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Dark matter research earns doctoral student a fellowship at Fermilab

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

LAWRENCE — It’s a stunning fact that human senses perceive only a tiny fraction of what makes up our universe.

“If you look up on a dark night — you see a lot of stars and some planets — all of that, including the billions of other stars and galaxies that are too far away to be seen with the naked eye, only forms about 4 percent of our entire universe,” said Gopolang Mohlabeng, a graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas.

“The rest of the universe is composed of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy,’” he said. “Dark matter accounts for about 23 percent, and dark energy, 73 percent of our universe. Dark matter is what holds our universe together — it’s like a kind of cosmic glue.”

Mohlabeng came to KU from South Africa in 2011 after scoring a Fulbright Fellowship for his graduate studies. He currently works on dark matter research, which he calls “one of the greatest mysteries in current physics research.” He works with KU physics and astronomy professors Kyoungchul Kong and John Ralston.

“I’m very grateful to have come to KU because I’ve learned a great deal from some of the best researchers in the field. Being at KU has produced a lot of opportunities for me,” Mohlabeng said.

In Lawrence, he’s focused his attention on particle physics, the development of new physics analysis tools, data analysis and “formulating astronomical questions other people weren’t asking,” he said.

“Working with Professor Kong and Professor Ralston has enabled me  to be more rigorous, to work harder, faster and smarter,” Mohlabeng said. 

Now, that hard work has earned Mohlabeng a yearlong Fermilab Graduate Student Fellowship in Theoretical Physics beginning in August 2016. Fermilab in Illinois is America’s premier laboratory for particle physics and accelerator research, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The fellowship is intended for graduate students in their research phase of graduate study in theoretical particle physics or theoretical astrophysics at universities in the U.S.

“At Fermilab, I work on dark matter from a particle physics point of view,” Mohlabeng said. “I’m also doing work on astrophysics, on the classification of astrophysical objects known as millisecond pulsars. A very important result was recently reported by the Fermi gamma ray telescope, which observed a significant amount of gamma ray emission coming from the center of our galaxy. Many physicists think this might be due to dark matter interactions in the galactic center.

"An alternative source of this emission, however, could be these millisecond pulsars This is a current hot topic in astrophysics. I am doing an extensive study of these," he said. “I do not want to limit myself to one subject matter, thus I find it better to work on many interesting research topics.”

Mohlabeng aims to earn his doctorate from KU by May of 2017 and then obtain a postdoctoral position in the U.S. or Europe.

In any event, he’ll be investigating the deepest riddles of physics.

“We want to know our place in the cosmos,” he said. “Where we are, where we’re going and the history of our universe.” 


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