Jessie Micallef: Asking big questions
Jessie Micallef is a dual Ph.D. student in physics and computational mathematics, science, and engineering departments. During the past few years she has worked alongside her adviser, Tyce DeYoung, associate professor of physics and astronomy, on developing software for the IceCube experiment. IceCube is an international particle physics collaboration that uses detectors, buried 2,500 meters beneath the ice at the South Pole, to observe neutrinos from the astrophysical sources in our universe. Her work in detecting these particles will address several big questions in physics, including the properties of the neutrino itself, the nature of dark matter and the origin of cosmic rays.
Your research began as an undergrad student. How did you find yourself exploring such specific content?
Soon after I declared my undergraduate physics major at the university of Michigan, I wanted to explore what it meant to do research in that field. My professors encouraged me to talk to various faculty at U of M about their work and pick what sounded interesting to me.
Professor Myron Campbell offered me a job working on the electronics and software for the KOTO experiment, which is a particle physics experiment conducted at an accelerator in Japan. I didn't know much (or anything even) about particle physics at the time, but the concept of the experiment sounded interesting to me and I wanted to learn more about it.
After going to a few Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics, I heard about many other research areas and found that I had been lucky to pick the topic that most interested me at the start. It wasn't until I went to Lawrence Berkeley National Lab for a summer internship before my last undergrad year that I learned about neutrino research.
This is a niche part of particle physics, focused on this single, elusive particle. While particle physics in general always caught my interest, I found myself taking initiative to learn more about neutrinos for the next year and decided that this was what I wanted to pursue in graduate school.
What was it about neutrinos that captured your attention? Why is so little known about them?
Part of what interests me about neutrinos is that we know so little about them. They exist all around us, and we still are trying to get an exact measure of their basic properties. What we do know about them is that they don't behave as we expect. According to the Standard Model, the theory for the fundamental particles in our universe, neutrinos should be massless, but we have recently discovered that they have (a small) mass, which is part of what the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for in 2015!
It might seem odd that we know so little about neutrinos since they're everywhere; there are about 100 billion neutrinos that pass through your thumbnail each second! But the challenge is that neutrinos rarely interact with other particles. This makes them hard to detect since they often pass right through our detectors without leaving a trace. We usually detect them by tracing back the reactions they have with other particles inside our instruments. So, we have to wait for one of the billions of neutrinos to interact with another particle before we can see it.
If IceCube discovers the source of dark matter, what has really been uncovered?
According to physics models, dark matter makes up over a quarter of the universe. We don't know much experimentally about it beyond the fact that it is out there, and we can't see it in the same way we see regular matter. If IceCube is able to find where there is dark matter, it will be one of the first vital steps in understanding it. At the moment, there are theories of where we should focus our search, but finding a definitive source would help all experiments to know where to focus their efforts for more exploration.
How would you describe what your experience is like working with Tyce DeYoung?
Working with Tyce DeYoung has been one of the highlights of my grad school experience so far. He is very open, honest and easy to talk to. I've never felt like I didn't have control over what research I am working on, which has surprised me as a graduate student.
From the moment I mentioned my interest in the dual Ph.D. with computational mathematics, science and engineering, Ty has worked with me to make sure my research aligns with that path. He always asks me at the start of a new project if I am interested in doing it, instead of just assigning me to the work he wants done. Because of this, each of the three grad students in my group actually work on completely different areas of IceCube.
Describe the opportunities you have experienced as a Spartan.
As a grad student, I have mostly stuck to my own department at MSU. I have interacted with many faculty here through outreach with the Women and Minorities in the Physical Science group and while planning the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics. They have all been very supportive of our efforts, and I appreciate the connections that I have been able to make within the department community.
One thing unique to MSU is the dual degree that I mentioned. I am pursuing a dual Ph.D. in physics and computational mathematics, science and engineering, which I can only do as a Spartan. My CMSE classes have been a valuable compliment to my physics courses, helping me to gain knowledge of the ways I can use programming to improve my research.
Do you know the words to Vanilla Ice's “Ice, Ice Baby?”
Haha, I probably should learn all the words to that. We actually often run into the problem of trying to search something about our experiment in Google and, instead, get images of the rapper Ice Cube. They even used his song names for the headers in one of our recent publications in National Geographic because they thought it would be clever.