At a Glance
Year: ’13, ’16, ’19
Why study physics? “I loved the relationship that I had with the entire faculty and staff in the physics department. I also really enjoyed the research I was doing."
Rigel Cappallo’s path to becoming a physicist started behind the keyboard of a piano.
After graduating from Groton-Dunstable Regional High School in 1999, Cappallo took a break from school and spent 10 years as a pianist, playing at local venues and giving lessons. At the same time, he was attempting to satisfy his curiosity about the universe.
“I would try to learn on my own, but eventually I realized I had to use the tools that scientists use if I wanted to make a real contribution, so I decided to go back to school,” he says.
In 2008, Cappallo enrolled in night classes at UMass Lowell because of the university’s strong science programs and its proximity to his hometown of Groton, Massachusetts. After one year, he became a full-time physics student.
Cappallo received his bachelor’s degree in 2013 and went on to get a master’s degree in 2016 and a doctorate in 2019, earning him the coveted title of triple River Hawk. He then became a postdoctoral researcher at UML.
“I loved the relationship that I had with the entire faculty and staff in the physics department,” he says. “I also really enjoyed the research I was doing.”
Cappallo got involved in X-ray astronomy research with Physics Assoc. Prof. Silas Laycock in the summer following his sophomore year. Over the next decade, Cappallo presented his research at dozens of conferences across the United States as well as internationally in Crete.
“I didn’t like to travel at all before I started going to college,” he says. “Now, I think it’s fantastic to see all these places. A picture I took while I conducted optical observations in New Mexico as a UML student is still the background of my desktop computer.”
Cappallo continues to travel for his current job with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haystack Observatory. Working on the observatory’s EDGES project as a postdoctoral associate, Cappallo has flown to western Australia and Canada’s Devon Island, the world's largest uninhabited island.
“We’re looking for a very weak radio signal that comes from when the first stars in the universe turned on,” he says. “The EDGES instrument has to be in a place where there’s hardly any FM transmitters. There are very few places on Earth like that, so it requires traveling to places like Devon Island and western Australia.”
Findings from the research could change our understanding of the early universe, Cappallo says.
Among other projects, Cappallo is involved in the Small Radio Telescope (SRT) program, which provides instructions and software to universities interested in creating their own SRT to aid in the teaching of astronomy and radio technology.
“I’m really into outreach and education,” says Cappallo, who also served as a teaching assistant during his time at UML. “I think that’s one of the most important things you can do, to try to pass on knowledge to people.”
Even as a thriving physicist, Cappallo continues to make time to play the piano.
“I still play at restaurants and bars, just for fun,” he says.