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UMD-led Study Named Most Impactful Paper Published in the Journal Science in 2019

January 24, 2020
Contacts: 

Kimbra Cutlip, 301-405-9463, Lee Tune 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) awarded its 2019 Newcomb Cleveland Prize to University of Maryland entomologists Raymond St. Leger, Brian Lovett and seven West African collaborators for their study of the use of a transgenic fungus to rapidly kill malaria mosquitoes.

The prestigious award is given to the authors of the most impactful paper published in AAAS’s flagship journal Science during the previous year. The winning paper is chosen based on the quality of the scholarship, innovation, presentation, and the likelihood of influencing the field and wider interdisciplinary significance. 

This winning study is the latest step in years of work led by St. Leger to develop and test genetically engineered fungi to fight insect-borne diseases, particularly those such as malaria, dengue and Zika carried by mosquitoes.

“We’re looking for papers that change the way people think about science,” said Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of the journal Science and chair of the judging panel. “I think when it comes to a problem like malaria in a location like Burkina Faso, this was a new way of thinking about that problem. We felt that the careful way the experiments were done was very important. And I think that in terms of the public health, in terms of the science itself, in terms of the way it was rendered, it was a superb study from start to finish.”

The study, led by Lovett, St. Leger and their colleagues Abdoulaye Diabate and Etienne Bilgo from the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé and Centre Muraz in Burkina Faso, described the first trial of a transgenic approach to combat malaria mosquitoes ever to be tested outside the laboratory. The researchers first genetically modified a naturally occurring fungal pathogen to deliver a lethal, insect-specific toxin to mosquitoes. They then tested the fungi in a screened enclosure in Burkina Faso called a “MosquitoSphere,” which was specially designed to mimic conditions of a rural village. The study showed that treatment with the engineered fungi killed roughly 75% of insecticide-resistant mosquitoes and caused an established population of mosquitoes to collapse within 45 days.

According to Thorp, the AAAS award selection committee felt that using a mosquito-specific fungal pathogen was an extremely creative idea. They were impressed by both the careful way the experiments were done and the fact that the researchers carried the study all the way from the idea phase to providing proof that the idea can work.

“It’s hard enough to get a research paper into Science, but for it to be judged the most impactful paper of the year is astonishing, and it suggests they feel the same way we do about this work and its potential,” said St. Leger, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Entomology at UMD.

Lovett, who was awarded his Ph.D. in entomology from UMD in 2019 for conducting this research, was equally thrilled to receive the prize.

“It is an incredible honor for my Ph.D. work to be recognized by AAAS with the Newcomb Cleveland Prize,” Lovett said. “To have this prestigious scientific society describe our biotechnology as most promising is a testament to the interdisciplinary and application-focused approach of our international team.”

The project built on decades of creative, highly innovative work by St. Leger that has resulted in numerous new methods and discoveries which contribute to our understanding of infection in general, as well as providing surprising new strategies to combat insect pests.

“As the first transgenic malaria intervention validated outside the laboratory, this study required us to resolve not just scientific issues but many other considerations,” St. Leger said. “We had to gain support from NIH and the approval of the local agencies. Gaining regulatory permission from the National Biosecurity Agency in Burkina Faso was itself regarded as a groundbreaking accomplishment.”

St. Leger credited Lovett’s “can-do” collaborative approach for keeping the project on course through negotiations with various stakeholders and for accomplishing the important local education and training required for the study to succeed.

“The social and regulatory considerations are important aspects of this type of work that are under-supported and under-recognized in science generally,” Lovett said. “So, receiving validation from AAAS is encouraging.”

According to Thorp, the comprehensive approach of combining rigorous science with careful social and regulatory planning helped this research paper rise to the top of the year’s selections.

“A big part of what [the prize committee] focused on was the awareness that the researchers had of the way this study related to the location and regulatory interests that they had to take care of, and it made us feel really good to know that all of that was carefully registered,” Thorp said. "That’s why I say that the professionalism and the way this was done from top to bottom was really striking.”

For more information about this UMD-led research, read these 2019 and 2017 releases about the work:

In addition to St. Leger and Lovett, prize awardees include the following co-authors from the Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé and Centre Muraz in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkino Faso: Professors Abdoulaye Diabate and Roch K. Dabire, postdoctoral fellow Etienne Bilgo, graduate students Souro Abel Millogo, Issiaka Sare, Edounou Jacques Gnambani and Technician Abel Kader Ouattarra.

