ICASU welcomes new graduate fellow

9/2/2020 4:18:29 PM Jessica Raley for ICASU

Debora Mroczek
Graduate student Debora Mroczek

The Illinois Center for Advanced Studies of the Universe (ICASU) welcomes the first ICASU graduate fellow, Debora Mroczek. Debora joins Professor Jacquelyn Noronha-Hostler’s research group, where she will use machine learning to map the Quantum Chromodynamic (QCD) phase diagram.

Debora explains, “Nuclear matter has phases, just like water. At extremely hot temperatures – on the order of 1012 Kelvin – you get a transition where protons and neutrons melt into a what is known as the quark-gluon plasma, which is when the nucleus melts into its elementary constituents. I’m interested in mapping out under what conditions that transition happens. I plan to implement some modern computational techniques, such as machine learning, to help us understand what’s going on.” 

May 2006 cover of Scientific American 
Credit: Scientific American

Debora’s interest in nuclear physics dates back to 2006, when she picked up a copy of Scientific American at an airport while traveling with her mom. She recalls, “The cover said ‘Quark Soup,’ and it had this cool graphic. I remember reading that article and being really into it. I kept that magazine for a long time.” Debora describes herself as having a “strong internal meter” for what interests she should pursue, and that meter “makes its decisions very fast.” She adds simply, “Nuclear physics spoke to my soul.” 

As a freshman in college, Debora attended a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics (CUWiP) meeting, where she met Noronha-Hostler, then a postdoc at the University of Houston. At the time, Debora was studying space instrumentation, but her talks with Noronha-Hostler reinvigorated her passion for nuclear physics. The two have worked together on several projects since then, including a paper published earlier this year in Physical Review C and another currently under review. 

Noronha-Hostler says, “Debora continues to surprise me with both her creativity and hard work.  Her level of scientific maturity and knowledge is well beyond her years.” She also points out that Debora’s proposed research is “a perfect fit for ICASU.” She says, “This is an inherently interdisciplinary task where Debora will work with nuclear physicists, astrophysicists, and gravitational wave physicists.” 

Indeed, Debora cites the existence of an interdisciplinary center as the deciding factor in her choice of graduate programs. The QCD phase diagram “spans physics that goes from regular matter that we see every day, to the beginning of the universe, to neutron stars. Of course, no single person is an expert on all of those subjects.” Debora adds, “With this center, I will have opportunities to collaborate with people in all of these areas.”

Since her arrival just a few weeks ago, Debora has already begun a collaboration with ICASU Director Nicolas Yunes. They plan to study the equation of state – that is the relationship between density, pressure, and temperature – using the gravitational waves emitted when neutron stars spiral into each other. Debora says, “We understand only very small regions of the phase diagram of nuclear matter and those regions don't speak to each other right now because they're so far apart in terms of temperature and density. With this project, we're hoping to bridge some of these gaps by combining sophisticated statistical analysis tools with constraints from experimental data. Yunes adds, “When neutron stars collide, what’s at the core of the neutron stars affects the shape of the gravitational waves emitted in the collision. We can study gravitational wave data to gain a better understanding of the matter at the center of neutron stars."

When she is not working on her research, you might find Debora conducting experiments in her kitchen. She says, “In my spare time I’m always trying out new recipes. I’m vegan, so I’ve had to learn how to get creative. I like to cook for people and try to impress them with my vegan recipes.” 

A recent graduate of the University of Houston, Debora has already received numerous honors and awards. She holds a double major in Physics and Math and earned the Outstanding Honors Thesis award from the University of Houston. In 2019, she was awarded a Barry Goldwater scholarship. In addition, Debora has received several graduate fellowships, including a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a Sloan Graduate College Fellowship from the University of Illinois, and, of course, the inaugural ICASU Graduate Research Fellowship.