Luther College physics professor receives $150,000 NSF research grant
September 23, 2021
Luther College Physics Professor Todd Pedlar has received his sixth consecutive National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant, in the amount of $150,000.
This grant, renewed every 3 years, represents 18 years of continuous funding and supports Pedlar’s and his students’ research in elementary particle physics to better understand the building blocks of the universe.
“Elementary particle physics is a field of fundamental physics studies. We are looking at the properties of the smallest building blocks of matter. Our studies are aimed at understanding just what the universe is made of,” said Pedlar. “Much of the technology that enables us to detect cancers and treat them were developed from tools and techniques originally designed for conducting fundamental research. This would include x-ray machines, MRI and other diagnostic tools that allow us to look into the brain and find tumors or anomalies that need treatment. Many of these important tools and techniques have a deep connection to the study of fundamental physics.”
Todd Pedlar and his students are conducting research as members of the international collaborations Belle and Belle II which do their work at KEK, Japan’s High Energy Research Organization, located in Tsukuba, Japan. These collaborations include over 1,000 members from 125 institutions in 26 countries who all have individual roles in operating the experiment.
“One of the working groups to which I contribute is responsible for the software used to study the performance of the detector’s ability to be able to separate particle type from particle type, which is one of the primary jobs the detector does in order to study the physics processes we’re interested in,” said Pedlar.
Obtaining this type of grant is rare for undergraduate institutions such as Luther. According to Pedlar, Luther is one of only three liberal arts colleges in the U.S. that have active research programs in this field, providing Luther students with a very unique opportunity.
“Students involved in this research get to connect with and interact with colleagues of mine from Japan, China, Germany, Italy and many others from research universities and labs in the U.S. It’s kind of exciting from the student standpoint as we come together to work on a common project with international partners, and for undergrads, this opportunity just isn’t often heard of,” said Pedlar.
The funding, provided by the NSF, enables Pedlar and his students to engage in this worldly and purposeful research at the frontiers of particle physics, and contribute to a number of tasks and projects with their collaborators.
“Without the support of the NSF, I would not be doing this work. Over the years the NSF has funded my computing resources, travel to the experimental sites – currently regular travel to Japan – as well as travel to domestic and international conferences where my students and I have presented our results,” said Pedlar. “Without this funding, it would be essentially impossible to have this level of research going on at a liberal arts college like Luther and maintain an active research group as part of the Belle II Collaboration.”
This research is extremely influential in the lives of Pedlar’s students. Over the past 15 years, nine of his students have gone on to obtain, or are in the process of studying for Ph.D.s; three others have obtained their masters in physics, mathematics, or engineering; one is pursuing a law degree and four have entered the workforce.
John Zarling, a particle physics postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University, attributes his chosen career path to the research he did at Luther.
“Research with Dr. Pedlar changed my whole life trajectory. Particle physics was always something that interested me, but I never thought that I’d get a chance to explore it until working with Dr. Pedlar,” said Zarling. “Also, in my life at large, I think the research has really given me the confidence to know that no matter how intimidating an obstacle in front of me, I can keep working at it and will eventually find a way through, no matter how impossible it seems at first.”
With new funding secured, Pedlar is looking to the future of this research as it will continue well into 2030. In that time, he hopes that he can continue to contribute answers to some of the world’s biggest questions.
“Ultimately it’s the other side of science,” said Pedlar. “It’s pure, it’s understanding how the structure of the universe has come to be and is maintained. That is the heart of what I do. It’s like looking at the night sky. Whether gazing at the stars or peering deeply into the center of the atom, for me it’s all connected to a common human desire to express wonder at the beauty of the world.”
What Pedlar’s students are saying
Dallas Wulf ’12
“My research experience with Dr. Pedlar was undoubtedly an important factor in my admission to graduate school, as well as in my continued success in that environment. Although the subject of my research has changed over time, the core skills that I learned at Luther continue to be valuable.”
John Zarling ’13
“My research with Dr. Pedlar gave me a solid foundation with all the tools I needed for my grad school. I felt like I had a leg up on the other students coming in straight from undergrad.”
Nicholas Behrens ’21
“My particle physics research with Dr. Pedlar was a fantastic, invaluable and life-changing opportunity. For two summers, I was able to gain hands-on experience and strengthen my research skills in critical thinking, writing and coding. I’m confident that my work with the high-energy accelerator program helped me grow in my learning, enhanced my applications to Ph.D. programs in electrical engineering and applied physics, and established a foundation for my future academic and professional careers.”
About Luther College
Luther College is home to about 1,800 undergraduates who explore big questions and take action to benefit people, communities and society. Our 60+ academic programs, experiential approach to learning and welcoming community inspire students to learn actively, live purposefully and lead courageously for a lifetime of impact. Learn more at luther.edu.