KU physicist wins coveted MacArthur Fellowship, an $800K award referred to as a ‘genius grant’

Steven Prohira is shown in this video screenshot from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awarded the KU assistant professor a coveted MacArthur Fellowship on Oct. 12, 2022.

A University of Kansas researcher who is finding new ways to detect cosmic rays that can answer questions about the universe has won a coveted MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “genius grant.”

Steven Prohira, an assistant professor in KU’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, is one of 25 winners of an $800,000 fellowship grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the organization announced Wednesday.

Prohira, 35, was cited for his work to invent a device called a “Radar Echo Telescope,” which the foundation said could be a “game-changing” technique to detect hard-to-find cosmic neutrinos that researchers believe carry important data from outside our solar system.

A MacArthur Fellowship is considered a top-tier award in the world of academia, in part because it provides its $800,000 stipend — paid over five years — with “no strings attached,” the foundation said on its website in announcing this year’s winners.

The fellowship, though, also is rare in that individuals can’t apply for it. They are nominated by a group of individuals — chosen by the foundation but never revealed to the public — who are tasked with finding extremely creative people worthy of the fellowship.

“The purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society,” the foundation says on its webpage.

Prohira’s research has been touted as having great potential to help humans better understand “long-held mysteries of our universe,” the foundation said in announcing Prohira’s selection. Prohira, who has his doctorate from KU, focuses on cosmic rays and ultra-high energy neutrinos.

“Cosmic neutrinos are remnants of high energy, high temperature space events, such as nuclear fusion reactions within stars,” the foundation said in describing his work. Historically, the neutrinos have been very difficult to detect. Prohira has done extensive research work in Antartica, working to measure neutrinos that move through ice.

The Radar Echo Telescope invented by Prohira is designed to detect neutrinos in an energy range that other detection devices have not been able to measure.

“What’s exciting about our field specifically is it exists on the edge of what is known,” Prohira said in a video for the MacArthur Foundation. “And that pushes our understanding of nature and pushes our understanding of the universe a bit further.”

Prohira said in the foundation video that neutrinos can be very good “messengers” of data if they can be detected. While they are hard to detect, they often travel in a straight line, are from distant solar systems and came into being because of an extremely high-energy event that occurred in that solar system. Such high-energy events likely hold clues to how our own solar system formed and how the universe works.

“Because of that, there is sort of this hint that there is something just beyond what we understand about the universe, what we understand about nature,” he said in the video. “And that is what interests me about them. Studying them might allow us to cross that bridge into the unknown.”


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