Adam Holley

Solving the mysteries of physics to help explain the origin, evolution and fate of the universe may sound intimidating, but for Adam Holley, an assistant professor of physics at Tennessee Tech, it’s an exciting adventure and an engaging research opportunity for his students.

Portrait Adam Holley

Thanks to a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, Holley and his students are looking at the life of neutrons, which play an important role in the study of our universe’s origin.

“This is fundamental physics,” Holley said. “Once we understand nature at a fundamental level, we can understand how other things work.”

Holley and his students are busting neutrons from the nuclei of atoms and looking at the decay of those neutrons. Currently, there are two methods used for measuring the average lifetime of a neutron from the time it leaves the nucleus, but the results of those methods vary by eight seconds.

“Which is huge,” Holley said. “We will be working on ways to enhance this measurement to get it to a tenth of a second.”

The CAREER Award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious award and includes federal grant funds to support research and education around an award-winning proposal.

What makes Holley’s proposal especially exciting for Tennessee Tech is his plan to include undergraduate students in his research team.

“This will enhance our ability at this university to involve undergraduates in cutting-edge research,” Holley said. “Giving undergraduates the opportunity to be involved in research early is important.”

Holley is building a core group, spanning freshmen to seniors, who are working on the grant components collaboratively.

“This group will communicate with other research groups in the department and the across the university,” he said. “There will be a hum of research across campus.”

The award was a bit of a surprise for Holley, who knew the grant was prestigious and tough to get.

“This allows me to contribute to Tech,” Holley said.

And this specific contribution is one that university physics chairman Stephen Robinson says is not only important for the study of physics as a whole but also for the future of Tennessee Tech’s physics program.

“For the department and the university it provides more research opportunities, and so makes us more attractive to prospective students,” Robinson said. “It also helps to raise our profile as a research department and university.”

The research involves a set of ideas and skills that fit well into the undergraduate program framework, and this initiative will be used to inspire future undergraduate research, training, mentoring and outreach at Tech.

Holley’s award lasts through 2021.

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