By Tiffany Whitfield

Old Dominion University Assistant Professor of Physics Felix Ringer who has a joint appointment at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab), has been awarded the distinguished Early Career Research Award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). He was among one of 93 experts from across the country to receive this esteemed honor. DOE grants totaled $135 million dollars and Ringer received a five-year grant for $875,000. Ringer’s research centers around theoretical nuclear and particle physics. His winning proposal is titled, Toward a microscopic picture of hadronization and multi-parton processes.

“For some time now, we've understood that quarks and gluons constitute the fundamental building blocks of the visible universe,” said Ringer. High-energy collider experiments like those done at the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator (CEBAF) at Jefferson Lab and the future Electron-Ion Collider provide avenues to explore the dynamics of quarks and gluons experimentally. “With this funding award from DOE, I will focus in particular on the intriguing question of why quarks and gluons are never found in isolation in the natural world; instead, they are always grouped together (confined) within particles like protons, neutrons, and pions,” said Ringer.

The research of this project is of direct relevance to the nuclear physics program in the United States, including the ongoing experiments at Jefferson Lab and Brookhaven National Laboratory, as well as the future Electron-Ion Collider. 

“I am so happy to learn that Felix Ringer was awarded the prestigious DOE Early Career Research Award,” said Gail Dodge, dean of College of Sciences at ODU. “That is a tremendous achievement, and we are proud of his early success as a faculty member at ODU. His research in theoretical nuclear physics is particularly important to the scientific program planned for the future Electron Ion Collider.”

From the theory side, Ringer’s research is very challenging because the confinement or hadronization of quarks and gluons is something that happens at relatively low energies where existing theoretical approaches have difficulties. “And that's why this has remained an open question. We've looked at different aspects of it, but we have not reached a point where we can claim that we understand the dynamics of confinement,” said Ringer.

Due to the limitations of classical computing, achieving a full understanding of hadronization will likely require quantum computers. In the meantime, Ringer’s hope is to make more progress in beginning to answer some of the unknown aspects of proton, neutrons and pions. “The new tools that we have and that we're starting to explore, with Artificial Intelligence and hopefully quantum computing in the future, will help us address some of these most challenging questions that we have at the moment,” said Ringer. “I think in that sense it's an exciting time because these are new tools that we can explore and see how far we can use them to advance our understanding of fundamental physics.”

“One of the future large facilities in nuclear physics is the Electron-Ion Collider that will be built at Brookhaven,” said Ringer. It is currently in the design phase, with a planned begin of experiments in the 2030’s. “What I'm interested in is understanding what is coming out from these experiments, doing theory calculations, and eventually comparing them to data and trying to learn something from that.” 

The use of machine learning and super computers holds the promise to solve some of the most challenging outstanding questions in fundamental physics. Emergence of new AI tools that we can explore on the theory side are only the beginning to understanding the unknown in fundamental physics to Ringer. “I think there is tremendous potential in AI, and there’s a lot of interesting things that we can learn from it and use it for,” said Ringer. He is choosing to focus on the benefits of the new emerging technology.

“It’s a great opportunity and really important to get as a junior faculty and quite significant amount of funding. That’s why I’m very happy and relieved,” said Ringer.   The five-year grant will be used to fund ODU graduate students as well as postdoctoral students and to purchase computing resources.

“ODU has students with a diverse background and that’s definitely something I came here for,” said Ringer. “It is inspiring to hear their perspective; they are always excited about our collaborative research on the fundamental physics of our universe.”  

“It is very gratifying to see this prestigious recognition for Dr. Ringer,” said Sebastian Kuhn, chair and professor at ODU’s Department of Physics. “He is following two other recent ODU recipients in Physics of the Early Career Award from the Department of Energy: Dr. Ted Rogers, who received the award from 2017-2023, and Dr. Raúl Briceño (now UC Berkeley), who received the award from 2018-2023. The continued success of our young faculty in Nuclear and Particle Theory in competing for these awards is a testament to the high caliber of faculty we are able to attract to our department, in part thanks to our close collaboration with Jefferson Lab.”

Prior to coming to ODU, Ringer earned Master degrees from the University of Cambridge, England and the University of Tübingen, Germany. Afterwards, he earned a Ph.D. from the University of Tübingen, Germany. Also, he has been a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley Lab and the University of California Berkeley. He then became a project scientist at Berkeley Lab and went on to become a Simons Foundation Bridge Fellow at Stony Brook University.