Physics Spotlight

March 2018
Physics Spotlight

Alissa Monte

Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Amherst

Alissa Monte was nominated by Professor Andrea Pocar due to her many talents and contributions to our UMass Amherst campus. Her passionate and energetic outlook on Physics and desire to continue to learn and conduct research has lead to several papers being published on arXiv, highlighting her current experiment DarkSide. She is currently looking for a postdoc position that will allow her to continue to explore and conduct experiments. The Physics Department wishes her luck as she continues her search and congratulates her on her many achievements!


Where did you do your undergrad? What is your degree in?

I have a B.A. in Physics from Occidental College in Los Angeles. I loved my liberal arts education. The physics department at Oxy is small, so students get to interact a lot with their professors. While there, I was lucky enough to participate in dark matter research with the DRIFT experiment for three years.


Who is your faculty advisor and why did you pick them?

My advisor is Andrea Pocar. As part of my acceptance to UMass, Andrea agreed to fund me for summer research on DarkSide (my current experiment). I planned to consider other areas of physics at the beginning of grad school, but when I saw Andrea’s talk about DarkSide-50 at our introduction-to-research event I was hooked. I’m a dark matter physicist at heart, and I couldn’t ask for a better advisor.


What are some of your research interests?

I am all about alpha particles! Uranium and thorium are the two most common radioactive elements on Earth, and since we build dark matter detectors out of materials available to us here, we are always subject to some natural radioactivity in our setup. These decay chains are well understood, producing alpha decays with known energies and half-lives. Our ability to tag alpha events is not only important to mitigate surface backgrounds but also allows us to do interesting physics studies: measuring ion mobility, mapping liquid flow and light yield in your detector, etc.

Obviously, I am also fascinated by dark matter. It’s the perfect challenge for an experimentalist; how do you observe something that is fundamentally unobservable in the traditional sense? The stakes are only as high as a quarter of the mass-energy of the universe.


Has any of your research resulted in a published article?

Yes! DarkSide recently released several papers on the arXiv in advance of the dark matter conference at UCLA, which I was lucky enough to attend. I participated heavily in the blind analysis of 532 live-days of DarkSide WIMP search data, specifically performing data validation and background estimates for surface alpha decay. As a result of this blind analysis, we set the current leading limit for an argon experiment and made a powerful demonstration of the background-free capabilities of liquid argon technology. I am also a corresponding author for a publication on electron diffusion in liquid argon that is available on the arXiv, and which we are in the process of submitting to NIM.


What advice would you give to undergraduates considering Graduate programs?

Make sure you understand why you want to go to grad school. The most successful Ph.D. students I meet have one thing in common; they love physics research. Pursuing answers to enormously complicated questions day after day (for ~ 6 years!) requires a lot of grit and passion for what you’re doing. Curiosity is the most powerful motivation to show up every day and plug away at your problem-of-choice (aka your Ph.D. thesis). I decided to go to grad school because I wasn’t done learning about physics at the end of undergrad, and I’m applying for postdoc positions now because I still don’t feel done. There’s so much more I want to learn.


Do you have any hobbies?

Over the last year, I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’m currently sidelined because of an injury, but I’m hoping to get back to it soon. It’s amazing for stress relief because, unsurprisingly, it’s hard to hold on to your work stress while you’re physically fighting someone with a black belt or someone who’s 100lbs heavier than you! I think part of why I love it is because it’s so different from anything I’ve done before. It’s really an exercise in being willing to totally suck at something, which is an important part of getting good at anything. I’m also a huge fan of music. I play several instruments and love to sing. I used to write music and perform (I once opened for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros!) but I do it a lot less now that I’m so busy with research.