The lab of Mikel Holcomb, associate professor of physics and astronomy, contains an optics table with an ultrafast laser. It is designed to pump a lot of power into a sample in order to see what that increase in energy does to material properties. Those properties reveal how they would work as devices. (WVU Photo/Brian Persinger)

NASA-funded physics research at WVU aims to create new stars among local teachers and HBCU students

West Virginia University physicists are helping NASA measure light from distant stars and involving local high school science teachers in the process.

Mikel Holcomb, associate professor in the Eberly College Department of Physics and Astronomy, said she expects her team’s research into photon detector technologies to influence NASA missions, including the possible 2030 launch of the far-IR Probe as well as the development of technology for the Great Observatories — four observatories, floating in space, that conduct astronomical studies over visible, gamma-ray, X-ray and infrared wavelengths.

Holcomb’s colleagues, physics faculty members Alan Bristow, Matthew Johnson and Aldo Romero, are also closely involved in the research, which focuses on the introduction of impurities into the material of a superconductor.

By supporting endeavors like the high-altitude balloon mission Experiment for Cryogenic Large-Aperture Intensity Mapping, their work may deepen our understanding of the formation of stars. While NASA has detector technology with sufficient sensitivity for the EXCLAIM mission, Holcomb said her team’s study of fabrication processes has “already started to provide direct and surprising answers that could improve the detector technology for next-generation, space-based integrated spectrometer missions.”

Detectors are tools that measure individual photons, or packets of light, in different ways, including by converting the photons into heat. Photons measured in these ways can teach astronomers about the size, age and motion of galactic objects and may be produced by “anything from an X-ray to an infrared emitter,” Holcomb said, emphasizing that the detectors must be “finely tuned to deliver maximal sensitivity for the specific photon source.”

Her team’s work supports that fine-tuning by investigating why variations between critical temperature and superconductor resistance are occurring for different materials and devices, and why NASA is seeing unexpected instabilities when adding a dopant, or impurity, into the superconductor in order to change the critical temperature.

The study, titled “Surface States and Doping in Aluminum Prototypes for NASA Detector Development” and funded by a $750,000 grant from NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, doesn’t just focus on signals from distant galaxies. Much closer to home, two undergraduate students from two West Virginia historically Black colleges and universities will join Holcomb’s team, contributing to research and learning competitive, cutting-edge skills such as X-ray photoemission spectroscopy, X-ray absorption spectroscopy and ultrafast optics.

The project also seeks to change the local landscape of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics, in West Virginia by working directly with teachers to develop lesson plans using the data generated by Holcomb’s research. Through a collaboration with the WVU Center for Excellence in STEM Education, local high-school science teachers will participate in CodeWV, a professional learning program focusing on curriculum development and software skills. Participating teachers will work with Holcomb’s team on developing curriculum for their students around her research.

“These teachers will return to their classrooms with new knowledge of contemporary and highly visible applications of science to NASA missions,” Holcomb said, “and the finalized materials will be provided to teachers throughout West Virginia, as well as across the 52 NASA Space Grant Consortiums.”

According to Vision 2025, the most recent update of West Virginia’s science and technology plan, 60% of adults will need a two-year or four-year degree by 2030, while only 31% of adult West Virginians hold such a degree. Nationally, STEM occupations are projected to grow twice as fast as occupations overall over the next decade.

“Kids need to be inspired and supported to enter and persist through STEM degree programs,” Holcomb said, “and no government agency has the cachet with young students that NASA has.”

SHOPS & SERVICES

Featured

Buckhannon: Then & Now – Scott’s Service Station

Buckhannon: Then and Now. Join us in showcasing Upshur County throughout history and today. Scott’s Service Station was owned by Tennerton’s own Harold Scott. This was a full-service station where drivers would pull in to

Artistry on Main calls for local artisans to join the cooperative

BUCKHANNON – Calling all artists: foster creativity within yourself and your community at Artistry on Main. The gallery is currently seeking talented individuals to join their prestigious cooperative of local artists. “It’s just great being

Buckhannon: Then & Now – Scott’s Service Station

Buckhannon: Then and Now. Join us in showcasing Upshur County throughout history and today. Scott’s Service Station was owned by Tennerton’s own Harold Scott. This was a full-service station where drivers would pull in to

SBA funding for major capital improvements — like a new middle school — is on hold for now

ROCK CAVE – The costs of many everyday items have been climbing for some time, and building materials are certainly no exception. As a result of inflation, the School Building Authority of West Virginia has had to adjust its plans […]

There’s more to this story! Unlock immediate access to everything on our site and get two extra months free when you subscribe for a year. Signing up is easy — just tap the button below.

Notre Dame High School, WVWC formalize partnership to enhance creative, performing arts education

BUCKHANNON – Notre Dame High School and West Virginia Wesleyan College have will collaborate to enhance students’ exposure to and experience with the creative and performing arts. Representatives from Notre Dame and WVWC signed an agreement during a luncheon Wednesday, […]

There’s more to this story! Unlock immediate access to everything on our site and get two extra months free when you subscribe for a year. Signing up is easy — just tap the button below.

SHOPS & SERVICES

Lady Soccer ‘Cats fall at home to No. 23 Frostburg State, 1-0

BUCKHANNON, W.Va – The West Virginia Wesleyan (1-7-1, 1-5-1) women’s soccer team dropped a Mountain East Conference game to #23 Frostburg State (9-0, 7-0) on Wednesday (Sept. 28) night at Buckhannon-Upshur High School Stadium. The

Soccer ‘Cats earn 1-1 tie on the road with Frostburg State

FROSTBURG, Md. — The West Virginia Wesleyan (4-2-3, 2-2-3) men’s soccer team earned a point against Frostburg State (2-5-3, 1-5-3) by a score of 1-1 on Wednesday (Sept. 28) at Bobcat Stadium. Wesleyan’s Sinasi Emre

Football Buc still 18th in WVSSAC ratings

AAA Rank School Rating Won Lost Tied Scored Allowed Points Bonus 1 PARKERSBURG SOUTH 13.8 5 0 0 295 62 60 9 2 SPRING VALLEY 13 4 0 0 126 87 42 10 3 MARTINSBURG

SHOPS & SERVICES