Solving the Mystery of the Stinky Vapor Plumes on Campus

Billowing white columns of vapor rise silently from sidewalks and manholes around the University of Maryland campus when it gets chilly. These mysterious plumes are sometimes accompanied by a strange odor or a lingering warmth. Like ghosts, the hazy wisps seem to come and go without much explanation. But what’s the cause of this foggy, strange smelling campuswide phenomenon and where is it coming from? 

“It’s definitely not intentional or desirable,” said UMD Physics Professor Daniel Lathrop. “You’re not supposed to see or smell it at all. In fact, it’s just one component of a much bigger problem. This visible vapor is a sign that our underground utilities infrastructure is aging and inadvertently helping to cause water and heat waste across our campus.”Dan Lathrop. Credit: Georgia JiangDan Lathrop. Credit: Georgia Jiang

Like a leaky pipe, this leaking vapor can cause serious problems including infrastructure damage, energy waste and pollution to the natural areas surrounding UMD. 

The university’s infrastructure—some of which dates back over 150 years—naturally deteriorated over time. That includes the decades-old tri-generation energy system that the majority of the campus runs on today.

“Our current energy generation system was installed in 1999. It heats, cools and powers over 250 campus buildings,” explained Lathrop, who also holds joint appointments in the Departments of Geology and Physics, the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, and the Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. “A natural gas-fired turbine generates most of the electricity we use and the heat that this turbine produces is recaptured to produce steam, which produces additional electric power. The steam is then also used to heat and cool our buildings.” 

Gregg Garbesi, assistant director of utilities and energy management at UMD’s Facilities Management, says the visible vapor comes when liquid (like groundwater, city water leaks, stormwater leaks, etc.) physically contacts the underground steam line. He compares the campus’ visible vapor to steam caused by pouring cold water into a hot pan on a stove. He explains that the odd smells accompanying the vapor occur when organic materials come into contact with the leaked vapor, which is generated underground or in a steam manhole. 

According to Garbesi, seeing these vapor plumes signals energy loss. 

“For every pound of vapor generated, a pound of steam is condensed in the steam pipes,” he said. “All the energy that went into making that pound of steam—which could have been used to power campus—is lost, and if 100% of the condensate doesn’t return to the energy plant, that water is also lost.”

“We’re wasting about a million gallons of water a day now,” Lathrop added. “The loss in 2019 alone is estimated to be 700 million gallons, costing us an estimated $4 to $6 million a year. And that’s just the financial price tag that we know about.”

That’s why Lathrop is leading a multidepartment, cross-disciplinary Grand Challenges team that aims to map and pinpoint locations where steam is being lost and get a better look at challenges with energy consumption, water quality, methane emissions and air quality on UMD’s campus. With colleagues and students from the Departments of Geology, Atmospheric and Oceanic Science, Geographical Sciences, and Environmental Science and Technology, Lathrop hopes to tackle these interrelated issues by pinpointing the biggest problems and providing concrete solutions.

“Methane emissions, carbon dioxide emissions and pipeline water loss from our campus play a big role in stream water and air contamination nearby,” he said. “It’s our goal to measure these impacts and figure out how we can remediate these challenges to reduce our campus’ climate footprint and improve the environment here.”

Diagnosing and treating an aging energy system

When Lathrop began this project in spring 2023, his first step was to work with Facilities Management to learn more about the campus’ utilities-related challenges, particularly the steam issues caused by underground pipelines. He soon realized that his ongoing U.S. National Science Foundation-funded research—to develop sensors capable of detecting geophysical anomalies—could play a key part in this new project. 

“My lab was originally developing geophysical sensors to look for landmines and unexploded ordnance, but we recognized that this same system could be used to find buried utilities,” Lathrop explained, referring to a project that was named a UMD Invention of the Year in May 2022

Licensed drone pilot and physics senior Meyer Taffel is test-flying a drone over campus to magnetically map UMD's underground utilities. Credit: Dan LathropLicensed drone pilot and physics senior Meyer Taffel is test-flying a drone over campus to magnetically map UMD's underground utilities. Credit: Dan LathropUsing these sensors and historic infrastructure blueprints provided by Facilities Management, Lathrop and his team sketched out an extensive map of steam-emitting sources on campus. They concluded that UMD’s energy system had at least 55 active steam vents. 

