Summer Research and Outreach Fellow

Project Overview

Particle astrophysics is the study of the fundamental properties of the most basic building blocks of nature, and their influence on the evolution of structure in the Universe. The questions being addressed in this field are considered world-wide to be amongst the most important in physics today. Led by many of the scientists who developed the renowned Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) in Sudbury, Ontario and theorists progressing models from the fundamental properties of dark matter to the imprint of dark matter on cosmological scales, Canada and Queen’s University have become a world leader in this field.

In this optic, Queen’s University applied for and was granted a major award from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) to create the Arthur B. McDonald Canadian Astroparticle Physics Research Institute, or the McDonald Institute (hereafter MI). This award has enabled Queen’s University and partner institutions to significantly build on their capacity to deliver a world-leading scientific research program in particle astrophysics, while engaging industry partners, students, and the public.

The work performed at SNO and SNOLAB has led to a number of prestigious awards for both the team and the Director (Dr. Arthur McDonald) including the recent co-shares of the 2016 Breakthrough Prize and the Nobel Prize in Physics 2015. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in research intensity in the field of particle astrophysics. Queen’s University aspires for MI to maximize the scientific, innovative and long-term economic output of SNOLAB by providing resources focused on the highest priority areas within the particle astrophysics community. MI will enable unprecedented opportunities to shape the development of particle astrophysics in Canada, promote scientific excellence, provide unparalleled training opportunities and engage youth and the general public through targeted outreach programs. This engagement will also ensure a sustained influx of scientific and diverse talent to astroparticle physics and the broader sciences, maintaining Canada as a leader in particle physics. The summer position presented here sits within this focus of training and engagement of younger Canadians and early researchers.

Significance of Project to Science, Society, and Queen's

The present generation of experiments include several that are leading or will lead the world in sensitivity during the seven-year CFREF funding period. These experiments have the capability for the first direct observation of dark matter particles or neutrinoless double beta decay. The direct detection of dark matter particles could tell us the nature of this form of matter that comprises 84% of the mass in our Universe but is completely unknown. The observation of neutrinoless double beta decay can determine the neutrino mass and the nature of this fundamental particle, and contribute to an understanding of the creation of matter in the early Universe. Other constraints on dark matter come from improving theoretic models and their implications in astronomical and cosmological contexts. This area of physics is a top priority worldwide, and discoveries of this magnitude would make Canada a global leader in this area of scientific research. Positioning and maintaining Canada as a leader in this area requires a sustained support of science in the Canadian public, and exposure of astroparticle physics to young and aspiring researchers.

Job Description

Reporting to the Education & Outreach (E&O) Officer, each McDonald Institute Summer Research and Outreach Fellow (MI Fellow) will be responsible for both research, and research tools training of high school students. 50% of their time will be in progressing a research project with an MI faculty (see below), with the intent to produce or contribute to a scientific paper. Their other 50% of time will be initially co-developing, and then fully implementing a summer school that would meet with a cohort of 5-8 high school students, selected from applications. The students in the cohort would be the McDonald Institute Summer Scholars (MI Scholars). The MI Fellow, working with their research supervisor and E&O Officer would give the MI Scholars a sequence of introductory content material, skills training (computing, theory, experimental design, data entry, report writing), and include a scaled-down, entry-level version of the research project the MI Fellow is pursuing. The summer would conclude with each of the MI Scholars presenting to the department and interested public on their work over the term of the summer camp. This would be followed by each MI Fellow presenting their research project to the department and interested public.

Desired Qualifications:

The skills listed below are a wish list, thus we respect individuals will use this role as a way to develop these skills and demonstrate their growth throughout the job.

  • Must have completed at least two years of a physics, engineering physics, or astrophysics honours major or regular major, or two years of a computer science or mathematics honours major. Those having only completed courses within the non-honours program would be expected to be pursuing an education degree.
  • An interest in physics, astronomy, and science research, outreach, and/or education.
  • Strong written and oral communication skills.
  • Ability to work independently with strong skills in setting priorities and time management.
  • Ability to work as part of a team, work well with others, and accept guidance.

