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Physics Department Research Areas

Photograph by Despina Chatzifotiadou, March 30, 2010) Particle tracks fly out from one of the first collisions at 7 TeV (seven trillion electronvolts) at the Large Hadron Collider. An active galaxy










The faculty in the Physics Department at the University of the Pacific are internationally recognized researchers in their fields of study. They received their PhD degrees from MIT, Penn State, the Universities of Maryland, Minnesota and Madrid, and have been researchers at UC Berkeley, Santa Cruz, San Diego, Irvine, the Universities of Zurich, Bern, Arizona, Chile, and NASA.  Links to their research careers can be found on the CVs on their individual webpages (see the Directory), and they are invited to give presentations on their work at conferences around the world each year.

The faculty have won over $900,000 in research funding from agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation, the Space Sciences Institute, and Google to support their research in the following areas:

Particle Physics and Lattice Gauge Theory 

This is a branch of particle physics in which the mathematics of the quantum nature of subatomic particles is formulated in a way that enables the equations to be solved by computers. Students working on research projects with this group will learn and use various areas of knowledge, particularly including:

  • quantum field theory (relativistic quantum mechanics)
  • sophisticated mathematics—both abstract areas such as topology and group theory (the mathematics of symmetry), as well as applied methods such as linear algebra, numerical analysis, and statistics.
  • computer science and programming—using some of the largest and fastest computers in the world.
  • advanced data analysis, on "Big Data" sets

Professors Holland and Hetrick have had continued funding from the National Science Foundation from 2007 to carry out investigations in lattice gauge theory. 

Extragalactic Astronomy

This is a branch of astronomy that studies the physics of galaxies: how they form, how they grow, their demographics, their components. Professor Flohic studies one component of galaxies: the supermassive black hole at their center. The gravitational influence of the black hole does not extend far within the galaxy, yet these black holes seem to influence their host galaxy on very large scales and they regulate the growth of the galaxy.

Students studying supermassive black holes will gain experience with

  • radiation processes
  • general relativity
  • spectroscopy
  • data analysis (time-domain analysis, big data analysis)
  • computer programming

Galaxy formation and evolution

Dr Toloba's research concerns galaxy growth: what is the movement of stars telling us about how galaxies are formed? What is the fraction of young versus old stars telling us about how galaxies evolve? What is the role of dark matter in the life history of galaxies? The Cold Dark Matter (ΛCDM) model is very successful in reproducing the large scale structure of the universe and connecting the very first density fluctuations to the galaxies observed today. However, the details involved in the physics of how this actually happens remain unknown. One of the major open questions in modern astrophysics is how galaxies form and evolve. Her research tackles this question by using nearby galaxies to infer the astrophysical processes experienced since their formation to address the questions of how galaxies quench their star formation, how they grow in mass and size, how their cores and nuclei are formed, and how these processes are related to the mass of the galaxies, their dark matter content, and the environment where they reside. Dr Toloba's research is based on observations done with state-of-the-art telescopes, like the Hubble Space Telescope and the Keck 10 meter telescope. 

Dr Barro researches how the Cold Dark Matter model connects the initial density fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background with the galaxies that we observe today. To track how galaxies form and evolve with cosmic time, he uses the deepest multi-wavelength observations of distant galaxies, obtained by the largest space and ground-based observatories to understand the physical mechanisms responsible for their evolution. This helps us understand how galaxies form their stars, how they acquire their current structural properties and visual morphologies, how do they end their lives by shutting down star formation and how are these processes related to their dark matter and baryonic content from the Early Universe to today.

Exoplanetary systems

Dr Jontof-Hutter's research is on the discovery and understanding of exoplanetary system. In the Solar System, small rocky planets orbit close to the Sun, and giant planets with deep envelopes of hydrogen gas orbit at much larger distances. The planetary systems discovered around other stars appear very different to the Solar System. In systems like Kepler-11, up to 6 planets that are between Earth and Neptune in size (so-called Mini-Neptunes) all orbit much closer to their host star than Venus orbits the Sun. Planets of this size and in such a compact configuration do not exist in the Solar System, and they challenge current understanding of how planets form. Astronomers are divided over whether such planets form where we observe them now, close to their host star, or whether they formed at large distances and then migrated inwards and settled on their close-in orbits. The two theories disagree on whether systems like Kepler-11 have planets like Jupiter orbiting much further from their host star than the mini-Neptunes that we have detected. His work explores two possible ways of resolving this issue: i) taking new observations of these systems, and ii) using dynamical simulations to test the effects of undetected giant planets on the mini-Neptunes. Both techniques can constrain how common Jupiter-like planets are at these compact systems and whether such systems are similar to the Solar System at much larger distances from the star. In the near future, it will be possible to study Earth-like planets that are the right temperature for liquid water. Space missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite will discover thousands of small planets close their host stars and the James Webb Space Telescope will study their atmospheres. These missions will help us discover how common planets like the Earth are, and understand how they formed.

Undergraduate Involvement

We offer rigorous undergraduate research opportunities in these areas, as well as other projects. Such hands-on learning is exciting and challenging, motivating students to pursue lifelong learning. In addition to research opportunities here at Pacific, we also have a large network of research colleagues at other institutes worldwide, and can arrange for summer internships beyond our campus.

Doing research as an undergraduate immerses our students in the kind of out-of-the-box, interdisciplinary thinking that is needed for successful careers as innovative scientists. For those going on to graduate programs, research experience as an undergraduate, jumpstarts their study so that they arrive with the skills needed to begin advanced research right away.