Governor General's Gold Medal
Particle pursuits lead to gold medal
to understand nature at its most fundamental level takes
some of the world's biggest scientific instruments.
Dr. Brigitte Vachon — Governor General's gold
medal winner for her outstanding grade point average
and dissertation-put the 27-km CERN particle accelerator
in Geneva to the test in her study of what happens when
electrons and positrons collide at the speed of light.
The results of her experiment-published
in one of the premier particle physics journals, Physics
Letters, and presented at several international
conferences-have helped scientists set a framework for
their pursuit of a better explanation of how the universe
"The so-called 'standard model'
is good at predicting nature. It works well with given
parameters, such as the mass of an electron. But it
can't explain why the electron has the mass it does,"
Vachon explained over the phone from Fermilab near Chicago,
the world's leading particle physics facility, where
she's on a three-year post doctoral fellowship.
While her study did not turn up evidence
of undiscovered particles that would help to improve
the standard model-or lead to an entirely new theory-her
results rank as the most precise particle analysis yet
"Like any science, it's a matter
of taking small steps," says Vachon, who grew up
in Quebec and hopes to come back to a Canadian university
to teach and continue her research.
Apart from doing her science, Vachon
is excited about talking about it-whether explaining
particle physics to high school students and undergrads,
or friends and family.
"It's absolutely incredible when
you think about it. Day to day in the lab, we don't
think twice about it - 'colliding particles at the speed
of light, big deal'-but when you talk to other people
it makes you realize that what we do is really cool.
"The significance of our work
is always challenging to express, if you're only used
to seeing direct implications. We do fundamental research
and the only goal is to understand nature. That's the
reason we do it. In the course of our research other
applications may be developed (the World Wide Web was
created at CERN). But we want to know where we came
from and where we're going ... it's basic curiosity."
Photo courtesy Fermi National Accelerator