Physics Spotlight

January 2016
Photo of Professor Andrea Pocar

Andrea Pocar

Ph.D., Princeton University (2003)

We have chosen Professor Pocar to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his interesting research in the search for Dark Matter. Professor Pocar specializes in Experimental Neutrino Physics. Please also visit Professor Pocar’s website.

What is your professional background? What did you major in and where? Where did you go to graduate school and for what? How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I majored in Physics at the University of Milan, Italy. I characterized some of the very first prototype silicon pixel detectors for the ATLAS experiment now running at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, in Switzerland. This was a long time ago, in the mid 90’s!

I then spent a year working at UC Santa Cruz on prototype silicon strip detectors for the GLAST/Fermi gamma ray satellite (now in orbit).

I started my career in experimental neutrino physics with graduate studies at Princeton, where I worked on the Borexino solar neutrino experiment, still running at the Gran Sasso underground laboratory in Italy. I was then a postdoc at Stanford, where I began working with the Enriched Xenon Observatory (EXO) project looking for an exotic nuclear decay of Xenon-136, called “neutrino-less double beta decay”, the existence of which would have profound implications for particle physics. This is currently my main research effort.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school? How did you decide which grad school to go to? What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

After my undergraduate degree, I was not sure I wanted to continue in particle physics. The time at Santa Cruz helped me find the motivation to commit another 5 years to pursue a PhD.

I applied to a very small number of graduate schools, because of minimal tutoring and advice. In hindsight, I was lucky to get admitted anywhere.

My advice to students is as follows:

-Consider fields of research you are not already familiar with – this is your chance to shape what you will do for a long time.

-Spend significant time targeting schools which will be good matches, based on the research done, your grades, and your preferences for where to live.

-Contact faculty at places you find attractive before you apply.

-Get involved in research early in your undergraduate career, but do not sacrifice your academics to do so.

What/Who inspired you to pursue a career in physics?

I cannot name any one in particular. I liked mathematics in high school, but saw myself becoming an engineer. As a freshman, after taking one week of engineering classes, I switched to physics. It was love at first sight and I never looked back.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go to industry?

A degree in physics can open many doors in industry. I know of no standard recipe for how to go about this. A degree in physics does not define a specific profession. It provides students with the confidence to approach unknown problems, simplify them as much as possible, and apply simple first principles to begin understanding them, irrespective of the realm of applicability. Many physicists are also trained in handling large data sets, which has been attractive for, e.g., financial institutions and social studies.

In my lab, I use commercial software for mechanical design and equipment control, which together with hardware expertise (e.g. cryogenics, electronics, radiation detectors, vacuum systems) provides a strong background sought after by engineering and technology firms.

Briefly, explain your research:

I build detectors to study neutrino properties and to study the Sun and dark matter. They detect tiny signals from exceedingly rare events. We look for a few selected events per year per ton of detector mass. For this reason, we run them underground, where atmospheric radiation is shielded, and they are built with minimal trace radioactivity (less than one millionth the normal environmental values). Reaching these levels requires many years of research.

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

iLab (PHY440) and Particle Physics (PHY 556)

Do you take undergraduates in your research group? What type of work do they do? Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

I have many undergraduates who work in my lab, at various levels of commitment. They work on hardware, controls, data analysis, and simulations. There is room in my lab for virtually all specializations. Some of my undergraduate students have traveled to either Gran Sasso or Fermilab during the Summer.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?

I enjoy teaching upper division classes. I yet have to teach graduate courses.

What do you do outside of physics? Do you have a hobby?

Lately I have been mostly working and traveling. When I get the chance I like to play soccer, ride my bike, and ski when possible. Music is also a big part of my life. By and large, my “spare” time is invested maximizing the time I can spend with my wife, who does not reside in Amherst.

Is there anything else you would like us to know or advise you would like to give to students interested in UMass Physics?

Give us as much feedback as possible, and actively think about what you like the most in your studies.