Carnegie Mellon University
October 07, 2020

Rebecca Rapp Selected for DOE’s Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program

Rapp will further her thesis research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy
  • Associate Dean of Communications, MCS
Physics Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Rapp was among 52 graduate students from across the nation selected for the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) Program.

The SCGSR Program provides supplemental funds for graduate awardees to conduct part of their thesis research at a host DOE laboratory in collaboration with a DOE laboratory scientist.

Rapp, an experimental nuclear and particle physicist, is fascinated by the properties and behaviors of an extremely abundant fundamental particle that very rarely interacts with matter: the neutrino. She will head to Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, where she’ll work closely with her thesis advisor, Carnegie Mellon University Assistant Professor of Physics Diana Parno, Jason Newby, ORNL’s primary investigator for the neutrino scattering experiment COHERENT, and nearby collaborators at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

She has been involved with ORNL from afar for some time as a contributor to the COHERENT collaboration. The primary analysis of Rapp’s thesis focuses on measuring the neutron flux (the number of neutrons per unit area per second) produced by ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source, a neutron production process that also generates a huge number of neutrinos with just the right energies for coherent scattering. Because COHERENT's detectors are also sensitive to neutrons, a precise understanding of both the neutrino and neutron fluxes are needed in order to separate the signal (neutrino interactions) from the background (neutron interactions).

By traveling to ORNL, Rapp will be able to perform new calibrations in person to better understand the neutron detector deployed at ORNL and lead analysis efforts to measure the neutron flux at multiple COHERENT detector locations. She’ll also have the chance to participate in hardware and background characterization efforts for a heavy-water detector designed to measure the neutrino flux.

Following current COVID-19 safety protocols, Rapp will likely head into ORNL only two days a week during her six-month stay from January to July 2021. However, the hands-on experience, expertise, resources and capabilities provided by the DOE lab will be invaluable to her doctoral research.

While Rapp envisions a career as a physics professor, she is excited to network with physicists outside of academia and learn about other possible career paths and opportunities.

“Under the guidance of the truly fantastic mentors I've found in my career, I've worked hard and earned this freedom to pursue science that I find interesting, to make connections in a different sector of the physics community and to determine how best to transform my passion for this field into a career plan that best matches my personal and professional goals,” said Rapp.

Overall, the SCGSR program seeks outstanding Ph.D. candidates in areas of physics, chemistry, material sciences, biology (non-medical), mathematics, engineering, computer or computational science or specific areas of environmental sciences.

 “These graduate student awards help prepare new scientists for STEM careers that are vitally important to the DOE mission and the nation’s economy,” said Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette. “We are proud of the accomplishments of these outstanding awardees and look forward to seeing what they achieve in the years to come. They represent the future leadership and innovation that will allow American science and engineering to excel in the 21st century.”