Feature Story | 6-Nov-2023

Afroditi Papadopoulou seeks to unlock the mysteries of matter

The Maria Goeppert Mayer fellow is studying small particles called neutrinos to learn more about their role in the universe

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Common but elusive, the tiny particles known as neutrinos have sparked many questions among scientists since they were first discovered nearly 70 years ago. Afroditi Papadopoulou has joined the quest for answers.

Papadopoulou is a Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellow at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, leveraging the capabilities of DOE’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. She earned her bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Athens in Greece and her Ph.D. in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“Why do we live on planet Earth? How did we evolve in the first place? Neutrino interactions can be part of the explanation to some of the biggest questions about our existence.” — Afroditi Papadopoulou, Maria Goeppert Mayer fellow 

The Maria Goeppert Mayer Fellowship is awarded to outstanding doctoral scientists and engineers to help them develop their careers in Argonne’s high-impact research environment. The fellowship honors Maria Goeppert Mayer, a theoretical physicist who earned the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for her work at Argonne proposing a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells of the atomic nucleus. Early-career scientists receive the opportunity to pursue their own research directions, with the support of a sponsor and up to three years of funding.

Here, Papadopoulou talks about her career and experience in the program so far. 

Q: What are you working on at Argonne? 

A: I’m studying neutrino interactions, which involves looking at the particles produced after neutrinos collide with nuclei. The reason we are interested in neutrino interactions is because Argonne is heavily involved in a Fermilab-led project called the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), which will run about 20 years from now. This project will be one of the greatest chances that we have to answer one of the fundamental questions that we have in physics: Why do we live in a universe dominated by matter like protons and electrons rather than antimatter, their fleeting counterparts? 

For this experiment to be successful, we have to plan ahead by having a very good understanding of neutrinos’ basic properties. But because they have a very small mass and are electrically neutral, neutrinos are extremely difficult to detect.  

To prepare for the high-accuracy measurements that will be needed for DUNE, I am working on two other projects aimed at collecting neutrino data, MicroBooNE and the Short-Baseline Near Detector, both located at Fermilab. 

Apart from neutrinos, I also study electron-scattering events, where electrons are knocked off course by collisions with other particles. Electrons have a lot of things in common with neutrinos, but they are charged and much easier to detect. 

Q: Why did this fellowship appeal to you? 

A: The fellowship gave me the flexibility to come in with my own research project on neutrinos. I have the support to do exactly what I have in mind. Over the course of the year, I have further expanded my research program, and it goes beyond the proposal that I put together a year ago when I first joined the lab. That is exactly what I was looking for: The opportunity to pursue my research interests, as opposed to being a little bit more restricted by what a university professor might tell me to do.  

Q: Why does your work matter to society? 

A: In physics, we have made a lot of progress in so many fields. But at the same time, we haven’t actually managed to address fundamental questions such as, why are we here? Why did the universe develop the way that it did? Why do we live on planet Earth? How did we evolve in the first place? Neutrino interactions can be part of the explanation to some of the biggest questions about our existence. 

Q: How did you become interested in this topic?

A: As an undergrad in physics at the University of Athens, I realized that the combination of physics, math and computer science was exactly what thrilled me. I loved the idea of getting all the information, analyzing the data and producing results.  
As part of my undergraduate program, I worked on the Compact Muon Solenoid project at the CERN particle physics laboratory in Geneva. The collaboration was huge — we are talking about thousands of people. Though I had no prior analysis experience, I was involved in a fairly complicated project that involved both simulation predictions and data analysis. So I had a lot of questions about the results that I would obtain, but it was a little bit difficult to ask the right people, because I couldn’t even find them.  
That was a little bit unfortunate, but it turned out to be one of the luckiest things that happened in my life. When I talked with professors at MIT before going there to study, I mentioned I would be interested in smaller collaborations because of my earlier experience. I met my Ph.D. advisor at that point, and he was the one who brought up the idea to potentially join a neutrino experiment. The spirit of the analysis was more or less the same as what I was doing at CERN, but the groups would be smaller. That’s the reason why I made this transition, and it seems that it definitely paid off. I am extremely happy with what I’m doing.  

Q: What do you like to do when you’re away from work? 

A: I love running, and I run on a daily basis. The other thing that I really enjoy is cooking. It’s kind of a rule for me that my housemate and I have to cook every day and to have fresh food. This was not necessarily the case when I was a graduate student. And in general, I love traveling. Recently, for work-related conferences, I have been able to visit Korea twice, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. The feeling of seeing the rest of the world is a life-changing experience, and it’s another thing that I truly appreciate about my current position. 

Q: What have you learned so far in your research and career? 

A: The past year has been the highest peak of my research. We have identified tools and techniques to improve our understanding of what exactly is happening with our neutrino interactions. Based on this work, I have published three papers that try to identify measurements that give us unique sensitivity to the neutrino properties. (See the papers herehere and here.) Before this recent work, we didn’t even know how to get started. Now we still have a lot that needs to be done, but at least we know how to get started. 

When it comes to my personality, taking the first step without hesitating too much would be one of the greatest skills I have had to develop over the last seven years. I have worked a lot on myself in terms of taking responsibility, guiding others to follow me and helping them take the lead by themselves as well. 

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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