"So you shoot people in the face with a particle accelerator... AWESOME!" a friend of mine declared matter-of-factly. He had conveniently glossed over the part where I explained the science behind proton therapy. Although he hadn't quite got the intricacies of the science correct, he had understood the underlying message; that I had the coolest summer job in the world.
This year I'll be finishing my mechanical engineering degree at Concordia but last summer I decided to take a leap and apply for a job at a physics research lab. At the time, I had no idea the place even existed. Luckily for me, I actually read the emails sent through the department, and there was one that advertised summer research awards for Canadian undergrads being offered by TRIUMF: Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics. Being an engineer, I actually do not know that much about physics but I've always been interested in the field and love a challenge. A little paper-work and a static-y long distance phone interview later and I had landed myself a summer job. So I packed up my stuff, got on a plane and headed to Vancouver.
To be frank, I arrived on the first day feeling vastly under qualified for my position, although I soon learned that all of the other summer students who had come from across the country were in the exact same position. I don't think they really expected any of us to know what we were doing, as long as we showed keen interest and were willing to learn. In just a few weeks I felt completely at home.
It was a place where people valued science for its own sake. Where no one was afraid to nerd-out. A place where dark matter mattered. Where people were excited merely by the prospect of learning. I attended lectures on baryons, synchrotron physics and many other subjects I won't even pretend to understand. Yet I was always encouraged to attend, to ask questions, to learn all that I could. My supervisor once told me that TRIUMF has to 'produce' to stay viable and what TRIUMF produces is scientific papers. Knowledge. Free for the taking. I find something very rewarding in that.
If that wasn't enough, TRIUMF is also helping to save people's lives. This brings me back to the proton therapy, or "shooting people in the face with a particle accelerator." Without getting into the details of the procedure, I'll just say that using an 18 meter, 4000 ton magnet to create particles capable of destroying eye cancer while leaving the eye and (more importantly) the brain intact is pretty sweet. During these treatments the entire facility becomes devoted to these few patients. Patients who, thanks to science, will literally see another day.
I was involved in modeling and investigating the effects of secondary radiation during these procedures to see if anything could be done to make the procedure safer. I learned a lot about particle physics and radiation and met many experts in the field. And it is a good thing too, because I have been able to apply this knowledge to my capstone project this year.
I was still in Vancouver when my capstone group came to me with the idea of building a small particle accelerator for our year-end project. I think I may have been the most hesitant member on the team, possibly because I knew most about how complicated the project would be, but it did not take me long to get behind the project wholeheartedly. I can now say, thanks to a tremendous team effort, our particle accelerator is on track, on schedule and on budget. I'm proud to say that my interest in the subject and the foundations I built at TRIUMF are helping to keep me focused as I tackle some of the high-level physics problems involved in the project.
A few years back, a friend and I tried to convince everyone to replace the word "cool" with the word "science" in their vocabularies, since the two words are basically synonymous. It never much caught on as a fad, but I can tell you that working at a particle accelerator, and then building one yourself, is definitely SCIENCE.