Physics graduate student Kelly Malone receives DOE award

Tara Immel
July 06, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Kelly Malone, a fourth-year graduate student studying particle astrophysics at Penn State, has received the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science Graduate Student Research (SCGSR) program award.

According to the DOE, the SCGSR program provides supplemental awards to outstanding U.S. graduate students to pursue part of their graduate thesis research at a DOE laboratory in areas that address scientific challenges central to the DOE Office of Science mission. Malone was invited to conduct her research at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, where she has access to the expertise, resources and capabilities available from the DOE Office of Science.

“I’m very excited about receiving the award because it will enable me to go beyond the use of simulation and actually experience working with hardware, which is something I have not yet had the opportunity to do,” Malone said.

Malone’s thesis research, under the guidance of Miguel Mostafá, associate professor of physics and astronomy and astrophysics, involves work on the High Altitude Water Cherenkov Gamma-Ray Observatory (HAWC), located on a mountain in Puebla, Mexico. The experiment, which was inaugurated in 2015, involves collaboration between approximately 100 scientists in institutions throughout the United States, Mexico, Poland and Germany. The group of researchers is working to map the entire overhead high-energy sky in gamma rays. The experiment looks very different from traditional telescopes — it consists of 300 tanks of water with four photomultiplier tubes (PMTs) in the bottom of each one. The PMTs detect the charged secondary particles that are created when a gamma ray hits the Earth's atmosphere and interacts with the air molecules, creating a cascade of particles known as an air shower. Malone’s specific role on the experiment involves developing algorithms to estimate the energies of the gamma rays. Accurately estimating the energy enables scientists to understand the nature of cosmic accelerators.

Malone, who arrived at Los Alamos in June, is continuing to perform part of her thesis research with Brenda Dingus, the principal investigator of the HAWC Gamma-Ray Observatory for the DOE High Energy Physics program. Malone is working on the HAWC collaboration’s expansion to the experiment, which consists of a sparse array of smaller tanks, or outriggers, around the main HAWC array. The expansion will increase the effective area of the experiment in addition to increasing the high-energy sensitivity. The researchers at Los Alamos are testing all the hardware prior to its installation at HAWC in Mexico.  

“My specific role is running tests to see how the properties of the photomultiplier tubes and the calibration system affect my energy estimation algorithms,” Malone said. She will also work on updating the algorithms she developed while at Penn State to include the addition of the outriggers.

In addition to her academic and research work, Malone is also very involved in the Penn State Physics and Astronomy Club for Women (PAW). She recently finished her term as club president and is currently serving as co-chair of PAW’s mentoring program, which matches female undergraduates and incoming graduate students with a senior graduate student who can offer advice about how to navigate a career in physics.

“Women are severely underrepresented in physics. Groups like PAW are important because they provide a support network to retain the women already in the field,” she said.

Malone plans to continue her work in academia and pursue a career in astrophysics when she completes her doctoral degree.

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Last Updated July 08, 2016