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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

The Kids are Alright

– By David Morrissey, TRIUMF Theorist

What is it that comes to mind when you think of a national physics  laboratory? When I ask people this question about TRIUMF, the answer I usually get involves an image of serious senior scientists in lab coats slogging away over complicated piles of wires and tubing and computer displays.  This is partially correct, but it is far from the whole story.

TRIUMF is full of students.  Most of them are graduate students working on Masters or Doctoral degrees, but we also have a large group of undergraduates doing co-op programs.  These students make crucial contributions to the research going on at the lab and they are one of our most valuable outputs.

A typical doctoral (Ph.D.) degree in the basic sciences takes from 4 to 6+ years to complete.  It is a major undertaking, involving a lot of hard work for not much pay, all for the opportunity to work on something really fascinating.  The key part of a doctoral degree is doing original, fundamental research.  Put another way, to get a Ph.D. in the sciences you have to add to our understanding of Nature.

Graduate research at TRIUMF is supervised  mainly by lab research scientists, sometimes in conjuction with faculty at one of our member universities.  A beginning graduate student will usually start off doing very specific directed tasks, she will gradually progress to working more and more independently, and by the time she finishes her degree she will often be close to running the entire experiment she has been working on.  It is really an apprenticeship of sorts, and students are responsible for a great deal of the hands-on work in scientific research.

After graduating, many students continue on in scientific research, but a significant number move on to other fields.  I know former physics graduate students who have gone on to careers in medicine, law, journalism, financial analysis, teaching, professional bike racing, and all over the high-tech industry.  Even though the specific research a student will do for his degree might not have any obvious applications outside of fundamental science, the training he will get along the way is enormously useful in many different areas and is almost impossible to reproduce.  I don’t know how to quantify it, but I would not be at all surprised if the economic benefit of turning out all these highly-trained people far exceeds the total investment made in basic science research.

Given the broad importance of students, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise that one of the main roles of a professional scientist is advising and supervising them.  This is also something that I feel very strongly about, partly for a very selfish reason. On my own, I can only do so much research.  But by training students, who will in turn go on to do their own research and to train their own students, I can contribute exponentially more to the progress of Science. And this is what I really want – to learn as many of the answers as I can.

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