The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has elected Virginia Tech’s Leo Piilonen to its newest Fellowship class, one of the most distinct honors within the scientific community.

Piilonen is a professor in the Department of Physics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. AAAS is honoring Piilonen for his “distinguished contributions to experimental elementary particle physics, particularly for leadership in the Belle and Belle II collaborations and in their muon and K-long meson detection and identification.”

These high-energy particle physics detectors – the original Belle and the new Belle II – are located on the campus of the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (“KEK,” using its Japanese language acronym) in Tsukuba Science City, Japan. Piilonen’s team designed and built the outermost component, the KLM, of both detectors. Belle II is designed to make precise measurements of weak interaction parameters and find “new physics” beyond the standard model of known particle physics, according to the institution’s website. The measurements carried out in Japan helped earn a 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics. Piilonen said he is thankful for the many contributions during the years of his local team members, presently postdoctoral scientist Vipin Gaur, now working at KEK; Taylor Kimmel, who graduated with a Ph.D. last year; and current physics Ph.D. students Zachary Stottler and Tommy Lam.

Piilonen has served as the elected co-leader of the 500-member Belle Collaboration, as well as the elected chair of the Belle II Collaboration’s Institutional Board, which represents the interests of its 1,000 members. In 2016, Piilonen led a local team to create a virtual-reality interactive model of the Belle II experiment, partly supported by the Virginia Tech Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology. The effort was designed to bring particle-physics research into the classroom. “This project has been adopted by over 30 institutions worldwide for student training and public outreach,” Piilonen wrote.

“We are pleased that Leo Piilonen has been honored with this well-deserved recognition as AAAS fellow for his research on experimental elementary particle physics,” said Virginia Tech Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation Dan Sui. “Dr. Pillonen’s nationally and internationally renowned research has made tremendous impact on the field of physics.”

“Dr. Piilonen’s selection as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science recognizes his distinguished career and his many contributions to science,” said Ron Fricker, interim dean of the College of Science. “As we celebrate Virginia Tech’s 150th anniversary and look back over the university’s history, Leo’s research stands tall. His research in the field of particle physics, including decades-long work with the Belle and Belle II projects, have set new benchmarks for science with new discoveries yet to come.”

“In his nearly four-decade career working in the area of experimental particle physics, Leo has made substantial contributions to our understanding of the fundamental particles of nature and how they interact, particularly with his leadership and contributions to the Belle and Belle II experiments in Japan,” said Mark Pitt, professor and chair of the Department of Physics.

Piilonen is also a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Other honors include a 2019 Outstanding Faculty Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and a 2019 Alumni Award for Excellence in Research from Virginia Tech. He also held the William E. Hassinger, Jr. Senior Fellowship in Physics from 2010 to 2016. He joined Virginia Tech in 1987, and became the first director of the department’s Center for Neutrino Physics in 2010. He then served as department chair from 2012 to 2015.

He earned a bachelor of science in physics from the University of Toronto in 1978 and a Ph.D., also in physics, from Princeton University in 1985. This after being raised in a small Canadian village with a one-room log-cabin schoolhouse until he was in junior high.

AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the Science family of journals.

The 2021 class of AAAS Fellows includes 564 scientists, engineers, and innovators spanning 24 scientific disciplines who are being recognized for their scientifically and socially distinguished achievements. Also honored this year is Virginia Tech’s X.J. Meng, a University Distinguished Professor at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and professor of internal medicine at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes more than 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. The nonprofit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, public engagement, and more. The tradition of honoring AAAS Fellows started in 1874.

According to AAAS, this year’s Fellows will receive an official certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin to commemorate their election, representing science and engineering, respectively. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, rather than in February, the Fellows will be celebrated at a later date for an in-person event when it is publicly safe to do so.

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