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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 among the most important in physics today. Led by many of the scientists who developed the renowned Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) that grew into SNOLAB 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 as well as related fields, such as geochemistry, chemistry, material science, and engineering, 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 B. McDonald) including the recent co-shares of the Nobel Prize in Physics 2015 and the 2016 Breakthrough Prize. 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 world-leader in astroparticle physics. The proposed summer position(s) sit within this focus of training and engagement of younger Canadians and early career researchers.

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

The present generation of experiments are predicated on new theoretical models, and improvements in the fields of geochemistry, engineering, and material science, and their corresponding technologies. During the seven-year CFREF funding period several of these experiments are leading or will lead the world in sensitivity to weakly interacting particles. 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 completely unknown nature of this form of matter that comprises 84% of the mass in our Universe. The observation of neutrinoless double beta decay can determine the neutrino mass and the nature of this fundamental particle, thereby contributing 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 sustain Canada as a global leader in this area of scientific research. Positioning and maintaining Canada as a leader in this area requires sustained support of science in the Canadian public, training of younger scientists, and exposure of astroparticle physics and science generally 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 for training middle and high school students. 50% of the Fellow(s)’s time will be in progressing a research project of their choice with an MI faculty, with the intent to produce or contribute to a scientific paper. Their other 50% of time will be co-developing and implementing a summer school for a cohort of three-to-six middle and high school students. The students in the cohort are the McDonald Institute Summer Scholars (MI Scholars). Each MI Fellow works with their research supervisor and E&O Officer to give the MI Scholars a hands-on introduction to science as a practice and profession, including skills training (computing, theory, experimental design, data entry, report writing), and 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. By having multiple MI Fellows, as in past years, they each have a group of three-to-six MI Scholars, and the groups focus on different science content. Thus, four Fellows are needed to accommodate the large and broad interest in science of Kingston kids, allowing for up to 24 Kingston youth to attend our summer camp. Further, more Fellows lead to more collaboration between them as they prepare their respective camp content, using their peers as a resource to facilitate their learning and growth. Both SWEP Fellows from last year in this role said that the program was significantly more successful due to this peer learning opportunity.

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 one year of a physics, engineering physics, astronomy, computer science, mathematics, geology, or chemistry major. Alternatively, those pursuing an education degree could qualify with sufficient courses in some of the above sciences.
  • 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.
  • Serve as an ambassador in a manner that provides a positive reflection of the McDonald Institute’s vision, goals, and mission.
  • Capacity to mentor, assist, and support younger students.
  • Support efforts to advance equity, diversity, and inclusivity in a learning environment.

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. Spectroscopy of Dark Matter and Dark Sectors with Microscopic Black Holes, PI: Dr. A. Vincent: If the length scale of possible extra dimensions is large enough, the effective Planck scale is lowered such that microscopic black holes could be produced in collisions of high-energy particles at colliders. These black holes evaporate through Hawking radiation of a handful of energetic particles drawn from the set of all kinematically and thermally allowed degrees of freedom, including dark matter. The goal of this project is to use numerical simulations to determine how well the dark sector could be probed at future colliders in the presence of extra dimensions. 
  5. Automated Analysis of Galaxy Images in order to Constrain Dark Matter Haloes, PI: Dr. S. Courteau:Light profiles inform us on the baryonic (luminous matter) content in galaxies while rotation curves reveal the total matter content (baryons + dark matter) in galaxies. Together, these two ingredients are essential to establish the distribution, and ultimately composition, of dark matter in galaxies – one of the major goals of modern astrophysics. The SWEP student will improve automated decomposition algorithms to model the light distribution of thousands of galaxy images for which rotation curves are available. The light distributions will better constrain stellar masses which in turn will set limits on the dark matter content of galaxies. This summer project heralds a significant leap in our ability to characterize galaxy structural parameters and scaling relations. The student should be proficient in programming (e.g. Python) and may explore data mining and machine learning applications. A refereed publication based on this work is expected.
  6. Neutrons Mix & Match Game: Find the optimal combination of filters to create quasi-monoenergetic neutron beams in the 10 – 100 keV range, PI: Dr. L. Balogh: The Arthur B. McDonald Institute is building a source of quasi-monoenergetic neutron beams at the proton accelerator of the Kingston-based Reactor Materials Testing Laboratory (RMTL). The primary goal is to perform quenching factor measurements on Dark Matter detectors necessary for their calibration. The neutrons produced by the 7Li(p,n)7Be reaction have a relatively wide energy spectrum which needs to be narrowed. Many materials, such as Fe, Mn, etc., act as neutron filters as they selectively transmit neutrons of particular energies; though, usually substantial transmission happens at multiple energies. Thus, to obtain a quasi-monoenergetic neutron beam, it is necessary to use a combination of filters and/or tune the proton beam energy to modify the pre-filtered neutron spectrum. The goal of the project is to find an optimal combination of filter materials and accelerator settings to produce neutrons with the desired energy while minimizing their energy-spread and maximizing their flux. The work will involve setting up and using simulations, and may include participation at experiments performed at RMTL’s proton accelerator facility.
  7. Converting the PICO Particle Detector into a Museum Exhibit for the McDonald Institute Visitor’s Centre, PI: Dr. T. Noble: The student would convert the PICO 2L pressure vessel and inner flask into a display piece for the Visitor Centre, a public space used for visiting groups and classes to better understand particle astrophysics, and the nature of the Nobel Prize award to Art McDonald on behalf of the SNO experiment. The student would make the previous PICO detector into a realistic display of when it was functioning, including red LED lights synchronized to images taken from the real data and shown on a display unit that will be running on a loop, and perhaps coordinated with sound. To achieve this, the student would gain experience handling real PICO data, and participate in the new PICO 40 detector’s data quality tests and related tasks.
  8. How Low can we Go? Ultra-trace detection of background contamination for astroparticle physics using triple quadrupole inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (QQQ-ICP-MS), PI: Dr. M. Leybourne: This project will test the ability of the QQQ-ICP-MS to lower detection limits in routine applications in support of astroparticle physics experiments; this research will test the robustness of the instrumentation to deliver routine ultra-trace detection limits at abundance sensitivities that either rival those by accelerator mass spectrometers or that are sufficiently flexible to meet the varied and demanding needs of these astroparticle experiments. Previous work at SNOLAB has suggested that backgrounds on the order of sub-ppb (parts per billion) for 238U, 235U and 232Th and sub-ppt (parts per trillion) for some components are required, especially for U and Th decay products, with a need to push to much lower background levels for ultrarare events, such as the postulated neutrinoless double beta-decay. Other isotopes that can be present in deep-laboratories include 40K, 137Cs, 60Co, 54Mn, 7Be and some of the rare earth elements, and levels of these must also be monitored so that their impacts can be corrected for or ideally removed. The SWEP student would be involved with developing reaction gas methods to overcome spectral interferences in ICP-MS to permit ultra-trace detection limits. If there is time, we will also hyphenate a PrepFAST automated chromatography system to the new QQQ-ICP-MS to see if this combination can meaningfully lower detection limits even further.I anticipate that the SWEP student would also be involved with writing up some of the experimental work, and ultimately to be a co-author on a paper derived from the work. There will be several PhD and post-doctoral students working in the laboratory on similar projects, which will enhance the mentoring and EDI aspects of the work.

How to Apply

Please apply through MyCareer and apply for SWEP position 107558.