The award-winning research paper “Transgenic Metarhizium rapidly kills mosquitoes in a malaria-endemic region of Burkina Faso,” Brian Lovett, Etienne Bilgo, Souro Abel Millogo, Abel Kader Ouattarra, Issiaka Sare, Edounou Jacques Gnambani, Roch K. Dabire Abdoulaye Diabate and Raymond J. St. Leger, was published in the journal Science on May 30, 2019. 

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health (Award No RO1-AI106998). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations. 

 

Director of UMD Quantum Materials Center Receives $1.55 M Grant from the Moore Foundation

January 23, 2020
Contacts: 

Chris Cesare 301-405-0824, Lee Tune 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – UMD Physics Professor Johnpierre Paglione has been awarded more than $1.5 million by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to study the complex behavior of electrons in quantum materials.

“The Moore Foundation has played a pivotal role in supporting and promoting quantum materials research over the last five years, and I am extremely excited to continue to be part of this effort,” said Paglione, who directs UMD’s Quantum Materials Center (formerly the Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials).

The new grant was awarded by the Moore Foundation’s Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems (EPiQS) initiative, a quantum materials research program that funds work on materials synthesis, experiments, and theory, with an interdisciplinary approach that includes physicists, chemists, and materials scientists. EPiQS focuses on exploratory research that develop deep questions about the organizing principles of complex quantum matter, and it also supports progress toward new applications, like quantum computing and precision measurement. 

Paglione’s award for materials synthesis was one of only 13 in the U.S. and renews an earlier grant he received from EPiQS, which has provided more than $120 million to researchers since 2013.

“Fundamental studies of quantum materials play a critical role in not only supporting current development of quantum technologies, but also the discovery of new phenomena that hold promise for future applications,” Paglione said.

In recognition of that critical role, UMD’s Center for Nanophysics and Advanced Materials was renamed to the Quantum Materials Center (QMC) in October. The change emphasized the evolving interests of the Center’s members, and it was announced at a one-day symposium in September organized by Paglione and several colleagues.

“Our center’s purpose will remain focused on the fundamental exploration and development of advanced materials and devices using multidisciplinary expertise drawn from the physics, chemistry, engineering and materials science departments,” Paglione said. “But we will place strong emphasis on the pursuit of optimized and novel quantum phenomena with potential to nucleate future computing, information and energy technologies.”

The symposium brought together many local scientists who study quantum materials, including researchers from the university’s Departments of Physics, Chemistry and Biochemistry, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Materials Science and Engineering, in addition to researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Laboratory for Physical Sciences. Amitabh Varshney, dean of UMD’s College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, and Robert Briber, associate dean of UMD’s A. James Clark School of Engineering, attended and shared their perspectives on campus initiatives in quantum science, including the newly formed Quantum Technology Center.

That meeting was bookended by several exciting research results from Paglione and his colleagues in the QMC. In June, they reported capturing the best evidence yet of Klein tunneling, a quantum quirk that allows electrons to burrow through a barrier like it’s not even there. The result, which was featured on the cover of the journal Nature, arises from a duo of quantum effects at the junction of two materials. One is superconductivity, which keeps electrons paired off in highly correlated ways. The other has to do with the precise kind of superconductivity present—in this case, topological superconductivity that further constrains the way that electrons interact with the interface between the two materials. In a nutshell, electrons heading toward the junction aren’t allowed to reflect back, which leads to their perfect transmission.

In August, Paglione and his collaborators published a paper in the journal Science about a new, unconventional superconductor. That material—uranium ditelluride—may also exhibit some effects expected of a topological superconductor, including a demonstrated resilience to magnetic fields that typically destroy superconductivity. One of the paper’s co-authors, NIST scientist and Adjunct Associate Professor of Physics Nicholas Butch, called the material a potential “silicon of the quantum information age,” due to its stability and potential use as a storage medium for the basic units of information in quantum computers.

