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KU professor and physicist receives MacArthur Foundation genius grant

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A University of Kansas professor and researcher has received the prestigious “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Steven Prohira, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, was named a Class of 2022 MacArthur Fellow for his talent, creativity and long track record of innovative research. Along with the honor, Prohira received an $800,000 grant to act as an “investment in his potential.”

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Being notified of the award, which annually recognizes 20 to 30 fellows across the nation, was a huge shock, Prohira said.

“The first feeling was definitely disbelief. I don’t think anyone really expects to get something like this,” Prohira said. “So, disbelief and then, you know, just a tremendous sense of gratitude and a feeling of ‘Why me?’ I have many, many colleagues doing amazing work, and it’s humbling and just marvelous to be in the company of fellows.”

Prohira, 35, is a physicist advancing the study of cosmic rays and ultra-high energy neutrinos through a rare combination of expertise in three distinct areas: theory, engineering, and experimental design,” according to MacArthur’s website. He and his fellow collaborators recently invented a radar technique thought to be a potential turning point for detecting neutrinos in an energy range.

The “creativity and exploration” involved in physics initially drew him into what is now a passion, Prohira said.

“You wouldn’t typically associate science with creativity. It’s usually art and music and literature,” he said. “But looking at making observations about nature and then proposing hypotheses for those observations and developing experimental strategies to test those hypotheses — each of those steps is highly creative, and when I first was introduced to this field, I was just astonished by the creativity of my colleagues and forebears.”

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Steven Prohira (John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, used with permission)

Prohira earned his bachelor’s degree in 2009 from Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and his master’s degree in 2016 and doctoral degree in 2018 from KU. He was one of 52 graduate students in the nation selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Office of Science Graduate Student Research Program.

Following graduation from KU, he was a President’s Postdoctoral Scholar and Fellow at the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics (CCAPP) at Ohio State University from 2018 to 2022. His research has been featured in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics and Physical Review Letters, among other publications.

Included in Prohira’s research at KU was a project to measure “ultra-high energy neutrinos and ultra-high energy cosmic rays that interact in the Antarctic ice, or with the Earth’s atmosphere, creating radio waves,” according to a foundation news release.

He is now a member of the Payload for Ultrahigh Energy Observations (PUEO) team working with NASA to expand that project.

The MacArthur Foundation called Prohira “an early career scientist with a unique combination of talents and bold ideas” and “well-positioned to help transform what we know about long-held mysteries of our universe.”

Since science is all about taking small steps to expand upon previous work, Prohira said, he is grateful to scientific contributors — such as his graduate adviser and mentor David Besson — who have laid foundations.

“This work builds on the work of lots of other people, including Dave Besson,” Prohira said. “He’s really one of the pioneers of ultra energy neutrinos physics, so my work builds on a strong tradition of this work at KU.”

See the full MacArthur Fellows Class of 2022 at this link.

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Note: This post has been corrected from a previous version.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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