APPLICATION DEADLINE: Application deadline is Friday 13 Feb 2023.

Program 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 four-to-eight 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 if appropriate, 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 group, and those interested from the department and public on their work over the term of the summer camp. This would be followed by each MI Fellow presenting their research project at either a conference or to those interested from the department. By having multiple MI Fellows, as in past years, they each have a group of four-to-eight MI Scholars, and the groups focus on different science content. 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. SWEP Fellows from past years in this role have 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 opportunities to meet with both MI’s Scientific Director, Dr. Tony Noble, and Director of External Relations, Edward Thomas. 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(s) (maximum of 2, ranked) you would like to pursue, and a small discussion of why it interests you.

  1. Searching for Composite Dark Matter Using Ancient Minerals, with Dr. J. Bramante and his research group:
    Related Topics: Physics, Geology, Astronomy, Theory

Dark matter may be a physically large state that leaves nanoscale-microscale damage in rocks. This project will investigate the detection of composite dark matter interactions in various minerals, using the software package SRIM that computes energy deposition in materials. Models of large and composite dark matter will also be investigated as part of this project, and you will be working alongside the Queen’s “Paleo” astroparticle detection group.

  1. Modeling Dark Matter Propagation in the Earth, with Dr. C. Cappiello:
    Related Topics: Physics, Theory, Instrumentation

One of the primary ways of searching for dark matter is direct detection, in which extremely sensitive detectors aim to measure the recoil of a nucleus or electron caused by a collision with dark matter. But if dark matter interacts too strongly, it can lose energy in the Earth’s crust or be scattered away through the atmosphere before ever reaching a detector. Modeling this attenuation properly using Monte Carlo simulations is computationally expensive, leading to the wide use of more approximate methods, such as the ballistic approximation, which assumes that dark matter particles travel along straight lines through the Earth and continuously lose energy. In one paper, the ballistic approximation has been shown to agree well with Monte Carlo methods for computing the sensitivity of a direct detection experiment, justifying its wide use. However, this agreement has never been shown more generally, and there is good reason to expect that it should not be a general result.

For this project, the student would compare the results of the ballistic approximation with those of a Monte Carlo code, for a variety of detector depths, exposures, and energy thresholds. They would examine the qualitative and quantitative differences in the event spectra seen in these detectors, and determine when the ballistic approximation works well and when it fails. In the course of the project, they would learn about dark matter direct detection, statistics and limit setting, Monte Carlo simulations, and high performance computing. Some programming experience would highly beneficial, though the amount of coding to be done would depend on the student’s programming skills and their interests.

  1. Probing the Turbulent Origin of Stars in our Galaxy, with Dr. Mike Chen:
    Related Topics: Physics, Astronomy

Stars are the engines of galaxies that produce light and all the elements essential to life and planets. Remarkably, galaxies seemingly hold a universal budget on how many stars of each mass they would produce for a given amount of gas. Studying how gas clouds in our galaxy assemble diffuse gas into stars holds the key to understanding the origin of this budget and how it shapes the evolution of galaxies in our Universe. In this summer project, the SWEP student will work with molecular line observations obtained with radio telescopes to determine the gas motions within interstellar clouds. Since these clouds are highly turbulent and complex, the student will employ machine-learning tools to identify gas structures in multi-dimensional space to build a kinematic anatomy of the star-forming gas. Such an analysis will enable us to understand better how clouds in our galaxy assemble star-forming gas under the interplay of turbulence, gravity, and magnetic fields. The student will have the opportunity to work closely with Queen’s star formation group and apply physical modeling and structural analysis using python software. The student will also learn communication skills to convey their research, develop highly transferable problem-solving skills, and understand the astrophysical systems they are studying.

