The American Physics Society honored two Pitt physicists from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences for work that ranged from the tiny to the tinier.

Assistant Professor Andrew Mugler’s team received the Irwin Oppenheim Award, which acknowledges a publication published in the journal Physical Review E. Physics Professor Vittorio Paolone was part of a team that received the W.K.H. Panofsky Prize, which recognizes accomplishments in particle physics.

Paolone has spent decades collaborating with other researchers at the Fermi Nuclear Accelerator Laboratory, commonly known as Fermilab, on small and notoriously difficult-to-detect particles known as neutrinos.

In the early 2000s, he and his partners earned the Panofsky Prize for directly detecting one of these particles, the tau neutrino, in an experiment that Paolone helped develop.

Mugler’s award-winning study was published in 2020, and it demonstrated how a physics term known as a “critical point” might assist forecast how cells behave. A critical point is a limit when a substance approaches a tipping point, such as the freezing point of water. Physicists have long questioned if the notion might be used to control biological processes.

“It’s an engrossing tale,” Mugler added. “However, I don’t believe anyone had truly written down that question in a quantifiable fashion before this work.” Then we expanded it to include more realistic cell scenarios.”

In a cell, this might mean the difference between two alternative ways of responding to its surroundings has reached a tipping point. The researchers demonstrated that being close to the tipping point can benefit cells by helping them to better adapt to their surroundings.

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