In a follow-up paper published in the journal Nature Physics in October, many of the same researchers teamed up with scientists from the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory to test the properties of uranium ditelluride under extreme magnetic fields. They observed a rare phenomenon called re-entrant superconductivity, furthering the case that uranium ditelluride is not only a profoundly exotic superconductor, but also a promising material for technological applications. Nicknamed “Lazarus superconductivity” after the biblical figure who rose from the dead, the phenomenon occurs when a superconducting state arises, breaks down, then re-emerges in a material due to a change in a specific parameter—in this case, the application of a very strong magnetic field.

“This is indeed a remarkable material and it’s keeping us very busy,” Paglione said. “Uranium ditelluride may very well become the ‘textbook’ spin-triplet superconductor that people have been seeking for dozens of years and, more importantly, may be the first manifestation of a true intrinsic topological superconductor with potential for all sorts of technologies to come!”

UMD Launches New International Fire Safety Consortium to Address Urgent Global Challenges

January 21, 2020
Contacts: 

Ted Knight, teknight@umd.edu, 301-405-8761

The University of Maryland has joined forces with international research partners to launch the International Fire Safety Consortium, a new global research initiative that brings together worldwide knowledge and expertise to tackle the most critical fire safety challenges.

The Consortium is led by five leading universities in fire protection engineering: the University of Edinburgh, Lund University, the University of Maryland, the University of Melbourne, and the University of Queensland. The Consortium was established to engage in research, education, and collaboration with industry, government, and non-governmental organizations to help inform policy and practice, protect property, and save lives.

Fires result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries each year with financial losses estimated between 1-2% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a total of approximately $76 billion USD worldwide, according to the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Due to current pivotal trends in global urbanization, climate change, human migration, and social inequality, the need to address fire safety as a humanitarian issue has become urgent.

Research shows that changes in climate lead to warmer and drier conditions and longer fire seasons, resulting in increased area burned and more frequent fire occurrence. Given this trend, combined with the substantial growth of wildland–urban interface (areas where wildland vegetation and urban buildings intermix), fire-related disasters in these areas are predicted to increase. Recent wildland fires in California and the current bushfires in Australia are examples of these major disasters.

Fire is also an increasing threat to individuals living in low- and middle-income communities across the globe, making fire safety a social equality issue. Fire statistics analysis indicates that there are significantly greater fire risks associated with living in social housing (such as Grenfell Tower in London) and belonging to lower income sectors, as well as those living in informal settlements. These higher risks and poorer outcomes are reflected in greater fatalities, injuries that leave many people with permanent disabilities, and damage to properties, infrastructure and businesses, with impacts not just of immediate economic loss, but also on broader societal development.

Researchers from the five university partners bring expertise in multiple areas, including: structural fire safety, fire development modeling, wildfires, industrial fire protection systems, fire technology design, risk analysis, fire performance-based design of buildings, fire and sustainability, sociology of technology, combustion science, fire dynamics, suppression, evacuation, intelligent egress and human behavior in fire, fire service intervention, materials and engineered timber, pyrolysis, gasification, ignition and flame spread. The five universities are all members of Universitas 21, a leading global network of research-intensive universities that empowers its members collaborate across borders and nurture global knowledge exchange.

 

The early discussions that resulted in the Consortium were made possible by the University of Maryland's Borderless Research Administration Knowledge Exchange (BRAKE) program, which takes a unique, proactive approach to building international research partnerships by sharing knowledge and streamlining administrative functions. The University of Maryland's Division of Research developed the BRAKE training program to help international partner institutions build expertise in research administration best practices.

 

The International Fire Safety Consortium will hold a workshop at the University of Maryland on February 10-13, 2020, and invite partner organizations in the Washington, DC and mid-Atlantic region to engage in discussions on global fire safety initiatives. For more information, visit the International Fire Safety Consortium website. 

University of Maryland Named a Top Producer of Minority Graduates for 2019

January 7, 2020
Contacts: 

Hafsa Siddiqi hafsa@umd.edu 301-405-4671

 

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The University of Maryland has been named a Top 100 Minority Degree Producer by Diverse: Issues in Higher Education for 2019. In the only national reporting of its kind, UMD is listed as the No. 1 college in the state for conferring doctoral and master’s degrees to minority students in addition to landing in the top 25 for bachelor’s degrees. 

