Marcelle Soares-Santos ponders the cosmos

On Wednesday, May 30, Soares-Santos will discuss the mysteries of dark matter on PBS's NOVA.

Marcelle Soares-SantosPhoto/Mike Lovett

As part of our series profiling new professors, Marcelle Soares-Santos of the Martin A. Fisher School of Physics talked with BrandeisNOW about her field and research. Soares-Santos joined the Brandeis faculty in the fall of 2017; watch her discuss dark matter on NOVA on May 30.

How did you become interested in your field/research area?

Physics was close to my heart way before I could articulate the word. I was a very curious child, and as I grew up and began studying math and science, that became my passion. The fact that I was terrible at all forms of sport in school might also have had something to do with it. I was the slowest runner, the slowest swimmer and couldn't catch a ball to save my life, but if you were to give me a math problem or a puzzle, I would be one of the first to find a solution. The focus on cosmology, in particular, started when I was in college. There was a colloquium about this topic, and when I heard that 95 percent of the matter and energy in the universe is unknown, I knew that this was a puzzle I had to help solve.

What was your favorite course as a college student?

The modern physics course in which I was introduced to Einstein's theory of relativity.

What has been your proudest career moment so far?

The role that my team played in the discovery of GW170817, the first ever binary neutron star merger to be observed, is by far my highest scientific achievement. That moment when we saw the image with the bright spot corresponding to the merger in it was magical. Close second was the moment our camera, the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), achieved first light on the telescope in Chile on September 12, 2011. I was a postdoc then, and it was my first time working on a project of such large scale. I still get emotional when I think about those two dates. I have been extremely fortunate to work on such great projects.

What specific question/project are you most excited to explore in your work at Brandeis, and why?

My group is now working on the problem of dark energy, the largest unknown component of the universe. In order to solve this puzzle, we use data from several cosmic surveys combined with information from the gravitational wave detectors. This is now an exciting time for this science because the wealth of data collected by the gravitational wave detectors has opened a new window of exploration with real opportunities for discoveries that may change our understanding of the universe.

What book would you recommend to introduce others to your field?

“A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, is a classic. “Cosmology for the Curious” by Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin is a very modern introductory textbook, great for first-year students who are interested in this area.

What's your favorite book/movie/television/radio program/podcast or hobby unrelated to your field, and why?

I like superhero comics and movies. The serialized shows produced by some of the streaming services are also great.

As a physicist, it is incredibly fun to sit back and see some of the laws of physics be "suspended from reality" for the duration of a movie or a TV episode. And have you noticed how many superheroes are also scientists?

What has surprised you about Brandeis since you came to campus?

The big surprise is how welcoming the campus felt to me. Everyone I meet is invested in their work, but also willing to go the extra mile to engage with a new member of this community. It is fantastic.

What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field?

Seek research experience early and often! There are many aspects and possible approaches: observational projects using telescopes and cameras, experiments to detect dark matter particles in underground labs, studies with supercomputer simulations and so much more. You will definitely find onepossibly more!that suits you, and these different experiences will enrich your worldview and make you a better scientist.

Categories: Science and Technology

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