A group of undergraduate physics majors taking Lathrop’s PHYS 499X class added to those findings when they hand-built a calorimeter (an instrument that measures heat from chemical and physical reactions) in fall 2023 as a course project. 

The students used the calorimeter to identify dozens of campus hot spots and learned that some of these accidental vents lost more than 60 kilowatts of heat energy via escaped condensation. For reference, a standard incandescent light bulb uses about 60 watts of electricity on average—meaning that the steam and heat leaking from some of these vents could power approximately 1,000 of those light bulbs. 

Lathrop estimates that this loss alone could equate to approximately $50,000 per year but he believes that identifying and analyzing the factors that led to the hot spots was invaluable.

“This is a team effort and having everyone on the same page can really make a difference when it comes to fixing things on campus and allocating resources appropriately. Our work has already started to help the university identify and patch sites on campus with water leaks,” he said. “We were able to prevent local building damage and protect students, staff and faculty from potential safety hazards.”

Putting together pieces of a bigger puzzle

Other members of the Grand Challenges project team are also on the ground looking for ways to locate and address the campus’ interconnected water and air quality problems.

Geology graduate student Julia Famiglietti and Geology Chair and Professor James Farquhar tracked gas leaks on campus through the sewer system to create a methane inventory (list of methane sources and sinks). They identified a contamination source underground that they suspect is related to the aging steam system.

“We think that the contamination has something to do with steam additives accidentally coming into contact with and reacting to methane,” explained Famiglietti, who sampled the air in campus sewers at least once a month to determine the composition of gases found in emissions. “We’re focusing on understanding the chemistry behind this contamination signature and directly discussing with the steam plant management personnel how to address the problem.” 

Geology Associate Professor Karen Prestegaard and Professor Sujay Kaushal found similar results while working with student groups to monitor the water quality of streams and storm drains. They discovered that water discharging from steam vents into storm drains had noticeably higher pH values and higher salt contamination than natural rainwater—potentially encrusting pipes with buildup and impacting wildlife in the Paint Branch waterways. 

Other efforts to gather and analyze the researchers’ environmental data include Project Greenhouse, in which First-Year Innovation & Research Experience (FIRE) undergraduates are drafting a sustainable methane budget for UMD.

Lathrop hopes that this multiyear campuswide team effort will help UMD reduce water and steam waste (and the associated environmental and fiscal costs) by 30% by the end of the project in June 2026. He believes this project can serve as a model for other research efforts to analyze similar urban environmental impacts for cities or large organizations like universities. 

“Our campus is a microcosm of urban and suburban environmental impacts, so evaluating UMD’s impact on the environment leads to a better understanding of how humans impact climate on a local, national and global level,” Lathrop said. “We’re all doing our part to protect our campus and the people living and working here.” 

Written by Georgia Jiang

 Other UMD faculty members involved in the Remediation of Methane, Water, and Heat Waste Grand Challenges project include Atmospheric and Oceanic Science Professor Russell Dickerson, Environmental Science and Technology Associate Professor Stephanie Yarwood, FIRE Assistant Clinical Professor Danielle Niu, Geographical Sciences Assistant Professor Yiqun Xie, and Geology Professors Michael Evans and Vedran Lekic. 

The Many Wonders of Uranium Ditelluride

In the menagerie of exotic materials, superconductors boast their own vibrant ecosystem.

All superconductors allow electricity to flow without any resistance. It’s their hallmark feature. But in many cases, that’s where the similarities end.

Some superconductors, like aluminum, are conventional—run-of-the-mill, bread-and-butter materials that are well understood and hold no surprises. Others are deemed unconventional: They are not yet fully understood, but that seem to follow a known pattern. But one material—uranium ditelluride (UTe2)—defies classification, continuously baffling scientists with a plethora of unexpected behaviors. 

“At first, we thought this was going to be another interesting superconductor like some other uranium compounds that have been studied in the past,” says Johnpierre Paglione, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland (UMD) and the director of the Quantum Materials Center (QMC). “But at this point, it's gone beyond that. And it's become a much richer example of how crazy a superconductor can get.”

Most superconductors start doing their resistance-less thing when they get super cold. But temperature is only one of the knobs available to researchers studying a material in the lab. Some materials slip into superconductivity when you dial in other aspects of their environment, like the pressure they’re subjected to or the strength of a magnetic field they’re bathed in. UTe2 isn’t fussy about these properties, and it happily hosts superconductivity in all kinds of different situations. And as researchers continue studying the material, they are finding more questions than answers. 