UMD’s top 25 ranking encompasses 19 Asian American bachelor’s, 16 African American bachelor’s and 11 total minority bachelor’s degrees across all disciplines. 

Specific program areas where UMD ranked in the top 5 include:

• Native American students with Doctoral degrees in Agriculture and Agricultural Operations (No. 1)
• Total minority students with Doctoral degrees in Multi/interdisciplinary studies (No. 1)
• African American students with Bachelor’s degrees in Social Science (No. 2)
• Asian American students with Doctoral degrees in Mathematics and Statistics (No. 3)
• African American students with Bachelor’s degrees in Public Health (No. 3)
• African American students with Bachelor’s degrees in Architecture (No. 4)
• African American students with Doctoral degrees in Engineering (No. 4)
• Asian American students with Bachelor’s degrees in Computer and Information Sciences (No. 5)
• African American students with Master’s degrees in Engineering (No. 5)

 

For more information and the complete Diverse rankings, please visit  http://diverseeducation.com/top100/ 

UMD Celebrates 2019 Winter Graduates, Bestows Honorary Degree

December 18, 2019
Contacts: 

Natifia Mullings mullings@umd.edu 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland hosted its 2019 winter commencement ceremony on Dec. 17, 2019, at the XFINITY Center, celebrating graduates from August and December who earned an estimated 2,503 bachelor's degrees, 1,564 master's degrees and 616 doctoral degrees from programs across the university. 

The commencement address was delivered by General James R. Clapper ‘63, the fourth director of national intelligence, leading the U.S. intelligence community and serving as the principal intelligence advisor to President Obama. He encouraged students to be kind and humble, use common sense, and be a champion of the truth. Student speaker Bita Riazi ‘19, who graduated with a B.A. in Communication, spoke to graduates about overcoming fear to succeed. 

In addition, Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. ’64, the longest serving senate president in U.S. history, received an honorary doctorate of public service for his decades of service to the State of Maryland, commitment to public education and dedication to the public good. 

“Senator Miller has encouraged us to think of our school as a great university and with his leadership we have become just that. Without question our university would not be where it is today without Maryland's great President Mike Miller,” said Board of Regents member Gary L. Attman during the ceremony.

Learn more about President Miller’s service and accomplishments: 

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About the University of Maryland
The University of Maryland, College Park is the state's flagship university and one of the nation's preeminent public research universities. A global leader in research, entrepreneurship and innovation, the university is home to more than 40,000 students,10,000 faculty and staff, and 280 academic programs. As one of the nation’s top producers of Fulbright scholars, its faculty includes two Nobel laureates, three Pulitzer Prize winners and 58 members of the national academies. The institution has a $2.1 billion operating budget and secures $514 million annually in external research funding. For more information about the University of Maryland, College Park, visit www.umd.edu.

University of Maryland to Host Winter 2019 Commencement

December 13, 2019
Contacts: 

Hafsa Siddiqi hafsa@umd.edu 301-792-1052

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The University of Maryland will host its 2019 winter commencement ceremony on December 17, 2019 at XFINITY Center to celebrate this academic milestone for graduates from August and December, a group that earned an estimated 2,503 bachelor's degrees, 1,564 master's degrees and 616 doctoral degrees from programs across the university. 

The commencement address will be delivered by General James R. Clapper, the fourth director of national intelligence, leading the U.S. intelligence community and serving as the principal intelligence advisor to President Obama. The student speaker will be Bita Riazi, who is graduating with a B.A. in Communication. In addition, Maryland Senate President Thomas V.
“Mike” Miller Jr. ’64 will receive an honorary doctor of public service degree. 

WHO:

• University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh
• General James R. Clapper, the fourth director of national intelligence under President Obama
• Maryland Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller Jr. ’64
• Student Commencement Speaker Bita Riazi
• December Class of 2019 University of Maryland Graduates


WHEN: Tuesday, December 17, 2019

• Doors open -- 4:30 p.m.
• Processional -- 5:40 p.m.
• Ceremony -- 6:00 p.m.

*Media should arrive prior to the processional*

WHERE:
XFINITY Center, University of Maryland, College Park
XFINITY Center is located on Paint Branch Drive, near the intersection of Paint Branch Drive and Route 193/University Boulevard). Click here for directions.

