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Explaining Physics Beyond the Textbooks

Graduate Student Jesse Harris wins presentation prize at the 2022 NSBP conference

December 7, 2022

Graduate Student Jesse Harris knows how to explain the search for new physics. That talent was much appreciated at the National Society of Black Physicists (NSBP) conference last month, where he won the award for Best Oral Presentation in the field of Nuclear and Particle Physics.

Harris, who works with Professor Stefan Spanier in UT's Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) group, presented his work searching for certain rare Higgs decays, a strategy to probe physics beyond the standard model, or, as Spanier describes it, "physics beyond the textbooks."

They're looking for glimmers of small, rare differences in how the Higgs boson shows up in experiment versus what present theory predicts. Harris uses machine learning to improve sensitivity in the search and his preliminary findings have shown improvement by a factor of two.

A native of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, Harris earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Virginia's College at Wise before joining UT's graduate program in physics. His work in both research and teaching labs has been recognized before. In 2020 he won a research stipend from the UT Office of Research and Engagement and in 2021 he was selected for the department's Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant Award. The NSBP award was sponsored by the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) and the National Science Foundation.

NSBP Best Oral Presentation in the field of Nuclear and Particle Physics photo with Hakeem Oluseyi, Bryan Kent Wallace, Jesse Harris, and Elaine Lalanne

Presenting the honors: Hakeem Oluseyi, NSBP President; Bryan Kent Wallace, NSBP Treasurer; Awardee Jesse Harris; and Elaine Lalanne, NSBP Past-Treasurer. (Photo credit: National Society of Black Physicists)

Harris was one of eight UT physics students attending the NSBP conference, along with Associate Professor Lucas Platter. Graduate students were Idris Abijo, Victor Ale, Olesson Cesalien, Harris, and Olugbenga Olunloyo. The undergraduate cohort comprised Carson Broughton, Cordney Nash, and Cora Thomas. (Nash, another of Spanier's students, presented his on-campus research on silicon pixel detectors for the High-Luminosity Large Hadron Collider.)

The NSBP conference is the largest academic meeting of minority physicists in the United States. The meeting provides mentorship opportunities, access to recruiters, and networking opportunities while informing the broader physics community on best practices. UT Physics has sent delegations of students every year since 2016, typically led by Associate Professor Christine Nattrass. UT was a gold sponsor of the 2022 meeting, held November 6- 9, 2022, in Charlottesville, Virginia, and will co-host the 2023 conference with Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This year's gathering provided a welcome return to the in-person experience after two years of virtual meetings.

"The pandemic has just been brutal on all of our students but in particular on students who also come from marginalized groups," Nattrass said. "I think our students needed this."

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