‘Why me?’: University of Kansas physicist thought $800,000 MacArthur genius grant was a prank

Steven Prohira: ‘Neutrinos sort of give us this glimpse into something that’s beyond our current models of physics’

By: - October 21, 2022 10:39 am
Steven Prohira in his lab at the University of Kansas

Steven Prohira, a physicist and assistant professor at the University of Kansas, received an $800,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation for his work in detecting ultra-high energy neutrino particles. (Lily O’Shea Becker for Kansas Reflector)

LAWRENCE — The MacArthur Foundation has named a physicist and assistant professor at the University of Kansas a 2022 fellow and awarded him the reputable “genius grant.”

The MacArthur Foundation recognized Steven Prohira for his creative work in the advancement of detecting ultra-high energy neutrino particles. According to the MacArthur Foundation, Prohira’s work includes expertise in theory, engineering and experimental design. The $800,000 grant, which is awarded to 20 to 30 innovators across the country annually, is described by the MacArthur Foundation as a no-strings-attached investment in the fellows’ potentials.

“I thought it was totally a prank,” Prohira said about his phone call from the MacArthur Foundation. “There’s no way. I didn’t believe it at all. … Then once I did believe it, just immense gratitude and sort of feelings of, ‘Why me?’ ”

Prohira and his colleagues have developed the Radar Echo Telescope, with the end-goal of using radio waves to detect neutrino particles of energy higher than has ever been recorded. Neutrinos are elusive fundamental subatomic particles that move throughout the universe. Neutrino particles are building blocks of nature, along with other fundamental particles, such as electrons.

While neutrino particles are extremely common, with tens of billions passing through a human body every second, they are extremely difficult to detect.

“I think what’s exciting about it is that neutrinos sort of give us this glimpse into something that’s beyond our current models of physics,” Prohira said.

Because there is a lack of information concerning ultra-high energy neutrino particles, detecting them would provide new knowledge of nature and the universe.

The highest energy neutrino particles recorded to date were detected in the South Pole by the IceCube Neutrino Observatory at about a mile below the ice.

The interaction of neutrino particles passing through ice creates charged particles, which produces optical light. The IceCube experiment works by detecting this optical light.

Prohira’s approach is different. Through prototype studies with the radar echo telescope, Prohira and his colleagues have proven that bouncing radio waves off ionization deposits works to detect particles. While the primary particle used for the study was not a neutrino particle and plastic was used in place of ice, Prohira plans to test this process with ice in 2023.

Prohira is not sure how he will use his grant.

“I have a lot of ideas, but it’s like asking what you do if you won the lottery. I’ve never thought about it. It doesn’t fit into my research plans. It doesn’t fit into my life plans. So I have ideas, but nothing concrete yet,” Prohira said.

Prohira said the most pressing matter concerning his work is testing the radar echo telescope with ice. A field test is planned for January at KU, and Prohira hopes to deploy to the polar regions, either Greenland or Antarctica, next year.

Initially, Prohira planned on pursuing a career in art, with interests in drawing and woodblock prints. He received his undergraduate degree in fine arts from Gonzaga University in 2009.

“My artwork started to revolve around trying to get a viewer to ask scientific questions,” he said. “So I was interested in making pieces that looked a little bit weird or unusual that people would ask, ‘How does that work?’ And they weren’t very good, so I found that I was most interested in actually studying what was going on underneath what I was doing.”

While enrolled in KU’s master of fine arts program, Prohira began to take electives in the physics and astronomy program, eventually changing his degree. By 2016 he earned his master’s degree and in 2018 he graduated KU with a doctoral degree.

“We’re tremendously proud of professor Prohira’s achievements that led to this exciting recognition,” said chancellor Douglas A. Girod in a statement. “It will be thrilling to see what he discovers next as he continues on his path of discovery that is illuminating fresh, new ideas about the cosmos and is pushing out the limits of our knowledge.”

“I’m also on several other experiments that are trying to detect neutrinos in different ways, too, and so the field in general is really exciting, because there’s lots of challenges to detecting these things and those challenges require creative solutions,” Prohira said.

Prohira is a member of the Payload for Ultrahigh Energy Observations team. The team is part of a NASA experiment, which uses a stratospheric balloon to experiment with radio waves and ultra-high energy neutrinos.

“I want to stress, these awards are for individual creativity, which is really great, but in science nothing is done alone, so my work is hugely collaborative. I have a great group of people that I work on the radar echo telescope (with),” Prohira said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the effect of the interaction of neutrino particles.

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Lily O'Shea Becker
Lily O'Shea Becker

Lily O’Shea Becker studied journalism at the University of Kansas. She was an intern with the Kansas Reflector for the 2022 summer. Lily has experience as a multimedia journalist, photojournalist, producer and copy editor for a variety of news outlets in Lawrence and at the University of Kansas.