Otterbein Physics Professor Awarded Fourth NSF Grant

Posted Jun 30, 2020

Otterbein Department of Physics Chair and Professor Nathaniel Tagg has been awarded his fourth National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for research on neutrinos. 

Professor Nathaniel Tagg
Professor Nathaniel Tagg

“These grants are a huge deal for us,” said Tagg. “We can hire students to work in the summers on these experiments, letting undergraduates get a bite of real, cutting-edge science.” 

The NSF grants pay for travel for Tagg and his students, primarily to the Fermi National Accelerator Lab outside Chicago, where many experiments are hosted. Students are also paid salaries and much needed computers and equipment can be procured to make meaningful contributions to the research. 

Neutrinos are one of the fundamental particles which make up the universe. According to the Fermi National Accelerator Lab website, studying neutrinos provides a tool “to learn how matter evolved from simple particles into more complex composites of particles, creating everything around us.”  

Tagg does research with MicroBooNE, an experiment that uses a sensitive detector called “Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber” to observe neutrino interactions.  MicroBooNE has a goal of investigating an anomaly that could mean new physics, or could mean a misunderstanding of neutrino-nucleus interactions.

Professor Nathaniel Tagg
Peter Watkins (left) and Philip Kellogg (right) Peter Watkins, former research students with Tagg

The newest research Tagg and students will undertake with this NSF grant is DUNE, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment. This type of research is similar to MicroBooNE but much larger and has a detector miles below the Earth’s surface in South Dakota, free of any atmospheric interference, and far along the neutrino beam.

“I usually take my research students to Fermilab for a few weeks so they can see how the professionals play. They get to see how it’s possible for more than 100 scientists to all have a conversation at once and make decisions. I want to give them a taste of how work gets done, show them how amazingly complex it is and how they can understand it enough to start to help,” said Tagg. 

Tagg was hoping to begin research under this new grant during the summer of 2020, but now has plans to request a no-cost extension of the grant due to COVID-19 safety protocols making progress at Fermilab slower than normal. 

When the experiments resume, Otterbein students from a variety of STEM majors will have the research opportunity of a lifetime, helping to better understand the universe. 

“They get to help fix a small problem or quantify something we’re not sure about, or make a plot that leads us to a decision,” said Tagg, “and that is truly a worthwhile venture.”