“This one material seems to do 100 different things,” says Nicholas Butch, who is a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and a member of QMC. “Somebody asked me after one of my talks ‘What right does one material have to do all these things?’ and I said ‘Right?’”

Butch and Paglione, together with colleagues at UMD, NIST, QMC and elsewhere, have been at the forefront of exploring the many wonders of UTe2. Postdocs Shang Ran and Corey Frank, working at both NIST and QMC have spearheaded many of the efforts, from discovering superconductivity in the material to testing samples at National High Magnetic Field Laboratory facilities around the country and experimenting with different preparation techniques. And the buzz around UTe2 is catching on: QMC has been sharing the samples they synthesize with researchers at other universities, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Cornell University, and further study by these groups resulted in the discovery of yet more unexpected behaviors. Uranium ditelluride (UTe2)Uranium ditelluride (UTe2)

A serendipitous discovery

Back in 2018, UMD and NIST postdoc Shang Ran was trying to synthesize U7Te12—a mixture of uranium and tellurium that’s predicted to have intriguing magnetic properties. Instead, Ran kept accidentally making UTe2. He found some literature from the 1960s suggesting UTe2 might have some interesting magnetic properties as well, and after consulting Butch, the two decided to cool it down anyway to see what would happen. Ran stuck the sample into a special helium-powered refrigerator. To his surprise, superconducting currents started to flow.

“We accidentally synthesized this uranium ditelluride, and it turned out it’s a superconductor. So, miracle!” Ran says. “That certainly brought excitement to the community and to our research.”

Ran became captivated with UTe2, and the team went on to poke and prod at it to try to understand its superconducting properties. To start, they set out to explore one of the key behaviors for any superconductor—its response to a magnetic field.  

In superconductors, electrons floating around in the material couple up, forming what’s known as Cooper pairs. These pairs act in concert with each other, and with the other pairs around them, allowing the electrons to flow without resistance. However, a strong magnetic field can break up the pairs, destroying the superconducting magic. One of the main signatures of a superconductor is how much magnetic juice it can withstand, and Ran and his collaborators set out to find this landmark for uranium ditelluride. 

To their surprise, uranium ditelluride remained a superconductor as they turned the field all the way up to the maximum power they has access to in the lab—20 tesla. That’s the combined magnetic strength of about two thousand fridge magnets, or ten times the magnetic field in an MRI machine. “I was shocked when [graduate student Chris Eckgerg] showed me the data,” says Ran. “I asked him ‘Did you measure correctly?’ We measured again and it was all correct. So, we realized, okay, there's some very strange thing going on.”

It wasn’t until they brought the material to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida that they finally found a magnet strong enough to tear apart UTe2’s Cooper pairs: It took an astounding 35 tesla to break the bond. For comparison, the first superconductor ever discovered—mercury—loses its superconductivity at a mere 0.1 tesla. This tipped off Ran, Butch, and the others that UTe2 was no conventional superconductor. They guessed that the electrons inside UTe2 form Cooper pairs in an unusually resilient way.

A special kind of dance

The electrons in a superconductor are kind of like a group of couples on a dance floor. In conventional superconductors, the electron pairs dance together in a straight line, a simple dance where partners mirror each other known as spin-singlet pairing. This synchronized movement allows them to glide effortlessly across the dance floor without any hindrance. However, in some unconventional superconductors, the electron pairs dance in swirly circles, spinning around each other as they glide across the dance floor. This unique dance style, known as spin-triplet pairing, gives them a different kind of coordination.

One consequence of this swirly dance pattern is that breaking up the partners with a magnetic field is much harder, which would explain the high magnetic field UTe2 could withstand. To check if that was going on inside UTe2, the QMC team collaborated with the group of Yuji Furukawa at Iowa State University. The Iowa team used their best techniques for distinguishing between the electron dance patterns, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. These studies confirmed Ran’s suspicions that UTe2 is a rare spin-triplet superconductor

Fewer than a dozen materials are suspected of spin-triplet pairing, and the other candidates are difficult to study—they are either hard to synthesize reliably or they only become superconducting under intense pressures or extremely low temperatures. Uranium ditelluride appears to be the most user-friendly spin-triplet superconductor to date, presenting a rare opportunity for researchers. 

