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Jeff Hazboun stands in front of a computer screen on a wall looking at gravitational waves.

NSF Career Award helps physicist unravel the mysteries of the universe

By Hannah Ashton

Physicist Jeff Hazboun had a remarkable year in 2023. He was a member of a multi-university team whose​ research went viral, and he received a coveted NSF​ Faculty Early Career Development award.

A proud Oregon State alum and now an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, his research with the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves received international attention in June 2023.

NANOGrav announced their groundbreaking discovery that ripples in the fabric of time-space, predicted by Albert Einstein more than a century ago, are permeating the universe at low frequencies. Detecting a “chorus” of low-frequency gravitational waves is a key to unlocking the mysteries of how structures are formed in the cosmos.

The news was picked up around the world, including by: The New York Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Indian Express, Washington Post, NPR and AP News, among countless others.

“Becoming part of NANOGrav and the relationships I’ve built has probably been the most meaningful piece of my career. Finding something that’s interesting, but also finding something that takes a lot of people to work on,” Hazboun said. “I work better in a team than solo, and I think for a long time we’ve been trying to abolish the idea of the lone genius myth in science. Cutting-edge science these days takes big teams of people and being part of a team is motivating for me.”

Jeff Hazboun in a kayak white water rafting on a river

Jeff Hazboun kayaks during a white-water rafting trip.

From riverbanks to research labs

Physics wasn’t Hazboun’s top career path in college. He studied environmental interpretation and graduated from the State University of New York with a degree in environmental and forest biology. After graduation, he spent five years as a kayak instructor and raft guide.

His life-altering moment happened on the side of a river in Costa Rica. He borrowed Paul Davies' book, “About Time,” and it changed his perspective on the field of physics.

“I had thought that physics was a buttoned-up field. We had all the answers and it was just about making more detailed measurements,” he said. “I thought these big overarching questions were answered and they weren’t.”

Gravity attracted Hazboun to Oregon State where he spent one year taking undergraduate physics courses and then entered the master’s program. His advisor, Tevian Dray told him to contact Shane Larson, an OSU alumnus and professor at Utah State University at the time.

​​Larson connected him with faculty in Utah and Hazboun decided to attend Utah State University to earn his Ph.D. in Physics.

​Hazboun ​found ​reaching out to alumni ​was​ less intimidating than cold contacting professors​, a practice he recommends.​

“Shane was always talking about gravitational waves. He kept saying, ‘You should get into this stuff, it’s really interesting.’ He also continually showed me the importance of outreach and communicating with the public,” he said.

Hazboun found the math fascinating and intriguing, but he wanted to know what theories were correct and unravel the true nature of the universe.

He quickly became enamored with gravitational wave astronomy and being able to see the universe in a completely different way. In 2016, he joined the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves as a postdoctoral scholar.

Jeff Hazboun stands surrounded by students on stairs of a building.

Jeff Hazboun participates in a NANOGrav meeting.

NANOGrav was founded in 2007 and has since grown to nearly 200 members at more than 70 institutions. Oregon State University is the lead institution for the center, which received $17 million from the National Science Foundation. Their goal is to usher in the era of low-frequency gravitational-wave astronomy quickly and with greater impact.

Astrophysics has changed drastically since the late 2000s. From the people perspective, he has seen more physicists and physics departments focusing on equality and ​inviting ​​perspectives of ​traditionally underrepresented groups​ – a change that leads to better scientific insights that make our understanding of the universe more complete.​

​​Physics is ​also ​entering the era of big data. “Telescopes coming online right now and in the future are going to produce petabytes of data yearly and terabytes of data daily. We have to be comfortable with programming and automation that’s going to allow us to understand what we find,” he said.

Conversely, it’s important to safeguard research from automation that misses ​vital ​connections. “The woman who discovered pulsars used sheets of paper with printed data. Who knows if a machine would have seen those or not,” Hazboun said.

In the next decade, physics might experience even more ground-breaking discoveries.

NANOGrav is currently analyzing 20 years of data that was collected using a unique detector. Hazboun can’t check the detector in person—it’s not on Earth. Instead of using widely spread interferometers on the ground, the NANOGrav team used pulsars, cores of dead, massive stars that rotate hundreds of times per second while beaming radiation from their magnetic axes. Researchers can use a group of those pulses, also known as a pulsar timing array, to measure gravitational wave signals.

“When we add a little bit of data, we do a search over the entire data span,” he said. “Trying to wring out as much information from that 20-year data set as possible is a really important part of our job.”

​​As a result, sometimes the data sends them on a side quest. Hazboun recently published a paper about using pulsar data to provide insights into solar wind. The sun releases a constant stream of particles and magnetic fields, called solar wind.

When researchers look at a pulsar, sometimes the line of sight comes close to the sun and is strongly affected by the solar wind. Modeling out that influence is important for understanding the underlying gravitational wave signal, but it turns out the team can also learn about solar wind.

Detector characterization is another project Hazboun is working on. ​Characterization involves understanding how the actual performance of gravitational wave detectors compares to the expected performance. It is important to understand the sensitivity of the pulsar timing array, the combination of different pulsar’s signals, to accurately predict future results.

“It’s just like when you build a space telescope or a different type of detector​ that​ you plan to send to space. The engineers need to understand what the equipment will be able to see before they send it up,” he said. “My team works on that.”

​​Hazboun said NANOGrav has now detected a symphony of black holes and the goal is to eventually be able to detect single sources.

Jeff Hazboun sits infant of a question box on the screen asking how will the universe end.

Jeff Hazboun participates in a WIRED Tech Support interview.

​​When they announced their latest discovery in June, the public went wild.

“It’s been really fun, to be honest. And learning how to simplify my science without dumbing it down has been a great task,” he said. Because of the ​recent ​international coverage, WIRED reached out to Hazboun and ​invited​ him to host a video answering the internet's physics questions.

In the classroom, he wants to share his love of the cosmos ​far and ​wide​, which involves mentoring more than 10 ​undergraduate and graduate students at Oregon State. Lesson ​No. 1 ​involves embracing confusion.

“I think the thing that surprises me the most in physics is how much of the time I have no idea what’s going on. How much of the time I’m confused or don’t understand what the problem is,” Hazboun said.

Confusion is par for the course when your research aims to answer things nobody ​fully grasps​​. ​And stepping into the unknown is where Hazboun finds his rhythm; it’s where the mysteries of the universe are unraveled.

Jeff Hazboun playing the banjo in a band.

Jeff Hazboun plays the banjo in an outdoor music venue.