While delving into dark matter may seem like a dim prospect to some, for UCSB assistant physics professor Tommaso Treu, the subject has become a lucrative endeavor, earning the researcher $625,000 in grant money.

In an effort to inspire new professors engaging in creative research, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for science and engineering selected Treu along with 19 other professors from various universities to receive its fellowship of $625,000 over a five-year period. Each professor was selected from a larger pool of nominees, which was chosen by 50 university presidents. Each president nominated two professors who had served no more than three years in the academic sphere.

Dark matter is relatively invisible due to the fact that it does not emit or reflect enough electromagnetic radiation. Researchers can only perceive dark matter’s existence by observing its gravitational effects on other celestial bodies. In an e-mail, Treu said his research in the developing areas of astrophysics and cosmology, including black holes and dark matter halos of distant galaxies, has shed light on specific models concerning the formation of galaxies.

“[We hope to] understand the relative timing of growth of the different components,” Treu said. “Are black holes the seeds around which dark matter and stars grow, or do black holes grow inside halos at a later time? If the evolution is synchronized, how is that possible, how do the different components ‘talk’ to each other?”

Part of the mystery of black holes that continues to puzzle researches and scientists is the fact that, at least in theory, matter should not reach the event horizon, which is the outer boundary of the black hole.

In basic physics, objects tend to rotate around a center of mass. However, with black holes, matter is somehow attracted to the center despite the fact that the centrifugal force exerted should repel such objects and send them flying away, similar to grabbing a bucket of water and spinning it in the air.

Treu plans on measuring the mass of matter by studying its motion near black holes, as opposed to studying the distortions of matter and the radiation produced from the energy released as matter “falls” into a black hole.

Treu said he hopes to gain a better understanding of how galaxies were shaped and through what process or processes they evolved in order to become what they are now.

“Galaxies today are very complex and yet obey very strict scaling relations,” Treu said. “You don’t find galaxies in random shapes and sizes and with a random content of black holes and dark matter. How did they end up the way they are?”

Physics Dept. Chair Mark Srednicki said he is proud of Treu’s accomplishment and that it adds to the department’s increasing prestige.

“The Packard Fellowship is awarded to just 20 young science and engineering faculty across the country each year,” Srednicki said. “Since 2000, three UCSB physics faculty members have received this award, which is a testament to the strength of our department. Two of our faculty members [including professor Treu] are in our astrophysics group, which, though relatively small, has a rapidly growing reputation for excellent science.”

Established in 1964, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has awarded over 400 fellowships and over $232 million to leading researchers at universities across the nation. Recipients of the 2007 Packard Fellowship are involved in a wide array of scientific disciplines.