Ian Shoemaker, a new assistant professor in the Department of Physics, has received a $200,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant that could chart new theoretical and experimental connections between dark matter and neutrinos. 

A member Center for Neutrino Physics at Virginia Tech, Shoemaker’s research focuses on the physics of dark matter and neutrinos, two aspects of the real world where – Shoemaker said – “our standard theory of particle physics fails.” Dark matter, according to Shoemaker, is a type of matter that appears not to interact with light of any wavelength -- hence “dark” -- and yet plays a vital role in shaping the gravitational structure of galaxies and large-scale objects in the universe. “Neutrinos, on the other hand, are particles we have detected in countless experiments, and yet lack a good understanding of the origin of their mass,” he added.

As part of his research, to be carried out in part with three undergraduate students and a graduate student, Shoemaker said he hopes to find the theorized and long sought-after fourth neutrino, the “sterile neutrino.” (Several experiments by physicists around the globe have identified weak hints for a sterile neutrino while other experiments were at best inconclusive.)

“Depending on their interactions, this fourth neutrino may have been produced copiously enough in the earliest moments of the universe to be the dominant form of dark matter,” Shoemaker added. “Other classes of new physics models involving dark matter and neutrinos can be probed with neutrino oscillations while others have novel predictions for neutrino astronomy.” 

His efforts will include use of ultra-high-energy neutrino telescopes such as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory in Antarctica and the under-construction Cubic Kilometre Neutrino Telescope -- aka KM3NeT – located in the Mediterranean Sea between France and Greece.

Shoemaker’s team of undergraduate students going forward includes Olti Myrtaj, Hana Mir, and Nicholas Hurtado, all students majoring in physics and graduate student Varun Mathur.