Physics Spotlight

April 2016
Photo of Professor Carlo Dallapiccola

Carlo Dallapiccola

Ph.D., University of Colorado (1993)

We have chosen Professor Dallapiccola to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his interesting work on CERN trying to experimentally detect new physics at the LHC and due to his role as Physics Graduate Program Director at UMass. Professor Dallapiccola specializes in Experimental Particle Physics. Please take a few minutes to check out the Dallapiccola website. Also, you can review a recent publication by Professor Dallapiccola.

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 received a B.S. degree in Engineering Physics at the University of Colorado (CU), Boulder.  I was initially majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering, but quickly realized that the physics courses were most enjoyable to me.  So, I switched to Engineering Physics after one year (with an emphasis on Aerospace Engineering).  I stayed at CU for graduate school, obtaining a Ph.D. in Physics.

The fact that I began as an Engineering major often helps me mentor undergraduates who are unsure about their studies and future job prospects.  I initially chose Engineering because I was convinced that job opportunities were more plentiful and desirable in an “applied” STEM area.  I came to realize, however, that you shouldn’t ignore where your passion truly lies.  I was much happier as a Physics major.

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?

Perhaps because my parents aren’t college-educated, I didn’t grow up having a very good sense of what graduate school is all about, why you might want to get a Ph.D., or what the academia path really entails (mostly research!).  Even though I had made the switch from Engineering to Physics, upon graduation I was still thinking in terms of immediate career opportunities.  As a result, I applied to very few graduate schools, primarily as a “backup” plan.  After attending a few job fairs and going through job interviews for industry positions, I had a second epiphany and followed the same instinct that had led me to switch majors four years earlier.  Because I hadn’t taken seriously enough the graduate school option, and didn’t research what various schools had to offer, I felt that it would make most sense to stay at CU.  It helped that by that time I really loved living in Boulder!

I would recommend that graduating students do their best to ask themselves the question of why they want to go to graduate school, what they expect to get out of it, and where they see themselves five or six years later, upon completing a Ph.D.  While there is nothing wrong with taking some time to “find your way” during your first few years of graduate school, you’ll likely be much happier and less stressed if you spend some time contemplating the above questions before you even begin the endeavor.

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

I would do my best to seek out contacts with UMass alumni who have gone into industry.  You can narrow down particular areas of work, or possibly even geographical regions, and then find UMass alumni that match your criteria.  This may entail using some social media tools or talking with UMass professors about their former students who went into industry.  For graduate students, there is also the UMass Office of Professional Development that sponsors a number of useful workshops and events.

Briefly, explain your research:

I use data collected at the world’s largest machine, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, to explore the universe at the most microscopic scale achievable.  The goal is to determine the elementary constituents of matter and energy and the fundamental laws they obey.  In a nutshell, we search for proof of the existence of new elementary particles predicted by various theories.

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

The 500-level “Particle Physics” course covers my research area.  Of the required major courses, the “Modern Physics” course, Physics 284, covers the material that is closest to my area of research.

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

Yes, I do typically have one or two undergraduates in my research group.  They are usually involved in running software to analyze experimental data and assist with projects led by my graduate students.  I have not published papers with undergraduates.  In my research area, it is extremely rare that an undergraduate student qualify to be included in the author list of papers published by the experimental collaboration.

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

I like teaching any course to physics majors.  When teaching a course I always find something fascinating about the material that I failed to truly appreciate when I was a student learning it.  So my favorite course is often the one I have just taught.  Most recently, I have enjoyed teaching Physics 422, “Electrodynamics.”

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

I have plenty of interests outside of physics.  I love cinema and literature.  I am a big sports fan (Go Broncos!!!  Forza Juventus!) and I enjoy playing tennis, golf and basketball.  When I was a kid I was a huge science fiction and comic book fan, and my brain retains a shocking amount of trivia on those topics.

We know you are the Physics Graduate Program Director at UMass.  What is your personal approach to the directorship?  What do you hope to teach and give to graduate students at UMass?

My approach is to treat graduate students as fellow physicists.  Graduate students are partnered with postdocs and faculty in scientific research.  We must never forget, though, that they are learning the craft and need to be mentored.  Graduate students are essentially apprentices in the lab.

Are there any new initiatives for the graduate program coming soon?  How is UMass’s graduate program different from other graduate programs?

There are a number of concrete items on the horizon.  We are expanding the new student orientation to five days and we are developing a new summer seminar series in professional development that will cover a large variety of topics of interest to graduate students.  We would love to expand the advanced course offerings and the frequency with which they are taught.  This will rely on our ability to make new faculty hires.  The UMass graduate program is fairly similar to that of most other flagship state universities.  For our size, though, we have an unusually diverse range of research groups and collaboration with other departments on campus.

What was your most thrilling discovery to date at CERN?  What are the big questions still to be answered by this research?

That is easy:  the discovery of a new scalar particle at a mass of 125 GeV and with properties consistent with the Higgs boson, first postulated 50 years ago!  It’s the most consequential discovery in experimental particle physics in the last half century.  The next big questions to tackle are the nature of dark matter and the mechanism that explains why the Higgs boson is so relatively light.  Compelling theories that address these questions contain new particles that the LHC should be able to create in its proton-proton collisions.