“This is the only triplet superconductor I know that can be studied by so many different probes,” says Vidya Madhavan, a condensed matter physicist and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) who is a longtime collaborator of the QMC team. 

In addition to satisfying a physicist’s basic curiosity, spin-triplet superconductors might be useful as platforms for quantum computing. Spin-triplet pairing is a necessary ingredient for a yet rarer property that hasn’t been confirmed in any superconductor to date—a non-trivial topology. If spin-triplet pairing imbues electron couples with killer dance moves, a non-trivial topology warps the whole dance floor with curves and twists, radically changing the dance patterns of all the couples en masse. 

In the months following the discovery of UTe2’s swirly dance patterns, some evidence suggested that UTe2 might not only be a spin-triplet superconductor but also possess that topological special sauce. The evidence is not yet conclusive, but researchers are hard at work trying to sort this out, as well as understand more about what makes UTe2 tick. And their sleuthing keeps turning up more surprises. 

Superconductivity raised from the dead (and the never-born)

Ran and his labmates were wondering why 35 tesla seemed to be the magic number that broke superconductivity in UTe2. In search of clues, they went back to the National High Magnetic Field Lab.  They kept turning up the magnetic field even higher, looking at how the non-superconducting chunk responded. They also tilted the sample, putting the magnetic field off-kilter from UTe2’s natural crystal structure. 

Shockingly, as they kept rotating the sample, superconductivity reappeared at a field of 40 tesla. This was strange. Turning the field up really high killed the superconductivity, but if you kept going it came back to life. This phenomenon was termed Lazarus superconductivity after the biblical figure raised from the dead. Lazarus superconductivity is extremely rare, though not entirely unprecedented. It’s cropped up in a handful of materials before, and scientists think they have plausible mechanisms for explaining the effect. But none of those mechanisms seemed applicable to UTe2. 

In 2020, Ran joined the physics department at Washington University in St Louis, passing the torch of Butch’s QMC lab to a new postdoctoral researcher, Corey Frank. Frank had just completed her PhD in solid-state chemistry—the perfect background for mastering different ways of concocting the UTe2 crystal. She played with the initial concentrations of the starting materials as well as precise techniques and temperatures of preparation. Among other things, Frank developed a protocol for making UTe2 samples that are just shy of superconducting by making them intentionally just a bit dirty, peppering the crystals with purposefully introduced defects. These defects gum up the pathways by which electrons pair up and find their dance partners, preventing the development of superconductivity. “You can learn a lot about a phase by studying what kills it,” Frank says. 

Frank and her colleagues made a purposefully dirty sample and took it with them on another trip to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, this time in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They stuck the sample into the huge magnets and cranked up the field. Once the field was high enough and the sample had the right orientation, the resistance through the material dropped to zero—superconductivity was revived. 

“I was so excited,” Frank recalls. “You're not allowed to jump when you're on the platform of a high-field magnet, but I had to get down from the magnet so I could jump. It was amazing.”

This was completely unprecedented. In all the previous Lazarus superconducting materials, the mechanism behind the rebirth was presumed to involve recreating the conditions at a low magnetic field. Here, recreating conditions at a low magnetic field would not result in superconductivity because the samples had intentional defects, and yet there it was—superconductivity raised not from the dead, but from the never-born, a high-field superconducting phase all its own. The team reported this phenomenon last year in a preprint.

“We know how high field superconductivity works, the rules that govern that, and this one breaks those rules,” Frank says. “So the fact that we have this much more robust high-field phase is wild. I cannot overemphasize how unexpected it is.” 

The authors have some ideas of what could be causing this behavior, and they say further experiments are needed to figure out if those ideas are correct. For now, the experiments are on hold as they require even stronger magnetic fields than the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory currently offers. In the meantime, the QMC team is still studying how this superconductivity dies, comparing their revived samples to others in search of a pattern. 

Making waves 

Over many years Ran, Frank, and other members of the Butch lab have mastered the dual feats of growing pure uranium ditelluride crystals and studying their overall behavior—superconductivity, response to magnetic fields, and more. But they lacked the tools and expertise to zoom in on the microscopic, atom-by-atom behavior of UTe2. So they’ve enlisted the help of Vidya Madhavan’s team at UIUC.

