Published 16 June 2021 by Jamie Luskin

Picking Brains of Scientists for Inspiration in Lindau

Jamie is conducting her PhD research at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Luskin

Jamie Luskin participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2019. She explains how the conversation with other scientists in Lindau helped her to define her scientific interests.

I am a Physicist working in the superconducting devices group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab where I am conducting my PhD research. Our group develops Superconducting Nanowire Single Photon Detectors (SNSPDs) for a variety of applications including space to ground communication and space-based astronomy. I am developing SNSPDs for a direct dark matter detection experiment.

Jamie beside Ada Yonath at #LINO19. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Luskin

In 2019 I participated in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. Afterwards I took a gap semester between my MSc and my PhD. Given the timing, the Lindau Meeting was my ultimate opportunity to pick the brains of interesting and innovative scientists for inspiration.

A Wide Landscape of Opportunities

I enjoyed chatting with the Nobel Laureates, invited guests, and other young scientists. I was particularly inspired by the conversations I had with Adriana Marais about how her interests and personal philosophy took her on a unique path from studying quantum biology in graduate school to her research and technology initiative Proudly Human, which is really pushing the frontier towards off-world human settlements. This made me realise that as a graduate student, my opportunity landscape for the future can look however I want it to.

Off-script Insights in Different Fields

My interactions with the other young scientists from around the world gave me a unique opportunity to hear genuine, off-script insights about what it is like to work in different subfields. That’s something that can be hard to come across and that I think is underemphasised in academic Physics for incoming PhD students; there’s the research topic and then there’s the day-to-day work. You want to make sure that both are a good fit for you.

Reflecting on these conversations helped me get in touch with what truly defines my scientific interests: I like the big, unanswered questions about the nature of the universe, and I believe that some of the most interesting science lies at the intersections between different fields. I was inspired to reach out to research groups that I otherwise would have felt shy and out of place contacting had I not had this whole experience.

Frontier to an Unexplored World

I was thrilled when I got the opportunity to join JPL to focus on the dark matter detection project, because it merges materials and device Physics with high energy Physics and cosmology, which is very true to my philosophy in every sense.

Experiment in the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jamie Luskin

Traditional dark matter searches employ large-scale detectors that look for particles within the WIMP (Weakly Interacting Massive Particles) paradigm, which are typically heavier than a proton. Recently, there has been significant interest in smaller experiments with sensitivity to lighter-mass particles beyond the WIMP paradigm.

Low mass (“sub-GeV”) dark matter is a particularly exciting frontier because it is theoretically well-motivated and completely unexplored. Novel detection schemes in this regime rely on collisions between dark matter particles and electrons or nuclei in various materials.

In collaboration with Berkeley Lab, we are developing a novel experiment where the idea is that low-mass dark matter can scatter off of electrons in gallium arsenide targets, leaving behind electron-hole pairs. Because gallium arsenide is a cryogenic scintillator, when these excited electrons decay, one or more photons is emitted leaving a signature of the event. In principle, an SNSPD will detect these photon signatures.

I will be guiding the development of SNSPDs for this experiment, as well as pathways to take it from the proof-of-concept stage to an operational dark matter experiment. Currently, the largest SNSPDs have an active area of 1 mm2.

In order to make a significant impact on the dark matter parameter space, we must engineer targets that are 20 – 30 kgs which require SNSPDs with active areas of many cm2 and beyond. This will require the development of novel fabrication techniques, readout electronics, multiplexing schemes, and a thorough understanding of the fundamental device physics in these new regimes. 

Diverse Network for New Ideas

I feel like I am truly in a position to contribute something impactful to science with this project, and even better is that between my JPL group, our collaborators, and the friends and colleagues with whom I am still in contact from the Lindau meeting, I have a uniquely diverse network to help me develop my ideas.

Jamie Luskin

2019 Lindau Alumna Jamie Luskin is working at her PhD project at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in a group that develops superconducting nanowire single photon detectors (SNSPDs) for a variety of applications including space to ground communication and space-based astronomy.