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TRIUMFant summer job at nuclear physics lab

Engineering student Nick Zacchia blogs about his bold venture into the unknown
February 16, 2012
By Guest student blogger Nick Zacchia

“You shoot people in the face with a particle accelerator? … AWESOME!” a friend of mine asked incredulously.

He had conveniently glossed over my explanation of the science behind proton therapy. Although he hadn’t quite grasped the intricacies of the science correctly, he had understood the underlying message: I had the coolest summer job in the world.

Engineering student Nick Zacchia
Engineering student Nick Zacchia

I am finishing my mechanical engineering degree this year at Concordia. Last summer I decided to take a leap and apply for a job at a physics research lab. Because I actually read the emails sent through the department, I was fortunate to see one that advertised summer research awards for Canadian undergrads offered by TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, owned and operated by a consortium of Canadian universities. At the time, I had no idea the place even existed.

Being an engineer, I actually don’t know that much about physics but I’ve always been interested in the field and I love a challenge. A little paperwork and a staticky 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 underqualified 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 we were expected 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.

Watch the video about my summer job with TRIUMF:

TRIUMF is a place where people value science for its own sake. Where no one is afraid to nerd out. A place where dark matter matters. Where people are 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. There’s something very rewarding in that.

If that wasn’t enough, TRIUMF is also helping 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-metre, 4,000-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 modelling 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 am now applying this knowledge to my capstone project, a team design project required in the last year of an engineering degree.

I was still in Vancouver when my capstone group approached me with the idea of building a small particle accelerator for our project. 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 didn’t 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 that my interest in the subject and the foundations I built at TRIUMF 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 caught on as a fad, but I can tell you working with a particle accelerator, and then building one yourself, is definitely SCIENCE.

Related links:
•    Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering
•    TRIUMF Lab


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