In her lab, Madhavan has a scanning tunneling microscope (STM). An STM works by bringing a bit of metal tapered down to a tiny, fine point extremely close to the surface of a sample—so close that electrons from the sample can hop over to the conducting tip, or vice versa. By measuring how many electrons make the jump, scientists can learn a lot about the microscopic structure of a material, including where the electrons are on the surface of the sample.

The Butch group sent Madhavan a sample, and Anuva Aishwarya, a graduate student at UIUC who led the study, placed a sample of UTe2 into the scanning tunneling microscope. The team cooled the material just shy of its superconducting temperature, and they stumbled upon another surprise: The electrons didn’t follow the ups and downs of UTe2’s crystal structure. Instead, they clustered together and then apart, forming waves of charge frozen into the surface with a pattern all their own.

These kinds of charge density waves are uncommon but not unprecedented. However, the measurements performed by Ran, Frank or others at QMC didn’t show any indication that a charge density wave might be found in UTe2. To Madhavan and her team, this came out of nowhere.

To try to understand what they were seeing, Aishwarya and her lab mates probed the behavior of these waves in different temperatures and magnetic fields. They found that, in a magnetic field, the charge density wave seemed intimately related to superconductivity itself. As they turned up the field, the charge density wave broke down at precisely the same field strength as superconductivity. This tipped off Madhavan and her collaborators at UIUC that maybe this wave had some relationship to the superconductivity in uranium ditelluride.

If you want to pick out individual electrons, a regular STM is great. But if you want to peer inside the dance patterns of electron couples in a superconductor, you need an STM armed with a special kind of tip—one that is itself a superconductor. The team of Seamus Davis at Cornell University had just such a superconducting tip. They became intrigued by Madhavan’s results and got in on the action. They obtained another sample from the QMC team and stuck it in their specialized STM. They found that the electron pairs behaved similarly to the lone electrons. Here, too, the pairs clustered together and apart, forming a so-called pair density wave with the same beat as the charge density wave observed by Madhavan. This is the first time such a pair density wave has been found in a spin-triplet superconductor.

As with many aspects of UTe2, the origins of the charge and pair density waves remain far from clear. But, Ran comments, these waves are a fairly common feature in unconventional spin-singlet superconductors. This may provide clues for how all these different strange superconductors are connected. “We eventually need to understand unconventional superconductivity overall,” Ran says. “And having this common theme I think is very important for theorists.”

While theorists are hard at work trying to crack the puzzle of unconventional superconductivity, Ran, Butch, and other researchers are continuing to explore all that UTe2 has in store. “It's really rich. It’s a great place to explore,” says Butch. “This one material underscores how little we know about spin triplet physics. It’s as if we are writing textbooks about it right now. So that's actually very exciting.”

Story by Dina Genkina

Determined to Learn, Inspired to Teach

Long before he became a scientist, Brad Conrad (M.S. ’06, Ph.D. ’09, physics) was a curious kid, determined to learn everything he could about the world around him.

“My favorite story is when I was three or four my mom found me in the living room where I had found a screwdriver and I’d taken apart the videocassette recorder,” Conrad explained. “I did that because I had put my peanut butter sandwich in the VCR and was trying to figure out how to get it out. I was always determined to learn about things.”

Conrad’s passion for learning and an interest in science—and maybe one too many questions in a high school chemistry class—helped him find his niche.Brad ConradBrad Conrad

“I was doing well in chemistry, but I kept going to the chemistry teacher asking things like ‘What do orbitals mean?’ and ‘Exactly how do atoms do this?’ and he threw up his hands at some point and said, ‘You just need to go talk to the physicists—you’re a physicist,’” Conrad recalled. “That’s when I decided that I should probably do physics instead of chemistry.”

Conrad’s fascination with physics launched a successful career that’s taken him from state-of-the-art research labs and university classrooms to the American Institute of Physics (AIP) where he supported thousands of undergrads and alums as the national director of the Society of Physics Students (SPS) and Sigma Pi Sigma, the honor society for physics and astronomy. 

In 2023, Conrad took on the role of education and workforce development manager in the Partnerships and Outreach Division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). There, he works to build education and workforce development partnerships for NIST’s Office of Advanced Manufacturing to promote awareness and training opportunities for manufacturing jobs in STEM.

