New faculty Savanna Starko: Seeking answers to big questions

MyVU is spotlighting a select group of new faculty for 2020-21. Read more profiles in the series.

By Kathryn Royster

Senior Lecturer in Physics and Astronomy Savanna Starko, PhD’20, originally intended to become a high school math teacher. But when a battle with thyroid cancer disrupted her first year as an undergraduate at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, a professor helped her see how physics might be a better fit.

“It sounds strange, but searching for answers to big questions helped keep me grounded,” says Starko. “It was because the questions were more along the lines of ‘Where did we come from?’ instead of the ‘Am I going to live or die?’-type questions that I was having to answer with my health.”

The same professor became her primary undergraduate mentor and later took her to visit Fermilab, the U.S. Department of Energy’s particle accelerator and lab in Chicago. It was Starko’s first exposure to high-energy physics, and she was hooked. In 2016 she came to Vanderbilt as a Ph.D. student and joined Assistant Professor of Physics Alfredo Gurrola’s lab.

“Vanderbilt is an exceptional think tank where people are constantly sharing their perspectives and collaborating in meaningful ways.”

Starko currently contributes to the CERN Compact Muon Solenoid detector experiment, which creates 3D images of the particles thrown off by collisions in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Starko combs through these images to locate particles that might provide clues to the origins and evolution of the universe. She also searches for interactions that cannot be explained by the Standard Model, the set of equations physicists use to describe fundamental forces such as gravity. Gurrola’s lab focuses on these outlier interactions as a possible window into the composition of dark matter.

After earning her Ph.D. this past spring, Starko says she decided to remain at Vanderbilt as a faculty member because of the university’s commitment to “supporting people as people first.” She has seen this commitment play out in the Gurrola lab’s regular community service projects—with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Room in the Inn, and the Edgehill Neighborhood Partnership—and in the support she has received in managing her health.

Though the lab has had to put its service work on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Starko is looking forward to mentoring and encouraging the students in her classes. She also is excited about participating in Vanderbilt’s vibrant culture of faculty collaboration.

“Vanderbilt is an exceptional think tank where people are constantly sharing their perspectives and collaborating in meaningful ways,” she says. “In general, the faculty here aren’t afraid to disagree or challenge assumptions, and I think that is really important for continued growth.”