Shining light on dark matter

New professor shares passion for particle physics.

Jennifer Pascoe - 17 April 2018

"Our universe is like a spiderweb where we can see matter concentrated in the middle," said Marie-Cécile Piro, new assistant professor in the Department of Physics.

Piro's more interested in what we can't see--dark matter--a type of matter that has never been observed in the way protons, neutrons, electrons, and neutrinos have.

"Dark matter is there to help make the structure of the universe." By studying particle physics, we are looking for answers to fundamental questions to help with our understanding of the universe."

She's been passionate about understanding the universe since she was a little girl growing up in Guadeloupe. "I loved astronomy and stars and black holes. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was young."

She followed her curiosity about how the universe works through undergraduate and graduate work at Université de Montréal, exploring the intersection of condensed matter physics and particle physics. In between grad school and starting at UAlberta, Piro completed a postdoctoral fellowship in France as well as a research position where she split her time between New York State and Italy, conducting research with a detector installed in Gran Sasso d'Italia.

Her current research sees her collaborating on two projects operating out of the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO)--DEAP-3600, with Professor Aksel Hallin, Canada Research Chair in Astroparticle Physics, and PICO, with Professor Carsten Krauss, director of the Centre for Particle Physics.

PICO--a bubble chamber experiment installed two kilometres beneath Earth's surface to minimize cosmic radiation--is an update to the PICASSO project, which Piro worked on during her graduate studies, cementing her focus on experimental particle physics.

"We want to know what our universe is made of. These are fundamental questions to help us try to understand the universe. I really realized this when I worked on PICASSO. And I also realized I really like doing experimental work. It's really satisfying to mount the detector, build all the electronics, get a signal, and analyze it.

"We're always pushing the limits and trying to understand the behavior of our detectors. It's nice work."