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KU professor, alumnus Steven Prohira wins MacArthur fellowship

Physicist selected as recipient of ‘genius grant.’

by Kansas Alumni staff
Steven Prohira

Steven Prohira, g’16, PhD’19, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in October. Widely known as a “genius grant,” the fellowship is an $800,000 no-strings-attached award meant to encourage recipients to pursue their creative, intellectual and professional inclinations.

Prohira is one of 21 fellows in the 2022 class, which also includes Robin Wall Kimmerer, a plant ecologist, educator and writer who authored Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, the 2021 KU Common Book.

In announcing the award, the foundation called Prohira “an early career scientist with a unique combination of talents and bold ideas … well-positioned to help transform what we know about long-held mysteries of our universe.”

Prohira is advancing the study of cosmic rays and ultra-high energy neutrinos through a rare combination of expertise in three distinct areas: theory, engineering and experimental design. He proposes a novel method for detecting the elusive subatomic particles known as ultra-high energy neutrinos—important messengers from outside our solar system that are very difficult to observe.

“Detection of ultra-high energy neutrinos is a relatively small field within physics, but it’s one with a host of creative and exciting experiments and, hopefully, discoveries just around the corner,”

Prohira told KU News. “My hope for this grant would be that it might introduce more folks to the fascinating world of neutrinos and encourage them to explore the physics that can be done with them at both the largest and smallest scales.”

Prohira is the eighth Jayhawk to earn a MacArthur since the fellowship was launched in 1981.

The previous winners were population biologist Paul Ehrlich, g’55, PhD’57, in 1990; plant collector and preservationist Kent Whealy, j’68, 1990; agronomist Wes Jackson, g’60, 1992; artist Ann Hamilton, f’79, 1993; molecular biologist David Hillis, g’83, g’86, PhD’86, 1999; entomologist Marla Spivak, PhD’89, 2010; and legal scholar and advocate Sarah Deer, c’96, l’99, 2014.

Noting that his field “exists on the edge of what’s known,” Prohira says the study of ultra-high energy neutrinos holds the promise to push our understanding of nature and the universe further. “That’s what interests me about them, is that studying them might allow us to cross that bridge into the unknown.”

Photo courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation

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Issue 4, 2022

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Academic honors, Physics and astronomy, Professor
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