By Daniel Dunaief

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently named physicist Abhay Deshpande a Fellow.

Abhay Deshpande. Photo from SBU

Deshpande, who thinks big about small matter, has distinguished himself with his discoveries, ideas, leadership, innovation, and mentorship. The Director of Electron Ion Collider Science at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) and SUNY Distinguished Professor at Stony Brook University will become a fellow as part of an online ceremony on Feb. 19.

“I was really pleasantly honored” to be a part of a group that includes so many leaders in science, including actor and science advocate Alan Alda, who founded the eponymous Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook, said Deshpande.

Deshpande’s collaborators and scientific colleagues said Deshpande deserved the AAAS honor, which the society has given since 1874.

“Everything [Deshpande] has been doing is advancing science,” said Haiyan Gao, Associate Laboratory Director in Nuclear and Particle Physics at BNL.

Fundamental questions

A physicist who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Bombay, which is now called the University of Mumbai, his Master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and his PhD at Yale University, Deshpande has put his academic and intellectual talents to work answering fundamental questions about atoms.

In his research, Deshpande studies protons in the nucleus.

Inside protons and neutrons are quarks and gluons, which are fundamental particles. Gluons have no mass and bind the quarks together, which suggests that the mass of protons must come from quarks — except that it doesn’t.

“The surprise is that all quarks together only account for about one percent of the proton’s mass,” Deshpande explained in an email.

Researchers don’t know how the components of quarks and gluons and their energies contribute to the proton’s mass. At the same time, Deshpande wants to know about the origin of a proton’s spin. 

Quarks constitute about a quarter of a proton’s spin and gluon’s another quarter, which suggests that the remaining spin should come from their orbital angular momentum.

Deshpande never thought about the mass deficit until a few years ago because of his focus on a proton’s spin. “The same rotational motion of the quarks and gluons could not only explain the spin, but hopefully explain the mass,” Deshpande said. Such a solution to both unanswered questions would be “elegant,” he said.

EIC champion

A $2 billion Electron Ion Collider, which the Department of Energy awarded BNL in 2020, will take measurements that will study the origin of the remaining spin and mass. BNL will start building the EIC, which will take eight years to construct, in 2024.

Dmitri Kharzeev, Distinguished Professor and Director in the Center for Nuclear Theory at Stony Brook University, helped nominate Deshpande to become a AAAS fellow in part because of his work developing BNL’s EIC bid.

Deshpande “really played a major role in bringing this project to Long Island,” Kharzeev said. “It means a lot for BNL, and it also means a lot for Long Island as a whole. A lot of people will be hired to work on it.”

Kharzeev said Deshpande is the leader of the science effort at the EIC “precisely because of his status in the scientific community.”

Kharzeev said some of Deshpande’s papers are “among the highest-cited papers in experimental nuclear physics,” which is considered a reflection of the importance of the work.

Gao credited Deshpande and other key leaders in the community for preparing a “white paper which laid out the science in a very convincing and powerful way,” which helped make the EIC a reality.

In addition to Deshpande’s accomplishments as a scientist, Kharzeev lauded his colleague’s leadership. Deshpande brought together researchers from BNL and Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia, which were originally competing for the rights to build the EIC. He helps researchers “put science first and scientific politics second,” which is a “spectacular achievement,” Kharzeev said.

Throughout his career, Deshpande has sought to find complementary strengths among his colleagues.

He is the founding director of the Center for Frontiers in Nuclear Science, which is a joint operation between BNL and SBU and is passionate about sharing the excitement of research with people who work outside science.

“The science we do, the excitement we feel, needs to be talked about to high school students, to college students, to their parents” and to others, Deshpande added. 

Decision-makers in the government need to understand the benefit of the research, as well as the general public, whose taxes ultimately fund future discoveries, he said, and believes communicating science requires connecting with a range of audiences.

Science communicator

Deshpande’s colleagues gave him high marks for encouraging productive collaborations. He is “able to make very good, easy connections with people,” Gao said and is “approachable and easy to work with.”

Ciprian Gal, Assistant Research Professor at Mississippi State and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Frontiers in Nuclear Science, was a graduate student in Deshpande’s lab from 2010 to 2014

While he appreciated Deshpande’s intellectual acumen and knowledge of physics, Gal admired his mentor’s accessibility and eagerness to share his passion for science.

“He’s always very open” to everyone, Gal said, including students of any age. During Summer Sunday events at BNL, Deshpande spoke at length with middle school students and their parents.

“He instills a desire to communicate in all of us,” said Gal, who also appreciated how Deshpande made himself available to the graduate students in his lab during off hours and on weekends.

Engaging audiences

While he was interested in science during his formative years in high school in Mumbai, India, Deshpande also participated in several dramatic productions that were in Marathi, his native language. Typically, the plays tried to convey messages such as the importance of literacy and education or against blind faith and misinformation. Deshpande sees a benefit to using the techniques of drama to engage the audience.

He believes the EIC will provide precise knowledge of properties of the proton and the nuclei. “I promise that we will learn lots of new things,” he said.

Kindergarten connection

The celebrated physicist is married to Arati Deshpande, who works at American Health Pharmaceuticals. The couple, who met when they were in kindergarten and now live in Miller Place, have a daughter, Pooja, who is a graduate student at the Gillings School of Public Health in Chapel Hill, N.C. and a son, Ameesh, who is in high school.

As for his advice to students, Deshpande urges them to “identify a good scientific problem and pursue it no matter the cost or time.”