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25 Faces 25 Years: Naoko Kurahashi Neilson

By Amy Weaver
Photo by Jared Castaldi

Naoko Neilson
Naoko Kurahashi Neilson, Assistant Professor of Physics, College of Arts and Sciences

April 3, 2017

NASA was big in the ’80s.

Sure, it was a force in the decades before, but in the ’80s, when a young Naoko Kurahashi Neilson was making her way through elementary school, NASA was pop-culture big. Kids gathered in classrooms to watch shuttle missions, and teenagers stared wide-eyed as countdowns and liftoffs filled the opening credits of MTV’s first broadcast.

Those images stayed with Neilson. But not just the space shuttles and astronauts.

“Watching teams of really intelligent people dance up and down because something launched — not for the sake of monetary gain but because they were going to discover something about the universe — that was something incredible,” says Neilson. “To get that excited about something that probably will not impact you in your lifetime — how exciting is that?”

By sixth grade, Neilson already knew she wanted to be a physicist. And though she felt awkward at times as one of few females interested in science, her family made it clear that her gender did not determine her potential.

“My parents always treated me and my brother equally, and genuinely believed we could do anything,” says Neilson. “That expectation was crucial — just because I was a girl, there was no difference in the expectations they had for me.”

With their support, Neilson earned her bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and her PhD from Stanford University. Today, she is an astro-particle physicist at Drexel with research interests in the high-energy universe; when extremely violent phenomena occur —supermassive black holes, gamma ray bursts, galaxy collisions — she wants to know how and why.

Neutrinos, fundamental but elusive particles, are Neilson’s window into this world.

“Right now, all we can really do is look into a telescope and see what’s out there, but the problem with ‘seeing’ is that we’re looking at light, at photons,” she says. “If I shine a light on the table, you won’t see a light behind it because things block light. Similarly, if there’s an extremely energetic black hole out there and you use a traditional telescope, all you will see is light. But if I had a neutrino flashlight — which I wish I had — it would go straight through, because neutrinos can’t be blocked by anything.”

Neilson is part of the IceCube Collaboration, a group of 300 scientists from 45 institutions worldwide who are researching neutrinos using a high-energy neutrino detector operating at the geographic South Pole.

The research site sits atop two miles of glacial ice — the clearest ice in the world, says Neilson. Eighty-six holes are drilled vertically down into the ice, almost touching the continent, and 5,000 light sensors are submerged. When the holes freeze back up, no light can be seen from the surface.

“When a neutrino comes in, it interacts and makes particles that give off light,” says Neilson. “That’s what the sensors catch — these tracks of light whizzing around.”

Neilson and her colleagues then attempt to find the source of the light. Was it a neutrino? Where did it come from? What galaxy or phenomena could have caused it?

In 2012, as a post-doc at the University of Wisconsin, Neilson and two fellow post-docs observed 26 neutrino events, including the highest energy neutrinos ever observed and with extraterrestrial (not atmospheric) origin. The finding made the cover of Science magazine.

“I was very proud of the three of us,” says Neilson. “This is what I had wanted since I was 12 years old: to be part of a team of smart people doing great things and discovering for the sake of discovery.”

Science for the sake of discovery — not for monetary gain or even immediate application — is an ideal that sits close to Neilson’s heart.

“People often ask of basic science, ‘What’s the application?’” she says. “My philosophy is that basic science feeds the development of society and civilization, but often we can only see the application in hindsight. It’s curiosity that drives development. We see a river or a mountain and we want to know: what’s on the other side?”

In her lab at Drexel, Neilson encourages this curiosity among her graduate and undergraduate students. Her role in their development — as scientists and as human beings — is something she takes seriously.

“I love being a mentor,” she says. “It’s a learning process, and it comes with lot of power and a lot of responsibility. I probably lose more sleep over my students’ career paths than they do!”

In addition to mentoring her own students, Neilson presents to elementary and high school students across the country, hoping to inspire the next generation of scientists, particularly females.

In her own academic journey, she struggled to imagine herself among faculty made up of predominantly white males. She recalls a senior male faculty member suggesting that more girls might pass the qualifying exam “if we added cooking problems.” Around the same time, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers made the controversial remark that “innate ability” might be the cause of the under-representation of female scientists.

“I remember being so upset,” says Neilson. “This discussion isn’t like science in the sense that you can list hypotheses and not influence the outcome. Comments like this become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Neilson hopes to combat those messages and serve as an alternative to pop-culture stereotypes.

“There are a lot of people who don’t see themselves in media images of scientists, and that’s dangerous, to typecast someone or a profession,” says Neilson. “I don’t know the difference between ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek,’ but I’m an astro-particle physicist. You don’t have to be that person to become a scientist. And I especially want young girls to see that, to have another data point of what a scientist looks like that can maybe counteract what they see in pop culture. I’m very proud that I have the opportunity to do that.”


This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "25 Faces, 25 Years." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.