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HomeNewsFaculty Spotlight: Physics and Astronomy Professor Dr. Kevork Abazajian

Faculty Spotlight: Physics and Astronomy Professor Dr. Kevork Abazajian

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Dr. Kevork Abazajian is a professor of physics and astronomy and the director of the Center for Cosmology at UCI. In 2011, Abazajian was accoladed with the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) most prestigious recognition –– the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program award. 

In an interview with the New University, Abazajian discussed his journey to a career in astronomy. His interest in astronomical pursuit trails back to suburban Clear Lake City, a part of Greater Houston, Texas. Growing up near the NASA Johnson Space Center enabled Abazajian to discover and observe all the equipment and devices that they prepare and use for space missions.

“If I were to pin it down to a single book that was most influential … it was a book written by Heinz Pagels, Perfect Symmetry,” Abazajian said.

This work indulges in quantum physics and cosmology in an attempt to explain the origin and evolution of the universe. Additionally, Pagels’ book entails a loose chronology of the first astronomical discoveries all the way to the latest ideas in particle cosmology. An example of these particle studies includes Abazajian’s very own research on particle physics. 

George Fuller of UCSD, theoretical astrophysicist and doctorate advisor of Abazajian during his graduate-student years, was also a contributor to Abazajian’s career in cosmology due to his leading work in neutrino cosmology (the science of the origin and development of our universe) and neutrino astrophysics (a branch of science that applies the laws of physics and chemistry). 

Scientific American defines a neutrino as “a subatomic particle that is very similar to an electron, but has no electrical charge and a very small mass, which might even be zero. Neutrinos are one of the most abundant particles in the universe. Because they have very little interaction with matter, however, they are incredibly difficult to detect.”

In late 2000 and early 2001, Abazajian and Fuller worked on a project that led to the discovery of a “certain kind of dark matter (particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light) candidate particle … [possibly] a kind of neutrino, called a sterile neutrino because it does not interact the same as the other neutrinos.” Dr. Abazajian noted that this dark matter “constitutes 85% of the matter in the universe.”

Furthermore, Abazajian and Fuller found that X-ray astronomy “places one of the most stringent constraints (restrictions) on the dark matter candidate.” Dark matter cannot be detected by observing electromagnetic radiation. 

However, thanks to the advanced X-ray telescopes used in the 1999 U.S. mission Chandra X-ray Space Telescope and the European mission XMM Newton, observations were able to determine “the most stringent constraints on this dark matter candidate has what is called a radiative decay mode (giving off light but at a very low level).” 

Abazajian and Fuller essentially placed a constraint, realized a constraint indeed exists, and began forecasting more possible flux levels (measurements of the total magnetic field which passes through a given area) in space, some of which were confirmed in 2014 by Harvard’s Chandra X-ray Science Center.

When he’s not working on personal research,  Abazajian teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate level at UCI. He is a professor for the doctoral program in physics, allowing him to not only educate but to also supervise and mentor students as an advisor. 

“When you involve a student in the research that you’re interested in and working on … it can get them started on new projects [and] trained to become a full fledged researcher in astrophysics,” Abazajian said.

In the past 11 years, Abazajian has been awarded twice with the distinction of Faculty with Greatest Impact on an Outstanding Graduating Senior here at UCI. Additionally, he has been recognized with the Distinguished Assistant Professor Award for Research from the University of California Academic Senate, Irvine Division, in 2013.

Abazajian is also taking community action as part of the City of Irvine’s Green Ribbon Environmental Committee

“We are a campus, but we are also a key part of the City of Irvine community,” Abazajian said.

Abazajian has been an active advocate for affecting action on climate change. In fact, Abazajian thought “the most environmentally impactful thing I could do is run for city council.”

Abazajian continues his political involvement with the committee today. 

“Advising City Council on matters related to climate protection, energy, recycling, waste management, sustainability, transportation, and water, as well as environmental and energy goals,” he said.

Natalie Ringdahl is a STEM Intern for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at nringdah@uci.edu.