PARKING/CHECK-IN:
Media must park in lot 4B and enter the Xfinity Center through the loading dock. To ensure access to the ceremony, media must RSVP and show credentials upon entry. 

LIVE VIDEO STREAM:
The ceremony will be streamed live on the University of Maryland’s YouTube channel, here.

For more information, visit https://umd.edu/commencement/ 

University of Maryland Named “Best Venue” by Unique Venues

December 11, 2019
Contacts: 

Joseph E. Criscuoli  301.314.7884 joecrisc@umd.edu

COLLEGE PARK, Md. For the fourth consecutive year, the University of Maryland was named the “Best Venue for Youth Retreats & Camps” by Unique Venues. 

 

The Best Of Awards, presented by Unique Venues, recognizes the standout campuses, conference and business centers, sports arenas, historical and cultural venues, camps and retreat centers, and other special event venues that made a lasting impression on guests. More than 55,000 event planners that regularly use the services provided by Unique Venues to connect with non-traditional spaces voted in a total of 22 categories.

 

The University of Maryland offers unparalleled options for youth groups, including a suburban location near the nation’s capital with two-layer security and 8,000 beds plus two dining halls where younger attendees can convene together. “Each summer, sports camps run by Big Ten Conference coaches combine with college immersion, special studies, and STEAM programs to create a thriving campus,” said Joseph E. Criscuoli, Marketing, Sales, Publications & Outreach Coordinator for the Conferences & Visitor Services department at the university. One of the most notable is the Maryland Field Hockey Camp, held at UMD’s state-of-the-art field hockey turf facility since 1995 with instruction from current and former National & Olympic team members. “Our ropes challenge course, rock climbing wall, ice cream socials from the Maryland Dairy, and TerpZone facility are ‘must-do’ add-ons for any youth program,” adds Criscuoli. The university can also provide in-house motor coach charters that make ground transportation to nearby Annapolis, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. a breeze for additional educational components.

 

The University of Maryland was also named a Runner-Up in the highly competitive "Best Venue for Weddings" category, owing to the triple threat of the Memorial Chapel, Adele H. Stamp Student Union - Center for Campus Life, and the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. These three venues provide a unique range of spaces, environments and services designed to meet and exceed a wide variety of requirements. When combined with the university's catering operations, the University of Maryland quickly becomes a one-stop shop for wedding ceremonies and receptions. 

 

With the announcement of these awards, the Conferences & Visitor Services department has now brought ten Best Of Awards to the University in just five years. 

 

2015

Winner "Most Easily Accessed Venue" 

Runner-Up "Best Venue for Trade Show/Exhibits"

 

2016

Winner "Best Suburban/Urban Venue" 

Winner "Best Venue for Youth/Sports Camps" 

 

2017

Winner "Best Venue for Unique or Locally Sourced Catering" 

Winner "Best Venue for Youth/Sports Camps"

 

2018

Winner "Best Venue for Youth/Sports Groups"

Runner-Up "Best High-Tech Venue"

 

2019

Winner "Best Venue for Youth Retreats & Camps"

Runner-Up "Best Venue for Weddings"

 

About Conferences & Visitor Services

Conferences & Visitor Services (C&VS) is a unit in the Division of Student Affairs at the University of Maryland.  C&VS is a one-stop shop that coordinates campus meeting facilities and the services of university departments for conferences and events during both the summer and the academic year.  In addition, C&VS offers meeting planning and registration services to programs hosted by the University of Maryland.

 

About Unique Venues

Unique Venues has been the go-to source for non-conventional meeting and event venues, and the planners looking for them, for the past 30 years. The marketing and membership company has grown to be the largest online database in the U.S. and Canada with member venues including colleges and universities, historical and cultural venues, arenas and stadiums, camps and retreat centers, conferences and business centers and other special event venues. Services include free RFP submissions, assisted searches and a quarterly magazine distribution that help planners find the perfect fit every time.

 

About University of Maryland, College Park

The University of Maryland, College Park is the state's flagship university and one of the nation's preeminent public research universities. A global leader in research, entrepreneurship and innovation, the university is home to more than 38,000 students, 9,000 faculty and staff, and 250 academic programs. Its faculty includes two Nobel laureates, three Pulitzer Prize winners, 60 members of the national academies and scores of Fulbright scholars. The institution has a $1.9 billion operating budget and secures $560 million annually in external research funding. For more information about the University of Maryland, College Park, visit www.umd.edu.