“I work across government agencies like the Department of Defense, Department of Energy and NASA—so it’s an all-of-government approach to solving the problems that we have in manufacturing today,” Conrad said. “It’s helping people realize that now when we say manufacturing jobs, it’s programming robots, doing advanced electronics and using lasers to do really cool stuff. My mission is to make the world a better place with science.”

Beyond the “middle of nowhere”

When Conrad was young, his dreams stretched far beyond the “middle of nowhere” Pennsylvania town where he grew up. 

“I went to my high school guidance counselor to figure out what I should do, and they said I should be a truck driver because it paid really well,” Conrad recalled. “That rubbed me the wrong way because I’d already decided I was going to be a scientist.”

Determined to be the first one in his family to go to college, Conrad enrolled at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) as a physics major, but fitting in was harder than he expected. 

“It was definitely a tough major and I didn’t have a support network at all. I had this feeling that I didn’t belong,” he explained. “But, then, the summer before my junior year, one of my undergraduate teachers called me and said ‘Hey, I was wondering if you’d be the president of the Society of Physics Students when you come back in the fall,’ and that made a world of difference to me. It made me feel like somebody cared.”

With SPS activities and events keeping him busy and connected, Conrad stayed at RIT, earned his bachelor’s degree and went on to graduate school at the University of Maryland, where an active, engaging community took his passion for physics to the next level. 

“At Maryland, there was a physics talk or multiple talks every day of the week, different topics, different people coming in, different labs, it was so inspiring,” he recalled. “I felt like I was at the hub of science, and it was great to be in one of the biggest, highest-ranked places in the country for physics.”

After exploring a variety of research opportunities from astrophysics to lasers, Conrad landed in Distinguished University Professor Emerita of Physics Ellen Williams’ surface physics lab conducting cutting-edge semiconductor research.

“When I started, she was doing nano stuff, semiconductors at the smallest level—so, individual molecules and interfaces between semiconductors and metals and graphene and carbon allotropes, and that was all really hot stuff at the time,” Conrad explained. “My Ph.D. ended up being on the interface effects of nanoelectronics. It was a great decision.”

In 2009, Conrad accepted a National Research Council postdoctoral fellowship to conduct organic electronics research at NIST. 

“There was a chemist at the University of Kentucky making new organic semiconducting molecules. Nobody else in the whole universe was looking at them and they were being shipped to me and I was trying to grow single crystals of them and then determining if they were semiconducting or not,” Conrad said. “I was literally on the bleeding edge of organic semiconductor research and that was very exciting.”

Meanwhile, he was also teaching an introductory physics class at UMD. Inspired by the challenge of working with students, Conrad joined Appalachian State University in 2010 and spent the next eight years teaching physics and astronomy, building workforce and outreach opportunities for his students, and enjoying life on the doorstep of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“Everyone there had four-wheel drive vehicles so they could get up and down the mountains, and I could see the Blue Ridge Parkway from my house,” he recalled. “I could just go off from my backyard and find one of the paths and connect up with the Appalachian Trail, so I definitely became a hiking person.”

Conrad also became a popular teacher and mentor, committed to providing the support and guidance he knew his physics and astronomy students needed. But he was just getting started.

Joining AIP in 2016 allowed him to do even more. As the director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma, Conrad impacted thousands of U.S. physics and astronomy students and alumni by building programs and sharing best practices to enhance physics education.

“My job at Appalachian State taught me how important teaching is, then what I loved at AIP was I got to direct the conversation and resources nationally, for 32,000 undergrads in physics and astronomy across the country,” Conrad explained. “It was my dream job, the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

Thanks to his own experiences as a student and a college professor, Conrad knew that SPS provided support that can be crucial to students’ success.

“It gives students a common mission and it supports fellowship and interest in physics,” Conrad noted. “The reason students don’t stay in physics is because they don’t feel like they fit, but SPS helps every student feel they belong, and that’s the real strength of SPS—belonging.”

Always a physicist, always a teacher

In his current role at NIST, Conrad still supports students interested in science and technology, but he also supports the high-tech employers who need them. He works to build collaborations between manufacturers and government agencies and advance specialized training and apprenticeship programs.

