Theoretical Physicist Dekrayat Almaalol Receives 2024 Leona Woods Lectureship Award

Postdoctoral theorist recognized for her work in hydrodynamic simulations, shedding light on the earliest moments after the big bang

Dekrayat Almaalol

The Physics Department at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory has announced that Dekrayat Almaalol, a postdoctoral theoretical physicist from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has been named the spring recipient of the 2024 Leona Woods Distinguished Postdoctoral Lectureship Award. She will receive an honorarium of $1,000 and give a general-interest colloquium and a technical talk about her work on Tuesday, April 16, and Thursday, April 18, respectively.

The Leona Woods award was established in honor of renowned physicist Leona Woods to celebrate the scientific accomplishments of outstanding female physicists and physicists from other underrepresented minority groups, including the LGBTQ community — and to promote diversity and inclusion in the Department.

“This award means a lot to me,” said Almaalol, who comes from a small town in Libya in Northern Africa. “Coming from an institution like Brookhaven, the award is invaluable. Given that it’s the major facility in the States highlighting my work, and the fact that the award represents minority women in science, I feel grateful and honored to receive it.”

Almaalol, who was nominated for this award by her University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign advisor, professor Jaki Noronha-Hostler, is nearing the end of her first postdoctoral research position in the university’s Department of Physics. She’s been working with Noronha-Hostler on the phenomenology of heavy-ion collisions and their connections to neutron stars. She will start her second postdoctoral research position at Stony Brook University (SBU) when her current position concludes.

Almaalol completed her undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of Zawia in Libya in 2010. She received a government-sponsored scholarship to continue her studies in higher education, which she pursued at Kent State University in Ohio and where she completed her master’s degree in 2013. In 2021, Almaalol received her Ph.D. under her advisor, professor Michael Strickland, also at Kent State.

Almaalol has spent the last two years studying high-energy collisions at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, Europe’s laboratory for nuclear and particle physics research.

“As an early career postdoc in physics, when you work hard on a project, you have a huge hope to achieve your academic goals. On the other hand, you’re full of uncertainties about how things are going to end,” said Almaalol. “Getting the award at this time has a huge impact. It is assuring to feel that you’re on the right track and that your effort is recognized.”

‘Girls here stay and don’t leave’

The award is particularly satisfying, Almaalol said, given the early hurdles she overcame in Libya.

“I’m supposed to be a doctor,” said Almaalol, who was expected to attend medical school based on her high academic scores, in accordance with her home country’s higher education pathways. “In my case, it was not my choice.”

Fortunately, her small hometown, Ejmail, did not have this kind of university. “So, I was not able to make it to medical school,” Almaalol said.

There was, however, a college of science. “I was not able to go to medical school because my family wanted me nearby, so I had to switch majors. And Physics was then my first choice,” said Almaalol.

“My first connection and desire to pursue physics started with my physics teacher in high school,” said Almaalol. “I was doing well academically, and he was very supportive. He appreciated my hard work and was always there to help.”

Almaalol initially envisioned herself as a professor. “I wanted to be a professor because, from my experience, teaching is more than providing academic knowledge. It’s providing a path in life,” she said.

After Almaalol finished her undergraduate degree with honors, she received a government-sponsored scholarship to continue her studies.

Almaalol recalls from her hometown in Libya that “there was no existence of any girls in higher education in my family, not even in my hometown. For me and my family, it was a new experience.”
“The standard route was for me to get my bachelor’s degree, become a teacher, and settle down, and it was really a long shot for me to think otherwise. The girls here stay and don’t leave,” she said.

By this time, her family recognized her academic desire. “My dad supported me all the way, and that meant the world to me,” said Almaalol. “I was excited to come to the States. I knew it would become possible here.”  

‘A notable expert’

Intellectually and academically, Almaalol has always been intrigued by the field of physics.

“The power of physics is that it merges aspects of all sciences together. And it’s challenging, so you don’t ever get bored,” she said. “You’re never disconnected from the real world. Is there a more powerful research area than looking at the origins of the universe and the interactions that control the existence of matter?”

Almaalol’s research in high energy physics revolves around humanity’s fundamental questions: How does the universe around us form? What is it made of, and how did it evolve over time?

When physicists pose these questions, they focus on the building blocks of matter — the atom’s sub-particles — specifically, protons and neutrons and their constituents, quarks and gluons. Scientists use advanced accelerators, such as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a DOE Office of Science user facility at Brookhaven Lab, to collide these particles, mainly protons and heavier ions. When heavy ions collide, they produce liquid known as the quark-gluon plasma (QGP) — the initial state of the universe right after the Big Bang. 

Detectors, like RHIC’s STAR and sPHENIX, capture captivating snapshots of what happens during heavy ion impacts, allowing scientists to further examine the complex makeup created by these collisions.

“Almaalol is a notable expert on the application of hydrodynamic simulations to describe heavy ion collision data,” said Bjoern Schenke, a distinguished scientist in Brookhaven Lab’s Physics Department, an adjunct professor of physics at SBU, and a member of the Leona Woods award committee.

