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Undergraduates win Apker Prize for working on slime molds and black holes

Undergraduates win Apker Prize for working on slime molds and black holes

The 2022 prize was awarded to students in biophysics and astrophysics.

Written by Liz Putman | November 10, 2022

Adam Dion (left) and Matthew Kovari, the 2022 Akerkins Prize recipients.


Each year, the American Physical Society recognizes undergraduate achievement in physics with the LeRoy Apker Prize. This year’s recipients are Matthew Kovari, a final year student at Syracuse University, and Adam Dion, now in his first year in the Ph.D. program at Harvard, for work he completed as a student at Williams College.

Dion investigated nutrient transport in slime mold, while Kovari built a model to explain the origin of the periodic outburst of light emitted from a distant galaxy.

Dion spent many hours in the lab, bent over Petri dishes as he reared his object, Vesarum polycephalum Feed her oat flakes, slime’s favorite snack. Note the spatial patterns in the distribution of nutrients in the slime mould, which he then formulated using network theory principles.

Visarum It can do things like solve a maze or create this optimal distribution network,” says Dion, “although no nervous system and its transmission network is “very decentralized and simple.” Working with Henrik Ronellenfitsch, who was then an assistant professor at Williams, To develop a theory that supports the behaviors of the organism, the duo participated with Assistant Professor Katherine Jensen on the experimental part.

“I can begin to see how the model came together in a way that shows how this organism, VisarumIt really organized itself,” says Dion.

Meanwhile, Kovari was studying the nucleus of a galaxy, known as ASASSN-14ko, in a distant region of the sky. Other researchers have reported a periodic burst of light from ASASSN-14ko, emitted every 114 days. They speculated that the source could be a large star gravitationally bound to a black hole at the center of the galaxy, emitting a glow every time the star orbits and passes close to the black hole.

But they could not explain how a star could be captured in an orbit narrow enough to cause a short 114-day period. So Kovari and his project advisor, Associate Professor Eric Coughlin, set out to develop a model that would explain, and then simulate, how this might happen. The duo eventually showed that the black hole likely captured the large star from a nearby binary star system, in a process known as the ridge mechanism.

At some points during the project, their model didn’t seem to be working. “It was often difficult to tell if the model could not explain the origin of ASASSN-14ko, or the piece just needed to be revisited,” Kovari says.

Despite the challenges, Kovari’s calculations were accurate. “[When] You’ve been working on a model for months that produce predictions in great agreement with observation — it’s really amazing,” he says.

Abkar Prize Pictures
Credit: Adam Dion (Image at left). NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Smith (USRA/GESTAR) (illustration at right).

Dione studied the slime mold Physarum polycephalum and its complex system of nutrient distribution (left). Kovari studied the nucleus of the galaxy ASASSN-14koA, whose regular bursts of light are thought to be caused by a black hole pulling material from an orbiting star.


Although there was no connection between sticky mold, maze solving and hungry black holes, both projects relied on computer simulations, which students mastered thanks to their undergraduate computer science courses.

“It’s really easy to lose sight of the extent of the revolution [computers] Dion says. “Seeing how the latest research uses them to understand systems…was really inspiring.”

Both students attribute their research to making physics feel relevant to the real world. Kovari says he has learned how investments in optical systems for telescopes have affected a range of technologies, such as tools used in medicine to diagnose and treat diseases. Dion asserts that “eccentric” sticky mold can do more than solve labyrinths — it can guide our understanding of decentralized distribution in large networks, which has implications for modern systems such as power grids, he says.

So what’s next for physicists?

Kovari, who once thought he’d be a doctor or a lawyer, now plans to pursue a career in science because of “the kind of problem-solving that goes into physics research — open questions,” he says. He has also been drawn to field applications – for example, engineering for clean energy – and the role physicists can play in “pushing technology forward, making life more equitable, making it more affordable, and improving the world we live in today.”

Kovari is applying to graduate programs to advance his interests in plasma astrophysics, with hopes of becoming a researcher or professor, he says.

Dion, in his first semester at Harvard, is already focused on “trying to find a way to do research that is meaningful to me and [that helps] from other people.” For him, scientific communication is key. He adds that physicists have “a role to play, and a burden to communicate… with the public in a way they can understand.” Part of that burden on physicists includes “restoring the trust” the public has lost In recent years, by improving communication.

On top of that, Dion says he’s still charting his course, in part because, as a first-generation undergraduate turned first-generation graduate student, “I didn’t really know a Ph.D. was an option in my life until I was in college.” .”

For now, “I’m just trying to become the best scientist I can,” he says, “because that’s what I enjoy [it’s] A truly meaningful career to pursue.”

Liz Putman is a staff writer APS . News.


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