Monday, June 23, 2014

Saint Mary's professor, alumni play role with Fermilab’s MicroBooNE project

Father Paul Nienaber, Ph.D.
WINONA, Minn. — As the massive 30-ton MicroBooNE particle detector — a tool that may unlock many unexplained mysteries of the universe — was transported across the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab site today, a Saint Mary’s University physics professor watched with anticipation alongside the world’s leading physicists.

Father Paul Nienaber, Ph.D., associate professor of physics at Saint Mary’s, has been involved with the project since it was proposed in 2007. Additionally, four Saint Mary’s undergraduates (including, most recently, 2014 graduate Evan Shockley) worked on MicroBooNE as summer research interns from 2010-2012.

The MicroBooNE detector has been under construction for nearly two years. The tank contains a 32-foot-long “time projection chamber,” the largest ever built in the United States, equipped with 8,256 delicate gilded wires, which took the MicroBooNE team two months to attach by hand. This machine will allow scientists to further study the properties of neutrinos, particles that may hold the key to understanding many unexplained mysteries of the universe.

“The MicroBooNE collaboration is an amazingly talented and energetic group of scientists, many of whom are in the early stages of their careers,” Dr. Nienaber said. “Their enthusiasm and ingenuity is infectious, and I’m excited and grateful for having had the opportunity to contribute to an enterprise on which so many bright people have worked so hard. But this is just the beginning. Now that the detector is built and located in the particle beam line, much work remains to check all the detector systems under running conditions, and to begin to accumulate the estimated three years’ worth (minimum) of data from the run.”

Father Nienaber will continue to work as part of the MicroBooNE collaboration through its initial commissioning and data run stage (expected to last until the beginning of 2018).

“My role on the MicroBooNE experiment is as a collaborator from an undergraduate teaching institution,” Nienaber said. “I try to connect Saint Mary’s students to the physics profession in general and introduce them to the particular rewards and challenges of research. These efforts are of necessity not as central or as crucial as the ones made by laboratory scientists and students working full-time, but they have paid dividends for me and for Saint Mary’s students (as evidenced by Evan Shockley’s entering the physics Ph.D. program at Chicago) and have contributed to the success of the experiment.
“The four Saint Mary’s students and I worked on part of a detector subsystem; their summer stipends were paid by a National Science Foundation grant. It is unmistakably unusual that physics undergraduates from an institution like Saint Mary’s would have had the chance to be associated (in however small a way) with a project of this importance.”