Alex Drlica-Wagner

Lighting the Path of Dark Matter

By Stacy Kish on August 4, 2010

Alex Drlica-Wagner at Yosemite National Park.

Photo Credit: Wayne Fogle
Fellow: Alex Drlica-Wagner
Hometown: New York, NY
Undergrad: Washington University
Graduate school: Stanford University
Keywords: Department of Energy, American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Office of Science, Graduate Fellow program, Dark Matter, Energy

Growing up in light-saturated Manhattan Alex Drlica-Wagner did not turn to the stars as a young boy, he fancied the moon. “I could always look out my 11th floor window and watch the moon rising above the Brooklyn skyline above the east river,” begins Drlica-Wagner. Light has not soured his research either, it has illuminated a path to a promising career.

Scientists studying the light emitted by the universe have a problem. The mass of the universe based exclusively on the light emitted by astronomical bodies does not equal the mass measured using other methods. To explain the difference between what we can see and what we can measure, scientists coined the term ‘dark matter’. Dark matter, which is fundamentally different than the matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons, makes up more than 80 percent of all matter in the universe. Many theories predict that  dark matter particles could interact with one another to produce high energy photons.

No longer encumbered by the light saturated night sky of Manhattan, Drlica-Wagner is searching the universe for this high energy photon signal. A doctoral student at Stanford University, Drlica-Wagner was recently named a DOE Office of Science graduate fellow. “I spend  my time working on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space telescope, which was launched two years ago,” said Drlica-Wagner. With the telescope in orbit, Drlica-Wagner spends his time writing software to optimize telescope efficiency. He explains, “Studying dark matter is the scientific aim, but developing the software to improve the telescope is the bread and butter of the project.”

Drlica-Wagner admits that scientists know next to nothing about such a huge component of our universe. “This research will increase the fundamental knowledge of matter and energy.” said Drlica-Wagner. “It is hard to predict the impact of my research, because it is of an exploratory nature; however, this fellowship offers me an amazing opportunity to help advance this field.” Drlica-Wagner’s graduate fellowship is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Stacy Kish is a Science Writer with the Office of Science