  1. Constraining Dark Matter Models with Galaxy Rotation Curves, with Dr. S. Courteau:
    Related Topics: Astronomy, Physics

Popular models of cosmological structure formation based on the Lambda Cold Dark Matter (LCDM) paradigm predict a generic shape for galaxy density profiles. Central regions tend to be cuspy (density, ρ, scales with 1/r), the visible disk has a flat rotation curve (ρ scales with 1/r2), and the galaxy’s outskirts evolve in a central mass potential (ρ scales with 1/r3). Galaxy rotation curves are therefore ideal test beds for cosmological models. This SWEP project will use the largest data base of galaxy rotation curves ever collected (called PROBES I-II), as well as realistic numerical simulations of galaxy formation (dubbed NIHAO), to test whether LCDM predictions always apply or if galaxies obey other forms of structure formation models, such as those based on Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND). The SWEP student will review literature relevant to LCMD and MOND (e.g., cusp/core density profiles, halo profiles stacking, orbital modelling from galaxy satellites) and apply relevant tests to the PROBES I-II and NIHAO galaxies. The student will be able to constrain galaxy density profiles via comparisons of simulations with observed data. Indeed, profiles of log ρ / log r for a full suite of galaxy morphologies will be compared amongst themselves and against expectations from LCDM and MOND. Access to our unique and extensive catalogues of observed and simulated galaxies is making this important project possible. The student should be proficient in python programming and may explore data modeling and machine learning applications. A refereed publication based on this work is expected.

  1. Incorporating Dark Matter detector data into a Visitor Centre display, with Dr. T. Noble:
    Related Topics: Physics, Education & Outreach, Engineering

The student will work with the data and materials of the PICO ( other particle detectors to construct exhibit pieces for the McDonald Institute Visitor Centre ( The exact project will need to be defined once the restrictions due to Covid during the summer are known. If there is access to the lab, one option already quite advanced is to complete the PICO exhibit. For this project some of the hardware has been developed to take real data from the PICO dark matter detector and present the images on a replica detector. However, the complete assembly of the various components into a final exhibit has not been completed due to lack of access. Another option is to work with the new light detection technology, silicon photo-multipliers, where the student would learn about the technology and its response and incorporate the data and technology into a visitor centre display. One exciting idea is to design and create an exhibit that would use these SiPm to track muon cosmic rays through the space in the visitor centre. The student would also develop these resources to be applicable to the summer camp program.

  1. Preparing the particle detectors of HELIX for a 40 km altitude balloon flight, with Dr. N. Park:
    Related Topics: Physics, Astronomy, Instrumentation, Data analysis

Cosmic rays are high-energy particles originating from outside of the solar system. These particles have higher energies than the most energetic particles created by our Sun. Where and how these particles are generated and how they travel to Earth have been unresolved questions over the last century. Recent space-based experiments have made discoveries that do not fit into the traditional understanding of these particles. To understand the origin and acceleration of these extraterrestrial high-energy particles, it is essential to understand the particle interactions they undergo during their travel within our Galaxy. HELIX is a long-duration balloon experiment designed to measure cosmic-ray isotopes to improve our understanding of the propagation of these particles. To achieve its scientific goals, HELIX needs to measure the trajectories and velocities of the particles precisely. HELIX utilizes a combination of particle detectors to measure the properties of incident particles. HELIX aims to have a flight in the 2023-2024 season, either in Antarctica or Kiruna, Sweden. To be ready for this flight opportunity, the performance of the HELIX detectors should be well characterized. The summer student will study the cosmic ray muon data accumulated by HELIX in order to improve the existing analysis codes and diagnostic tools for the HELIX detectors. Depending on the student’s interest, this can also extend to modeling the propagation of cosmic rays in our Galaxy.

  1. Analysis and Modelling of Astrometric Measurements from Gaia, Data Release 3, with Dr. L. Widrow:
    Related Topics: Astronomy, Physics, Computer Science

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 Third Data Release, made public in 2022 has full phase space information for over 34 million stars, which improves on DR2 by a factor of 7. The summer fellow will used Python-based tools to analyze Gaia data with the aim of modelling the dynamics of the Galaxy’s stellar disk. The position may involve a mix of machine learning, numerical simulations, and theoretical astrophysics. 

How to Apply

Please apply through MyCareer and apply by reference position 132006. In your application materials, please highlight which project(s) (up to 2, please rank your preference) you would like to work with and why, and highlight any teaching experience you have.