Faculty conversations: Elizabeth Simmons
"I'm interested in the origins of the masses of all of the elementary particles that make up everything in the universe," Elizabeth Simmons said. "I'm interested in why we have mass at all, why we're not just floating around with no mass."
Simmons is the dean of the Lyman Briggs College and a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
Her research involves the Big Bang and a flash of energy that froze into individual particles such as electrons, the quarks inside of the protons and particles of light called photons. Initially, these particles did not have any mass or sense of heft to them — they were all zooming around at the speed of light — but then the universe quickly went through a phase transition, and the particles became arranged in such a way that mass was formed, she said.
"What I want to know is what caused that change," Simmons said.
She said that there has been much excitement in her field because of data being generated by the Large Hadron Collider — the world’s most powerful particle accelerator located near Geneva, Switzerland. The data has already ruled out some of the simplest explanations of where mass might come from.
"I can work from here and look online to get the reports of the data and then work from that," Simmons said. "But then I can also go down the hall to talk to some of my colleagues right here at MSU and say, 'Well, help me understand exactly how this analysis was done,' or 'What if one tried to add this particular extra twist to it?'
"It's great having this interactive group, because we can really work together," she said.
Simmons was recently named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest general scientific society in the world. About 540 people were named AAAS Fellows this year; nine are from MSU, which is a record number for the university
Simmons does outreach work with R. Sekhar Chivukula — her husband — and Megan Donahue, two other recently-named AAAS Fellows and professors in MSU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.
"I think that’s part of why we were probably selected — not just for the quality of our science, but for what we do as educators and public engagement," she said.
Simmons helps people from groups that are underrepresented in scientific fields realize that science is exciting and something they would be welcomed to pursue as a career.
Simmons, Chivukula and Donahue give demonstrations at events such as the Girls Math/Science Conference in East Lansing; Grandparents University; Visiting International Professional Program, which is run by International Studies and Programs; and Spartan Science Day, which is run by Lyman Briggs students.
"It's a chance to see the joy of discovery on someone else's face when they make a new connection or understand something that I love and they suddenly realize they love it too," Simmons said. "You have a chance to really inspire them to go find some personal connection to it and maybe study that for the long-term."