“There need to be more building blocks than the ones we know about,” says the particle physicist.
Kerstin Perez is searching for imprints of dark matter. The invisible substance embodies 84 percent of the matter in the universe and is thought to be a powerful cosmic glue, keeping whole galaxies from spinning apart. And yet, the particles themselves leave barely a trace on ordinary matter, thwarting all efforts at detection thus far.
“If we can convince ourselves that’s really what we’re seeing, that could help point us in the direction of what dark matter is,” says Perez, who was awarded tenure this year in MIT’s Department of Physics.
In addition to GAPS, Perez’ work centers on developing methods to look for dark matter and other exotic particles in supernova and other astrophysical phenomena captured by ground and space telescopes.
“We measure so much about the universe, but we also know we’re completely missing huge chunks of what the universe is made of,” she says. “There need to be more building blocks than the ones we know about. And I’ve chosen different experimental methods to go after them.”
Born and raised in West Philadelphia, Perez was a self-described “indoor kid,” mostly into arts and crafts, drawing and design, and building.
“I had two glue guns, and I remember I got into building dollhouses, not because I cared about dolls so much, but because it was a thing you could buy and build,” she recalls.
Her plans to pursue fine arts took a turn in her junior year, when she sat in on her first physics class. Material that was challenging for her classmates came more naturally to Perez, and she signed up the next year for both physics and calculus, taught by the same teacher with infectious wonder.
“One day he did a derivation that took up two-thirds of the board, and he stood back and said, ‘Isn’t that so beautiful? I can’t erase it.’ And he drew a frame around it and worked for the rest of the class in that tiny third of the board,” Perez recalls. “It was that kind of enthusiasm that came across to me.”
So buoyed, she set off after high school for