Kathryn Zurek Wins Simons Investigator Award

Kathryn Zurek, a professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, has been named a 2020 Simons Investigator. According to the Simons Foundation website, the investigators are “outstanding theoretical scientists who receive a stable base of research support from the foundation, enabling them to undertake the long-term study of fundamental questions.” Investigators receive $100,000 annually for five years.

Zurek studies dark matter, an invisible substance that pervades our universe. Dark matter has been indirectly detected through the gravitational tugs it exerts on ordinary matter, but it does not give off any light. For more than a decade, Zurek has been coming up with new ideas for what might constitute dark matter—so-called “hidden sector” or “hidden valley” theories—and designing new ways to detect the substance using tabletop experiments. The dark matter particles suggested by hidden valley theories are lighter than those proposed previously, such as WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles), and interact with ordinary matter in entirely new ways. According to Zurek, the hidden sector particles are not meant to solve any problems of the visible universe and instead “have a life of their own.”

She also develops theories for observational techniques to measure dark matter clumps in our galaxy and, in the realm of particle physics, has studied the impact of the Higgs boson on cosmological history. Recently, she has been hunting for signatures of the quantum nature of gravity in tabletop experiments.

Zurek received her bachelor’s degree in physics from Minnesota’s Bethel University in 2001 and her PhD in physics from the University of Washington in 2006. She served as a professor of physics at the University of Michigan from 2009 to 2014 and then as a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory from 2014 to 2019. She joined the faculty at Caltech in 2019.