Where are they now? Simona Murgia

by Lori Ann White

In the occasional series, "Where are they now?" we check in with KIPAC alumni: where they are now, how they've fared since their days exploring particle astrophysics and cosmology at the Institute, and how their KIPAC experiences have shaped their journeys.

Next up is Simona Murgia, who is now an associate professor of physics and astronomy at UC Irvine. Murgia is another particle physicist-turned astrophysicist who started her post-PhD career at MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search) watching neutrinos change flavor, then migrated to KIPAC in 2007 to look for dark matter using Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope data.

Follow along as Murgia talks about transitioning from postdoc to professor, looking for dark matter in some pretty tough places, and outrunning the bees and wasps at the old SLAC cafeteria.

Simona Murgia with an impressive example of normal matter near Antelope Canyon, AZ. (Credit: Tim Tait.)
Simona Murgia with an impressive example of normal matter near Antelope Canyon, AZ. (Credit: Tim Tait.)


LW: Can you tell us a little bit about your academic background before you came to KIPAC?

SM: I’m Italian, and that’s where I got my undergraduate degree—in Italy. Then I got my PhD at Michigan State University as a particle physicist working at the CDF experiment  Fermilab. My first postdoc was at Stanford, working on a neutrino experiment at Fermilab.

LW:  How did you end up at KIPAC?

SM:  I considered joining one of the big LHC collaborations, to explore the foundations of our universe—the Higgs was found at the LHC and that was very exciting. In the meanwhile, I was reading a lot of articles on how to learn about the fundamental nature of dark matter through astrophysics, and how to use astrophysics to do the same thing—explore and answer fundamental questions about the Universe—that was truly fascinating to me. That’s when I decided that I should switch and got the postdoc at KIPAC.

LW: When were you at KIPAC?

SM: I was there from 2007-2012, working mostly with Elliott Bloom. At first I worked on detector-related stuff, and on to dark matter searches.

LW: Was KIPAC a good place to make the switch to astrophysics?

SM: KIPAC was the best place for me to be. I had the opportunity to learn from and interact with a group with such a broad range of expertise. Some had particle physics backgrounds which meant we spoke a common language, which was very helpful!  Many there played key roles in the development of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and that was a great advantage for me.

LW: Can you tell us more about this dark matter search using Fermi data?

SM: One of the most intriguing results from Fermi is the excess observed towards the center of our galaxy. Dark matter is a possible explanation for it, and if that were confirmed it would be groundbreaking! This interpretation though has to contend with another possibility, that the signal is coming from a multitude of pulsars. The difficulty is that the center of the galaxy is full of other sources, and it is not trivial to tease out a signal. I spent a lot of my time working on this and thinking about it (as have many others!) and in my opinion the jury is still out on this. To settle the issue, we would have to find the pulsars, or detect a consistent dark matter signal somewhere else. Either way, it would be really good to know!

Heat map showing gamma-ray excess at the galaxy's center.
Left:  A map of gamma rays with energies between 1 and 3.16 GeV detected in the galactic center by Fermi's LAT; red indicates the greatest number. Prominent pulsars are labeled. Removing all known gamma-ray sources (right) reveals excess emission that may arise from dark matter annihilations.
(Credit: T. Linden, Univ. of Chicago.)


LW: Can you tell us about your current position?

SM: I got a faculty position at University of California Irvine and I’ve been there ever since.

Transitioning between being a postdoc and being faculty was hectic. When you're a postdoc you can focus on research, but what's in your head is, "I've got to get a faculty position!" Then you get one and you're responsible for a lot more things. You have to teach a class of 300+ engineering freshmen, they have questions, they send emails, office hours are packed. You have to prepare lectures and exams, you have to grade work. Add to that applying for grants and sitting in various committees, and it felt overwhelming at times, and sometimes it still does! But it gets easier. Little by little, things work out. And UCI really tries to make things easier for new professors.

I find being a faculty at UCI very rewarding. In addition to doing the research I love (I’m now also involved in LSST), teaching challenges and stimulates me. It gives me a chance to appreciate the topics I teach more deeply and with a fresh perspective. And the opportunity to teach cool classes, and learn a lot in the process! Mentoring graduate students is another very rewarding aspect of being a faculty member. Students can bring a very different perspective and this interaction is one of the pillars of academia.

I also very deeply believe in the mission of public universities. We educate a large fraction of society, including many students from underprivileged backgrounds. As an example, UCI ranked #1 in contributing to social mobility through education. This is a huge responsibility and an incredible opportunity to have a positive impact on the future.

LW: Do you think your work at KIPAC helped you get your position at UCI?

SM: The work I had been doing at KIPAC was definitely a factor in UCI hiring me. KIPAC gave me the opportunity to transition to a new field and because of the expertise of many of the people there and the stimulating environment, I was able to develop the skills and build the knowledge I needed for the projects that most fascinated me. This was crucial for my career development.

Simona Murgia and colleague Alberto Casas discussing dark matter at a conference in Santander, Spain, hosted by Universidad Cantabria. From July 1, 2016.

LW: Can you leave us with a favorite memory of KIPAC?

SM: That is a difficult question...I have many great memories. Lots of laughter and discussion over lunch in the old SLAC cafeteria comes to mind (and the many ways we concocted to avoid being stung by bees while there, but sadly running away was the most effective...). I think the best way to sum it up is the friendships and the camaraderie I experienced, along with the fruitful and stimulating discussions.

Note: The word-cloud at top right was created by Murgia using https://scimeter.org/clouds, based on some of her articles appearing on the arXiv preprint server.