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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2012 / 07 

Particle Scientist Leo Piilonen takes helm of Virginia Tech Department of Physics

July 2, 2012

Leo Piilonen
Leo Piilonen

Virginia Tech has named Leo Piilonen, an internationally known particle scientist and a university faculty member since 1987, the chair of the Department of Physics.

Piilonen, the William E. Hassigner Jr. Senior Fellow in Physics in the College of Science, also is known for his teaching and was recognized by the Virginia Tech Alumni Association in 2011 with the William E. Wine Award. Wine was a 1904 graduate of the university, a former rector of the Board of Visitors, and an alumni association president.

“Leo has been very influential in the physics department both in education and in research,” said Lay Nam Chang, College of Science dean. “As a chair of the department’s undergraduate committee he was instrumental in the adoption and development of core components in the program including the courses Mathematical Methods in Physics, Modern Physics, Nanotechnology and Introduction to General Relativity.”

“The highly relevant role Leo has played in a number of international research collaborations has played a significant role in the growth of the department,” Chang said.

As a principal or co-principal investigator on major science projects, Piilonen has garnered $7.9 million in grants. He is co-spokesperson for Belle, a collaboration at the KEK National Laboratory in Japan, and also the authorship coordinator and member of the publication council. About 50 research institutions from around the world are part of Belle, which now has published 358 papers with more to be released shortly. In another collaboration that is the evolution of Belle, Belle II, Piilonen is the project lead scientist for the barrel KLM subsystem, level 2 manager for the U.S. Belle II project’s barrel KLM subsystem, and the Virginia Tech representative on the institutional board.

Piilonen also is on an international team, the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment, that recently announced a key parameter that governs how neutrinos behave. Neutrinos, the wispy particles that flooded the universe in the earliest moments after the big bang, are continually produced in the cores of stars and other nuclear reactions.

As with any challenge, Piilonen is enthusiastic about stepping into his new role at Virginia Tech.

“In the spirit of Ut Prosim I’m excited to work with my colleagues to push the frontiers of physics research, to strengthen existing connections, and develop new ones with the other departments in the College of Science and the university,” he said. “We want to implement the best practices from physics education research into our teaching-learning mission, and to convey our excitement about science to the general public.”

Piilonen earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto and his master’s degree and doctorate at Princeton University. He was a postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratories in Los Alamos, N.M., before coming to Virginia Tech.