“Within Manufacturing USA there are 17 institutes, each focusing on a specific technology like robotics, optoelectronics, reuse of electronics and biotech—and all these tech areas need really awesome people to fill these jobs,” Conrad explained. “My role is to work with each of those institutes on their education and workforce development strategies, how they can get people access to those skills, and get people interested in these opportunities.”

Whether it’s teaching a class, connecting people, or creating opportunities in physics and beyond, for Conrad it’s a meaningful investment in the future.

“When people ask me who Brad Conrad is, I’m a physicist and I will always be a teacher,” he reflected. “I may do things that aren’t teaching but it’s always in support of people who want to learn and do good things. It’s more than just advancing science—I also know that every day I’m connecting people who are going to go off and make the world a better place.”


Written by Leslie Miller

Philippov Awarded Sloan Research Fellowship

Assistant Professor Sasha Philippov is one of 126 scientists in the United States and Canada to receive a 2024 Sloan Research Fellowship.

Granted by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the $75,000 award recognizes scientists who have made important research contributions and have demonstrated “the potential to revolutionize their fields of study.” The fellowship, introduced in 1955, is considered one of the most competitive and prestigious awards that an early-career scientist can receive. To date, 71 UMD faculty members have earned this distinction, including 14 from UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences since 2015.

Fellows are nominated by other scientists and selected by independent panels of senior scholars. Philippov was nominated by Eliot Quataert, a theoretical astrophysicist at Princeton University who said that Philippov’s research “stands out” from his peers covering similar topics.

“Sasha has a combination of physical intuition, physics depth, code development skills and computational acumen that is characteristic of the very best computational astrophysicists I have interacted with in my career,” Quataert said.Sasha PhilippovSasha Philippov

Philippov, who holds a Ph.D. in astrophysical sciences from Princeton, was previously named a NASA Einstein and Theoretical Astrophysics Center Fellow at UC Berkeley, where he completed a postdoctoral fellowship from 2017 to 2018.

After his postdoc, Philippov worked as an associate research scientist at the Simons Foundation’s Flatiron Institute, where he constructed the first models capable of explaining the mysterious coherent emission of pulsars—magnetized neutron stars that rapidly rotate.

Since joining UMD in 2022, Philippov has been busy with several research projects. He used simulations to show the production of gamma-ray flares from the black hole in galaxy M87, which was the first black hole to be pictured. He also demonstrated how kinetic effects change the flow of plasma and produced proof-of-concept simulations of radiative plasma turbulence.

Philippov also serves as deputy director of a Simons Foundation project called the Simons Collaboration on Extreme Electrodynamics of Compact Sources that models electrodynamic processes related to neutron stars and black holes.

Looking ahead, the two-year Sloan Research Fellowship will enable Philippov to delve deeper into the study of plasmas—hot, ionized gas that surrounds neutron stars and black holes, which he describes as “some of the most mysterious and exotic objects in the universe.”

Part of Philippov’s research will involve the study of magnetars, which are neutron stars with the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. He plans to use advanced 3D simulations to better understand the powerful magnetic flares that occur when pulsars release magnetic energy, enabling scientists to connect the dots between what is observed through telescopes and what is actually occurring at a magnetar’s surface.

He will also investigate black holes that accrete plasma “very efficiently,” meaning more plasma falls into those black holes than ones that accrete low-density plasma, such as the one in M87.

“Depending on how much falls in, the properties of the plasma are quite different because their temperatures and density are different,” Philippov explained.

For Philippov, more plasma means more opportunities to study neutrinos, which are weakly interacting particles that can be generated in the environment surrounding black holes. Philippov’s ultimate goal is to create models that explain how protons accelerate and end up producing neutrinos.

The timing is ideal, considering that the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole recently detected neutrinos from a spiral galaxy called NGC 1068.

“There will be more observations with IceCube and future detectors, so it’s a good time to work on theoretical models,” Philippov said.

Ultimately, Philippov is excited to study the phenomena that help illuminate objects like black holes, which do not emit light on their own. In pictures of black holes, what we sometimes see are accretion disks, or rotating rings of plasma that create a glow.

“We haven’t learned much about black holes themselves yet, but we are able to learn a lot about how they shine,” Philippov said of the study of plasmas surrounding black holes. “Our goal is to understand how all the emission that we see is produced. We can see it, but we cannot really explain why and how, so that’s the underlying question.”


Original story by Emily C. Nunez: