The discovery of the Higgs boson required the dedicated work of thousands of experimentalists. But there was also a smaller group of theorists contributing to the discovery. One of the physicists, Yanyan Gao, bridged the gap between the two groups, earning her this year’s Tollestrup Award.
The Tollestrup Award is given annually by the Universities Research Association for outstanding work conducted by a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab or in collaboration with Fermilab scientists. Gao, a Chinese native who has worked at both CERN and Fermilab, said she was honored to receive the award.
Gao studied the spin and parity of the Higgs in two decay channels, the WW and the ZZ, in data from the CMS experiment. As part of a team of only seven people, Gao was motivated by her experimental work to develop new phenomenological methods to measure the spin and parity of the new Higgs particle. This could help physicists better understand how the newly discovered particle fits into the Standard Model.
The connection between experimentalists and theorists is something that Gao sees as important. While working in the theoretical arena with her colleagues, Gao worked on generators and analytical calculations—programs that predict the kinematics of a physics process.
“I’m quite proud of this part to make the connection,” she said. “I really enjoy the theoretical work because instead of just running the generator, you are actually developing the generator yourself and predicting the physics properties yourself analytically.”
Gao received her undergraduate degree in applied physics, but later became interested in high-energy physics as a way to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe.
“I really liked the Fermilab position because it allows you to do physics research at a fundamental level,” Gao said.
Daniel Whiteson, chair of the Tollestrup Award committee, said Gao’s work extracting spin and parity information from WW and ZZ events was a main factor in choosing her as the award winner.
“We had a group of excellent nominations,” Whiteson said, also noting the significance of the Higgs discovery to high-energy physics. “Dr. Gao made important contributions to a large effort, and it was clear from her application and the recommendation letters that she really made individual contributions.”