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The Brownsville Herald

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy played an integral role in an historic scientific discoveryannounced just last month.


That’s a big deal for the center, the physics department, UTRGV and the Valley as a whole, according to Dr. Soma Mukherjee, professor of physics and the department’s interim chair.

The discovery of gravitational waves, announced at a National Science Foundation press conference in Washington D.C. on Feb. 11, proves Einstein’s century-old gravitational wave theory and promises to revolutionize the field of astronomy.

With the news still fresh, Mukherjee thinks now is a good time to shine a light on something few Valley residents know exists right in their own backyard: one of the nation’s top physics programs — which is already attracting new students thanks to its part in the recent discovery.

Mukherjee said UTRGV’s gravitational wave team is the largest in the state and among the biggest in the country. 
 

“The discovery, it’s an historical event,” she said. “But at the same time, the community needs to know that the people who directly contributed to this, they are right here.” 

In fact, the algorithm that enabled the first gravitational- wave detection — at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana, in September — grew out of a master’s thesis by William Robert Johnston, a former physics graduate student at Brownsville. 

UTRGV professor of physics Dr. Soumya Mohanty and associate professor of physics Dr. Malik Rakhmanov collaborated on developing the algorithm with two Florida professors. Before coming to Brownsville, Rakhmanov was part of the team that built the LIGO facility in Louisiana and another one like it Hanford, Washington — the only two such facilities in the United States. 

Mohanty, Mukherjee and Rakhmanov have a close bond, having worked together early in their careers. 

“When we were postdocs, before we became professors — even after we joined as young assistant professors — we were working at the Livingston observatory, even on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day,” Mukherjee said. “Because you have to constantly sit there and monitor, right there in the control room.” 

Rakhmanov said talented scientists are drawn to work together, which is how UTRGV wound up with its crack physics department, including the gravitational wave center’s roughly dozen core faculty members. 

“That’s what happened here in the Valley,” he said. “In some ways, it makes UTRGV a very special campus of the UT System. Of course, Austin is so much bigger and more powerful, but in this particular aspect we’re unique to the system.” 

Rakhmanov said Valley students with a talent for physics should know they don’t have to leave home to workinatopdepartment.His own journey to UTRGV is thanks to Mohanty and Mukherjee, who convinced him to come to Brownsville anddoexperimentalresearch. Before Rakhmanov’s arrival in2008,thegravitationalwave center was almost entirely devoted to theoretical research, he said. 

The trio’s efforts resulted in a National Science Foundation grant totaling $1 million a year for five years. Rakhmanov got started by building the center’s first lab. 

“It’s full of LIGO optics,” he said. “It’s very nice. That was a nice starting point, because almost right away we hired Dr. (Volker) Quetschke and several others. Now we have five or six labs that are on par with what Austin would have.” 

“We now have instrumentation in our labs that other universities are coming to use,” Mohanty said. 

He said UTRGV now has faculty in every type of gravitational-wave detection: ground-based, such as LIGO, and two future modes of detection: spacebased instrumentation and “pulsar timing.” The latter relies on constantly spinning neutron stars — pulsars — at different points in the galaxy to detect ultra-low-frequency gravitational waves. 

“We have opened up positions in all the different areas, across the whole field,” he said. “What we are doing now is we are trying to expand into other areas of physics, because the gravitational wave group is already optimal. 

“We have been able to attract really good faculty members. Actually, recently we hired two: one from UC Berkeley and the other from Columbia. They are already on campus. That’s how a place grows. You build a nucleus of good research, and then you’re able to attract talented people.” 

Mukherjee said the department aims to capitalize on its role in scientific history and predicted the discovery would have a profound effect on astronomy and related sciences. 

“That in turn is going to attract more students,” she said. “It’s not just gravitational waves alone. It’s impacting the interdisciplinary fields.” 

“We have started a new field all together,” Mohanty said. “Dr. Rakhmanov has branched out into what is called nanophotonics, which is a very hot field right now.” 

Two new faculty have already been hired for that, Mohanty said. 

“We are beginning to diversify using the core gravitational-wave group’s success as a springboard,” he said. “We are presenting many more opportunities to thestudentshere.Theydon’t all have to do gravitational waves. They can do all kinds of exciting things in biophysics, in material sciences and so on and so forth.” 

Mukherjee said the department was already well known for its research and ability to win federal grants — $35 million over the last 15 years — though the LIGO discovery will mean even more A-list students and faculty eyeing the Valley. UTRGV physics students will continue to be “at the very forefront of science globally,” she said. 

“I think we are on the map in a much bigger way,” Mukherjee said. “I think that’s great for the Rio Grande Valley and for all our students.”

 

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