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Big Ideas Come From Tiny Particles

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Throw some particles at an atom and what do you get? That's what Dr. Allison Harris wants to know.

And this Illinois State University physics professor is passing on her drive to know to the next generation of scientists. Harris studies atomic collisions using the state-of-the-art theoretical and computational methods. The ISU professor recently received a prestigious $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help with her work. Harris and her team of student researchers are looking at how fundamental particles interact with each other.

Credit Allison Harris
Dr. Allison Harris works in the physics department at Illinois State University.

"If you look at the atom, there's a positive charge nucleus and there's electrons that orbit that," explained Harris. "And then if you take another particle like a proton or an electron or something and you smash it into that atom, lots of different things can happen.  All of those particles start interacting with each other, they move in different ways and end up in different places and get different energies. Things change, and so what I want to do is understand how those things change and how those interactions work."

Harris' ultimate goal is understanding the pathways of the particles,writing code to predict what will happen with those particles. Though her work is theoretical,  her work can also be used in applied science.

"Other fields take that information and use it for the modeling that they do—things like astrophysics or biophysics. All of those areas need to understand how particles interact at the fundamental level so that they can build up from there to a more complex system."

The National Science Foundation Grant helps Harris with her research, which includes several students.

"Part of the goal of my grant is to get undergraduate students involved in research," Harris said. "Being involved in a research project helps them think more independently, helps them take what they learned in their classes and apply it to other topics where no one knows the answer. I had a student one time who told me that the coolest thing about doing research is that not even the professor knows the answer!"

Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.