Published: May 14, 2024 By

Shivank ChaddaPhysics major Shivank Chadda’s outstanding research project has earned him a Spring 2024 Stephen Halley White Undergraduate Research Award, the highest honor for undergraduates in physics.

Established in 2013 by alumnus Stephen White (Phys’63), the award recognizes exceptional undergraduate research projects. As an undergraduate at CU Boulder, Dr. White held several research positions which made an impact on his future career, leading him to create the award.

Not only was Chadda’s research project truly outstanding, but he also had a unique path to studying physics at CU Boulder.

From the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to Boulder, Colorado 

Growing up on remote islands of India, Chadda and his family narrowly survived the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. “We were incredibly lucky to survive, but the tsunami waves completely destroyed our home, and a large portion of the surrounding land was submerged under the sea permanently,” he said.

They relocated to Port Blair to rebuild, which is where he spent most of his childhood. Despite having limited internet access until the age of 18, Chadda discovered his passion for physics while living in Port Blair.

“I learned physics mainly from books, my brother, my father, and some truly inspiring teachers.”

Once he decided to pursue physics, his brother – who was already pursuing a PhD in the United States – served as his mentor.

“When I expressed my desire to become a physicist, he encouraged me, saying, ‘If you're serious about pursuing physics, you should aim for the best—come to the USA.’"

From there, the brothers crafted a list of top universities for physics in the United States, and CU Boulder was on the list.

Pursuing interstellar dust research 

During his second year, Chadda pursued a research project on interstellar dust with Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences (APS) Assistant Professor David Malaspina after being awarded support through the CU STEM Routes program. The project took shape – and significantly expanded – over the course of two years.  

“My research project aimed to deepen our understanding of the dynamics of interstellar dust (ISD) within our solar system, particularly how the interplanetary magnetic field lines of the sun influence these charged dust particles that travel across our solar system,” said Chadda.

Describing the project further, Chadda said “First, we analyzed dust impact data from three different spacecraft. This analysis revealed signatures of solar rotation, indicating that the charged dust particles are influenced by the Sun's interplanetary magnetic field lines.”

“Following this, I developed a 2D test particle model based on the fundamentals of physics and solar physics—specifically, Newton's laws of motion and Maxwell's equations. The simulations from this model produced results that closely mirrored the data we had previously analyzed, thus allowing us to describe the method of modulation of ISD within our solar system under the influence of the sun’s rotation.”

Chadda’s work led to a research discovery, and he is first author on a publication being submitted to peer-reviewed journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

“Throughout his project, Shivank consistently pushed to expand his analysis, to try new techniques, and to explore further,” Malaspina said. “Shivank’s drive and dedication paid off when he uncovered a physical phenomena that had never before been reported: the rotating magnetic field of the Sun becomes imprinted on the flow of interstellar dust through the solar system. Shivank’s hard work enabled this discovery.”

Research project earns top honors 

Shivank ChaddaChadda’s outstanding research project earned him a summa cum laude designation from the College of Arts & Sciences Honors Program, and the Physics Honors Council Representatives selected him to receive one of two Stephen Halley White Undergraduate Research Awards awarded this semester.

Professor John Cumalat lauded Chadda’s research accomplishments. Cumalat served on his honors defense committee as the Physics Honors Council Representative.

"It is extremely rare for an undergraduate to identify a phenomena that hasn't yet been observed by the broader community, but it is further unusual to have the student develop a simple model to explain the observation,” said Cumalat. “Both Shivank and his advisor Professor David Malaspina deserve special recognition for an outstanding honors project."

Shivank was elated when he heard the news.

“Growing up in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where I was surrounded by nature but isolated from much of the modern world, including the internet, this achievement felt monumental,” he said. “This award acknowledged my identity as a physicist – as someone who aspired to be a physicist from a young age.”

What’s next? 

After spending four years at CU Boulder, Chadda is planning to return to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to work on organic farming and help with his dad’s construction business. 

“India is facing a significant challenge due to the use of pesticides, overuse of fertilizers, and inefficient farming methods, resulting in low-quality produce that can occasionally be dangerous for human consumption,” said Chadda. He plans to help solve this challenge by “developing a technology-driven, water-optimized large-scale agricultural farm and starting a brand to sell organic produce at a reasonable cost.” 

Shivank Chadda was recognized for this award at the Spring 2024 Physics Recognition Ceremony on May 10, 2024.