Hydrodynamics is a branch of physics that deals with the motion of fluids. Schenke notes that its success in describing experimental data from heavy ion collisions has revealed that QGP behaves like a nearly "perfect fluid" that flows with virtually no resistance.

Hydrodynamics plays an important role in complex phenomenological models aimed at understanding detailed properties of the QGP, such as its viscosity, the equation of state, and how the fluid affects high momentum particles emerging from the collisions.

In physics, phenomenology is the application of theoretical physics to experimental data by making quantitative predictions based upon known theories.

“Dekrayat is an expert on calculations that can reproduce experimental data from heavy ion collisions at RHIC and the LHC by treating the produced quark-gluon plasma as a droplet of ultra hot and ultra dense liquid,” said Award Committee Chair Peter Steinberg, a distinguished scientist in the Physics Department at Brookhaven Lab.

While these calculations generally work very well, their ultimate accuracy depends on developing mathematical formulas that respect fundamental physical principles, such as causality, as well as careful accounting of various types of “charges” that are conserved throughout the full evolution.

“Her expertise in this area is crucial for understanding the baryon-rich, low-energy collisions studied in recent years at RHIC,” said Steinberg. 

‘All eyes on EIC’

Scientists like Almaalol are excited to further explore these questions with the research potential of the Electron-Ion Collider (EIC), the world's first polarized electron-proton and electron-ion collider, to be constructed at Brookhaven over the next decade.

“All eyes are on the EIC. We’re all trying to link the research we’re doing towards the future EIC,” said Almaalol.

The EIC will produce never-before-seen 3D images of the internal structure of protons and atomic nuclei, and it may reveal how the energy of gluons is transformed to generate the mass of the visible universe.

“EIC is the future goal for science in the States,” said Almaalol. “We have, in the heavy ion community, saturated to a very nice precision era of understanding the physics of high-energy collisions. At this point, the transition to EIC becomes mandatory, to go to the next level of studying the QCD matter.”

Almaalol said she has already started establishing new projects related to the EIC and, for her next post-doc at SBU, will work with Dmitri Kharzeev, an SBU professor who is also a Brookhaven Lab physicist.

‘The educator hat’

In addition to her expertise in hydrodynamic simulations, Almaalol is also an accomplished speaker. She won the Klaus Kinder Geiger prize at Hot Quarks 2022, a major annual workshop for young heavy ion scientists.  

Almaalol is also active in service areas. She plans networking events at the Division of Nuclear Physics Annual Meetings, such as GeMSS, or the Gender Minorities in Sciences Social. She has also been recruited by the Society of Women Physicists to help its members develop “elevator talks” where they quickly describe their research to a non-expert.

“I see these activities as an opportunity to give back and share my knowledge with others. It is time to wear that hat,” she said.

Almaalol’s talks

Almaalol will give a non-technical colloquium titled, “Fluid Dynamical Modeling of High-Energy Collisions: Interplay Between Theory and Phenomenology,” on Tuesday, April 16, 2024, at 3:30 p.m. EDT. This talk will be offered via videoconference and in the building 510 large seminar room. Watch the talk on Zoom

This talk will be a comprehensive assessment of hydrodynamic modeling, its comparison to experimental data, and how it helps scientists understand the quark gluon plasma.

Almaalol will give a more technical talk titled, “Theory constraints on relativistic 2nd-order dissipative hydrodynamics evolution with BSQ conserved charges” on Thursday, April 18, 2024, at 12:30 p.m. EDT.

This talk will be offered via videoconference and in building 510, room 2-160.  The talk will focus on her work on the stability of equations of motion for an out-of-equilibrium fluid of strongly interacting quantum chromodynamics matter with several conserved charges. Watch the talk on Zoom

About the award: Highlighting ‘unique perspectives’

The Leona Woods Distinguished Postdoctoral Lectureship Award, established in 2017, is named for Leona Woods, one of a small number of female physicists who contributed to the Manhattan Project, and who later served as a visiting physicist at Brookhaven Lab from 1958 to 1962. Leona Woods Lectureship awardees are selected twice a year.

The award was established to celebrate the achievements of women and minority physicists and highlight the diversity of the scientific community. 

“We hope that the Leona Woods Lectureship benefits the careers of these physicists by giving them a chance to present both a general interest colloquium and an expert-level seminar,” said Steinberg. “The Lectureship expands our horizons at the Lab by highlighting younger scientists who often have very different backgrounds and unique perspectives.”

The award committee chooses the winners based both on their scientific excellence and their commitment to service in their communities, whether mentoring younger colleagues or providing teaching and guidance to younger students.  

Nominees must be within seven years of earning their doctoral degree and have achievements in broadly defined areas of interest to the Brookhaven Lab Physics Department. These include astrophysics, cosmology, and experimental, theoretical, nuclear, or high-energy physics.

To submit nominations, contact Peter Steinberg at

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