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UMD Researchers Receive $1M Spencer Award to Investigate Disparities in Resources for Children and Long-term Achievement Gaps

December 5, 2019
Contacts: 

Audrey Hill audreyh@umd.edu 301-405-3468

University of Maryland researchers, supported by a $1M award from the Spencer Foundation, will investigate inequality in investments in children from different backgrounds, and develop recommendations for interventions that best improve life outcomes for underserved youth.
 
Led by University of Maryland College of Education Assistant Professor David Blazar, who also directs the Maryland Equity Project, the research will help policymakers determine the most “bang for the buck” when making decisions about investing resources in children’s lives. The study will examine resources invested in children not only in education, but also in other sectors including health.
 
“There are longstanding lines of research that demonstrate inequality in educational outcomes between rich and poor kids and between students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also unequal access to resources like high-quality teachers and health care,” said Dr. Blazar. However, he says that much less is known about how differential access to resources compounds across sectors. 
 
“As education researchers, we know that we spend more on White kids versus Black kids, in part because White students attend better-resourced schools with more experienced teachers, access to after-school programs, and other resources. However, educational activities also occur outside of the home, in families and communities, where it is more difficult to quantify differences in access to resources. Education researchers infrequently look outside of these settings to also consider how underserved students may also be underserved in access to health care. We want to monetize these differences – to identify the dollar amount – in order to shed led on the extent of these disparities and make them understandable for policy audiences.”

The project also will synthesize information from the existing evidence base on which resources are most likely to mitigate the disparities identified.
 
The research team – which also includes Associate Professor Claudia Galindo, Professor Steven Klees, Dean and Professor Jennifer King Rice, and Associate Professor Marvin Titus from the College of Education, as well as Assistant Professor Michel Boudreaux from the School of Public Health – will first use national survey data to identify in which sectors (i.e. education, health, family, community) and time periods (i.e. early childhood, K-12, postsecondary) disparities in investments in children from different backgrounds are largest. 

The purpose of this part of the project is to bridge connections between research sectors (e.g., education, health) that traditionally have worked in silos. 

“While disparities in access to resources and high-leverage points for interventions have been identified previously, this research has tended to happen in disciplinary silos,” said Dr. Blazar. “By separating unequal investments in education and health, we are likely to underestimate disparities. Kids that have less access to education, often have less access to health care, which makes gathering information across sectors critical to understanding and addressing inequalities for youth.”

“Researchers have been talking about inequitable educational outcomes and resources in units that make a lot of sense to academics but not necessarily to others. By putting those disparities in a dollar scale, they may by more understandable to a public audience and can bring attention to the degree of disparities between groups of children,” Dr. Blazar added.

To do so, the research team will use tools to estimate the dollar amount that goes into each investment area (e.g., number of hours students spend in school, access to high-quality teachers and after-school activities, access to health care) captured by the national surveys.

Next, the team will conduct meta-analyses of causal studies to determine the effect of human capital interventions on outcomes for children. The team will combine these findings on impacts on investment disparities in order to develop a guide for policymakers on the most effective and efficient use of additional resources to address inequalities. 
 
The cross-sector research on inequality is designed to provide practical information to policymakers so that they can identify the most effective and efficient areas for investment, whether that is addressing disparities in early childhood education or K-12 settings or through community health outreach. 

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UMD Astronomers Catch Natural Comet Outburst in Unprecedented Detail

December 3, 2019
Contacts: 

Matthew Wright 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – University of Maryland astronomers have made the most complete and detailed observations to date of the formation and dissipation of a naturally occurring comet outburst. Using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), the researchers gained a clear start-to-finish image sequence of an explosive emission of dust, ice and gases during the close approach to Earth of comet 46P/Wirtanen in late 2018. The team members reported their results in the November 22, 2019 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters.

