulder faculty in 2016. He is one of 118 members of the CU Boulder faculty who have won NSF CAREER awards since 1996.