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ODU Researcher Balša Terzić Awarded Prestigious NSF Early Career Award

By Sarah Huddle

Balša Terzić, an assistant professor in the physics department at Old Dominion University, recently began research funded by a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) Early Career Award, one of the highest awards a young professor can receive.

The NSF created the award to support the early career-development activities of teacher-scholars who most effectively integrate research and education within the context of the mission of their organization.

Terzić received a five-year, $500,000 grant for his research project, "Comprehensive Paradigm for Computation of Spectra in Inverse Compton Sources."

The project, which began over the summer, is largely based on work carried out by two of his students - Erik Johnson (physics) and John Rattz (computer science) - who received Program for Undergraduate Research & Scholarship (PURS) funding in 2016. The PURS program is co-sponsored by the Office of Research and the Perry Honors College. Supported projects provide undergraduate students with authentic research and scholarship experiences.

Johnson used the PURS funds to advance the work he completed for his senior thesis on computing the spectra of backscattered Compton radiation. Rattz improved the efficiency of the code that computes Compton scattering radiation spectra, initially developed by Johnson, by a factor of eight.

"ODU was the first to provide a grant for my research, and this paved the way for external recognition of the importance of our team's work and subsequent funding," Terzić said.

Led by Terzić, the project is a collaboration of ODU physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians at levels from undergraduate to senior researcher who seek to advance the next generation of x-ray technology using spectra generated from Inverse Compton Sources.

"X-rays enable scientists to study the internal structure of materials on all length scales from the macroscopic down to the positions of individual atoms," Terzić explained. "This capability has had a profound impact on science, technology and on the world economy, from Nobel Prize-winning science to the everyday dental X-ray."

Yet, the technology for producing such short wavelength light lags far behind the methods for producing ordinary visible light. Currently, X-ray work is done with poor sources based on 100-year-old technology. There are no coherent sources of hard X-rays and the brightest incoherent sources of X-rays are available in only a few large ($1 billion scale) facilities, making them out of reach.

If successful, the new approach is expected to play a pivotal role in ushering a new era in hard X-ray source technology. Inverse Compton Sources create high-energy radiation through a collision between photons and electrons. When they collide, the photons pick up tremendous energy from the electrons, resulting in an upgrade in radiated energy up to the scale of gamma rays.

"Our goal is to garner a complete understanding of the spectra generated from Inverse Compton Sources, harness them and ultimately build a compact Compton source at ODU," Terzić said. "Such a machine would be reasonably priced and attainable by universities or hospitals to be able to extend the reach of radiation science."

The use of the proposed Compton sources in hospitals, industrial labs and universities would have significant impacts. In medicine, X-ray dose could be reduced by orders of magnitude with dramatic improvements in imaging modalities and detectability of soft tissue structure including tumors. New cancer treatments methods would be possible. In industry, it would speed-up drug discovery. In chemistry, biology and materials science it would enable ultrafast x-ray diffraction to understand structural changes on a femto- and picosecond time scales.

A significant factor in Terzić's selection for the NSF Early Career Award is the opportunity it provides for training young scientists in computational and accelerator physics and strengthening the developing Center for Accelerator Science at ODU. The project solidifies the interdisciplinary nature of the Center by creating a setting in which a collaboration of physicists, computer scientists and mathematicians at levels from undergraduate to senior researcher open up transformational avenues in accelerator physics research. It also enables the university to address one of the most glaring needs in accelerator physics — education, development and retention of young scientists.

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