“TESS spends nearly a month at a time imaging one portion of the sky. With no day or night breaks and no atmospheric interference, we have a very uniform, long-duration set of observations,” said Tony Farnham, a research scientist in the UMD Department of Astronomy and the lead author of the research paper. “As comets orbit the sun, they can pass through TESS’ field of view. Wirtanen was a high priority for us because of its close approach in late 2018, so we decided to use its appearance in the TESS images as a test case to see what we could get out of it. We did so and were very surprised!”

According to Farnham, the TESS observations of comet Wirtanen were the first to capture all phases of a natural comet outburst, from beginning to end. He noted that three other previous observations came close to recording the beginning of an outburst event. Observations of a 2007 outburst from comet 17P/Holmes began late, missing several hours of the initial brightening phase of the event. In 2017, observations of an outburst from comet 29P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 1 (SW1) concluded early, due to limitations on pre-scheduled observation time. 

And, while observations from the UMD-led Deep Impact mission captured an outburst from comet Tempel 1 in unprecedented detail in 2005, the outburst was not natural—created instead by the mission’s impactor module. However, the current observations are the first to capture the dissipation phase in its entirety, Farnham said.

Although Wirtanen came closest to Earth on December 16, 2018, the outburst occurred earlier in its approach, beginning on September 26, 2018. The initial brightening of the outburst occurred in two distinct phases, with an hour-long flash followed by a more gradual second stage that continued to grow brighter for another 8 hours. This second stage was likely caused by the gradual spreading of comet dust from the outburst, which causes the dust cloud to reflect more sunlight overall. After reaching peak brightness, the comet faded gradually over a period of more than two weeks. Because TESS takes detailed, composite images every 30 minutes, the team was able to view each phase in exquisite detail.

“With 20 days’ worth of very frequent images, we were able to assess changes in brightness very easily. That’s what TESS was designed for, to perform its primary job as an exoplanet surveyor,” Farnham said. “We can’t predict when comet outbursts will happen. But even if we somehow had the opportunity to schedule these observations, we couldn’t have done any better in terms of timing. The outburst happened mere days after the observations started.”

Artist's rendering of NASA’s TESS spacecraftFarnham and his colleagues are also the first to observe Wirtanen’s dust trail. Unlike a comet’s tail—the spray of gas and fine dust that follows behind a comet, growing as it approaches the sun—a comet’s trail is a field of larger debris that traces the comet’s orbital path as it travels around the sun. Unlike a tail, which changes direction as it is blown by the solar wind, the orientation of the trail stays more or less constant over time.

“The trail more closely follows the orbit of the comet, while the tail is more offset from it, as it gets pushed around by the sun’s radiation pressure. What’s significant about the trail is that it contains the largest material,” said Michael Kelley, an associate research scientist in the UMD Department of Astronomy and a co-author of the research paper. “Tail dust is very fine, a lot like smoke. But trail dust is much larger—more like sand and pebbles. We think comets lose most of their mass through their dust trails. When the Earth runs into a comet’s dust trail, we get meteor showers.”

While the current study describes initial results, Farnham, Kelley and their colleagues look forward to further analyses of Wirtanen, as well as other comets in TESS’ field of view. The team has generated a rough estimate of how much material may have been ejected in the outburst (about 2.2 million pounds, which could have left a crater close to 65 feet across), but further analysis of the estimated particle sizes in the dust tail may help improve this estimate. Observing more comets will also help to determine whether multi-stage brightening is rare or commonplace in comet outbursts.

“We also don’t know what causes natural outbursts and that’s ultimately what we want to find,” Farnham said. “There are at least four other comets in the same area of the sky where TESS made these observations, with a total of about 50 comets expected in the first two years’ worth of TESS data. There’s a lot that can come of these data. We’re still finding out the capabilities of TESS, so hopefully we’ll have more to report on this comet and others very soon.”

In addition to Farnham and Kelley, UMD-affiliated co-authors of the research paper include Astronomy Associate Research Scientists Lori Feaga and Matthew Knight.

 

The research paper, “First Results from TESS Observations of Comet 46P/Wirtanen,” Tony Farnham, Michael Kelley, Matthew Knight and Lori Feaga, was published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on November 22, 2019.

 

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University System of Maryland and State of Maryland file lawsuit against ICE; UMD implementing additional measures to... Read
July 8
The Middle States Commission on Higher Education has reaffirmed the University of Maryland’s accreditation, following a... Read