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Meet the Man Who Models Proton Structures for the World: Dr. Pavel Nadolsky


Dr. Pavel Nadolsky is an Associate Professor in Theoretical Physics at Southern Methodist University (SMU). He is the co-spokesperson of the Coordinated Theoretical-Experimental project on Quantum Chromodynamics (QTEQ), the Director of Graduate Studies for the Department of Physics at SMU, as well as a researcher, and lecturer.

Dr. Nadolsky is one of the researchers contributing to the groundbreaking work at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. This complex machine is designed to conduct experiments that help scientists understand the composition and function of the universe, as well as its future.

We asked Dr. Nadolsky about his current and past research projects, his journey to a career in physics, and his experience with SMU - here’s what he had to say:

What courses do you teach at SMU and how long have you been teaching here? What was your degree and where did you receive it?

I became an SMU faculty in 2008 and have regularly taught since then. I got my undergraduate degree (roughly equivalent to the Masters of Science) from Moscow State University in Russia. I actually hold two graduate-level degrees: a Ph.D. in Physics from Michigan State University (a Western-style Ph.D.) and Candidate of Physical and Mathematical Sciences from the Institute for High Energy Physics in Russia (an Eastern European equivalent).

Did you always want to work/study in the field of Physics, or did you have other plans?

Yes. I was interested in physics, astronomy, and math since high school and followed my interest since then.

What initially interested you in teaching on a graduate level? What brought you to SMU?

I decided to come to SMU primarily because of its research program, which closely matches my research interests. Teaching was not the primary motivator for joining SMU, however, I like teaching and interacting with students at all levels.

What research have you been involved in at SMU and elsewhere?

I work on theory of elementary particles at hadron colliders. My research focuses on computations of quantum field theory, multivariate statistical analysis of diverse experimental data, and determination of widely used CTEQ nonperturbative functions describing internal structure of protons and neutrons. Besides being involved in formal theoretical calculations, I collaborate with experimentalists on adapting theoretical methods for measurements at the CERN Large Hadron Collider and other forward-looking experiments in particle physics.

What do you most think is most unique or valuable about the Physics Department at SMU?

Our department is an ideal place for motivated, self-driven students interested in frontier studies of fundamental physics. Our department has a low student-to-faculty ratio and participates in a variety of research domains. As a small department, we strongly value close interactions between students and faculty. We participate in large-scale experiments that require both advanced computational techniques and applications of modern methods for data analysis and machine learning. Many of our students will spend up to 1-2 years at CERN (the leading world laboratory on particle physics) in Switzerland or at other national labs and experiments.

What is the community life like in the Department of Physics and at SMU more generally?

We are located in the heart of Dallas, a dynamic, convenient city that Business Insider lists among top fifteen high-tech cities in the world (between Chicago and Tokyo). The students will find a vibrant, diverse community, supportive atmosphere, a variety of cultural options, wonderful climate, and great food.

What achievement, project, or experience are you most proud of in your years of research and teaching at SMU?

My research group consisting of a postdoctoral student, 2-3 graduate students, and myself plays the leading role in studies of the proton structure by Coordinated Theoretical-Experimental Project on quantum chromodynamics (CTEQ). This is a fascinating area of study that produces a significant percentage of scientific citations at SMU. Protons are smashed at the LHC and other facilities to produce novel elementary particles (such as the Higgs boson) and to look for evidence of new fundamental forces. Scientists need to know the internal structure of the protons with high accuracy, despite the complication that the protons are very tiny (the size of a proton compares to the size of a human, with the same proportions as the size of a human compared to the size of a huge galaxy.) Nevertheless, we know in great detail how protons are formed with their constituent quarks and gluons, by applying the large-scale data analysis by CTEQ to extract detailed information about the proton structure from the diverse sets of experimental data.  

I am most proud that our group’s models for the proton structure are widely used at the LHC and in particle physics in general. The reliability of many physics conclusions have been based on the LHC data and depends on the accuracy of these models, such as properties of the electroweak vacuum or future fate of the universe. This work is highly cited. Our former postdoc Jun Gao received the prestigious Guido Altarelli award in 2018. This is the top international award for young scientists in the area of quantum chromodynamics, and he received it in part for the work on the proton structure he has done at SMU.

Why do you think Physics is an important and valuable field to study?

Physics is the most fundamental natural science. Physical laws underlie major developments in science and industry. Physics is crucial for forming our worldview. Physics has numerous applications. It is a relatively old science, yet it reinvents itself and provides a variety of opportunities for exciting research. Physics graduate students acquire a variety of analytical, computational, and engineering skills for successful careers in both academia and industry.

Which side of Physics poses the biggest challenges for students (theoretical or experimental)?

It varies by the student. In theoretical physics, initially students have to build strong understanding of base physical phenomena. They need to develop mathematical skills to perform calculations in quantum field theory, and programming skills for numerical simulations. The amount of information to learn, and conceptual foundations behind relativistic quantum theory can be initially challenging.

What research areas are most popular with graduate students?

Most students join the ATLAS, SuperCDMS, and astrophysics groups.

Are there any emerging trends or developments in the field of Physics that you find exciting?

I am very interested in formal developments that link particle physics, statistical mechanics, and quantum information theory.

Dr. Nadolsky’s story serves as a great example of the fascinating, important, and impactful research that you have access to in physics Ph.D. programs.

*Image Disclaimer: Reposted from the Physics Department's Twitter,  Dr. Pavel Nadolsky gives his presentation: "On the PDF frontier."

Want to learn more about how a Ph.D. in Physics can open doors for challenging research opportunities? Check out our digital resource, Exploring the Universe: A Guide to Studying Physics at SMU.

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