Learning Plan

Each MI Fellow will have the unique opportunity to experience research from a scientific pursuit, and a pedagogical lens through which they will be mentoring MI Scholars in what will likely be their first experience in research. This position also allows for clear impact on the Kingston community by sharing many of the skills developed above with an even younger generation. In addition to working with a team of world-leading physicists that includes the co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physics, Dr. Arthur B. McDonald, the successful candidate may have the opportunity to visit exclusive research facilities such as SNOLAB during their stay with MI. They will be supported by an administrative team, will report to MI’s Education & Outreach Officer, and will have regular contact with MI’s Scientific Director, Dr. Tony Noble. Finally, there would be financial support available to have the MI Fellow attend a conference to present their work, likely in the Fall or Winter.

Research Projects

Here we will list available research projects. Please indicate in your application which research project you would like to pursue, and a small discussion of why it interests you.

  1.  Searching for Strong Spin-Dependent Dark Matter Interactions Using Astrophysical Systems, PI: Dr. J. Bramante: Dark matter may predominantly interact with nuclei via spin-dependent interactions. This project will investigate the detection of strong spin-dependent dark matter interactions, and derive new bounds on dark matter, using a number of existing astrophysical experiments and datasets, including the XQC rocket, the 1978 Skylab plastic tracker experiment, and dark matter’s contributions to the total heat flow emanating from the surface of the earth.
  2. How precisely can we locate particle interactions in an HPGe Detector? PI: Dr. R. Martin: Our group is receiving a very large prototype p-type point contact particle detector to be used for searches in dark matter and neutrinoless double-beta decay. By comparing calibration data that we acquire with this detector in our laboratory with simulations of the signals that we expect from the detector, we can determine where particles interact. We want to understand how well we can do this. This project will involve a combination of taking data in the lab and creating simulations that match the data, allowing for one to develop both hardware and analysis skills.
  3. Analysis and Modelling of Astrometric Measurements from Gaia, Data Release 2, PI: Dr. L. Widrow: Gaia is a space telescope operated by the European Space Agency that is mapping the positions and velocities of over 1 billion stars in the Milky Way. The summer fellow will used Python-based tools to analyze data made public by ESA last summer with the aim of modelling the dynamics of the Galaxy’s stellar disk. The position may involve a mix of machine learning and numerical simulations.
  4. The Missing Mass Problem in Small Galaxies, PI: Prof. Stéphane Courteau:  There have been recent claims that the standard model of galaxy formation based on (Lambda) Cold Dark Matter [LCDM] as the dominant mass component fails to reproduce various properties of galaxies, such as the broad diversity of rotation curves and the radial acceleration relation of spiral galaxies. These claims have taken the astronomical and astro-particle communities by storm and generated an unusual flurry of publications, including a recent Scientific American article, either bolstering support for the LCDM model or challenging standard wisdom (e.g. by invoking other forms of gravity). 

    The proposed project consists of revisiting and augmenting the existing databases that have been used to establish the claims in question.  The student will reproduce, and expand upon, all the diagnostics that have been previously invoked to (in)validate various dark matter models. Through a careful, yet straightforward, appreciation of statistical analysis and numerical modelling, the student will learn that the exact solutions to these problems may not match published claims. In other words, the devil is in the details and the jury is still out. The student will also have access to a far larger data base than was previously available for these studies. Here is a superb opportunity to make a very important contribution to a field and the general scientific community that is in dire need of clarity.
    This research is also ideally suited for discussions at the MI summer school on the elusive concept of dark matter. There is hardly a better, and more widely used, argument for the evidence (or dearth!) of dark matter than the study of extended rotation curves.  The student will be able to convey to summer school attendants the myths and misconceptions attached to rotation curve analysis in the context of dark matter, or lack thereof, ultimately clarifying why dark matter is such a compelling hypothesis.

    Through this SWEP project, the student will learn about general considerations of galaxy astrophysics (mostly galaxy dynamics), statistical and numerical methods, as well as methods in public outreach and the ability to engage the public with current science-related issues.  Overall, the student will be expected to explain
    phenomena scientifically; recognize, offer, and evaluate explanations for a range of observed phenomena.; describe and appraise scientific investigations and propose ways of addressing questions thoroughly; interpret data and evidence, evaluate claims and draw appropriate scientific conclusions.

How to Apply

Please apply through MyCareer and apply for SWEP position 99255.