York science alumnus comes back to Canada for a ‘big’ new job

Above: Technician works on part of the TRIUMF cyclotron

Nigel Lockyer (BSc ’75) enjoyed his summer job at Ontario’s ministry of industry and tourism when he was a student in York’s Faculty of Science & Engineering – in fact, he was targeted by his bosses for a career as a senior provincial bureaucrat and considered pursuing an MBA after he graduated. Then Bill Frisken, now professor emeritus in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and Lockyer’s professor at the time, pulled him aside and suggested he become a particle physicist instead.

Nigel Lockyer“He told me, ‘you can’t do that [work as a bureaucrat], that’s not allowed,” Lockyer recalled with a chuckle during a recent visit to York’s Keele campus. “Not everyone thinks like a particle physicist and he saw that in me. I’m interested in smallness.”

Right: Nigel Lockyer

His mentor’s intervention proved decisive: Lockyer went on to receive his PhD in particle physics at Ohio State University, did a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University and then became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where he began teaching in 1984. His career since then has been a busy one, including stints as head of a large particle physics experiment at Fermilab, near Chicago, called CDF (which co-discovered the top quark); Chair of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Grant Selection Committee; Chair of the Canada Foundation for Innovation’s review committee; and member on a host of professional committees in the US.

Now this Scots immigrant, who became a US citizen by accident after his lengthy stint in the US wiped out his landed immigrant status, is coming back to Canada, which he has always considered home. His parents and brother already live in Canada. His sister Megan Howson (BA ’77), who is also a York alumna, now lives in England.

In December, Lockyer was appointed director of TRIUMF, Canada’s National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics on the campus of the University of British Columbia. His appointment notice in the Globe and Mail prompted York President & Vice-Chancellor Lorna R. Marsden to call with an invitation for a return visit to York after more than 30 years. “Talk about quick action – I was honoured to be invited and very appreciative,” Lockyer said of Marsden’s call. “York has grown unbelievably since the good ole days. I barely recognized the place. It looks great.”

The visit, on Feb. 19 – which coincided with a presentation that Lockyer attended by another illustrious physics & astronomy alumnus, Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean (BSc ’77, PhD ’83) – included meetings with Stan Shapson, York’s vice-president research & innovation, and Sheila Embleton, vice-president academic. They were discussing ways York can become involved with TRIUMF, which is, among other things, Canada’s voice at CERN, the international consortium that is home to the world’s largest particle accelerator, the gotta-have tool for particle physicists.

Although TRIUMF is currently operated as a joint venture by a group of six Canadian universities, there are seven others that are associate members and Lockyer would like York to join the group. “That’s the way particle physics programs work these days,” he explains. “You can’t mount these large and complex experiments at a single university, you need several strong partners and the technical infrastructure that a laboratory like TRIUMF provides.” This more formidable team is the “necessary entry ticket” for Canada to be a player on the global scientific stage. The collaboration with CERN is a perfect example.

York University High Energy Physics teamLockyer said TRIUMF will host the particle physics data from CERN in its data hub and it will share the results with researchers across Canada. Several York faculty members have worked with TRIUMF in conducting their research, including (above, left to right) Professors Bill Frisken; Wendy Taylor, Canada Research Chair Experimental in Particle Physics; Scott Menary; and Sampa Bhadra. Together they form the Experimental High Energy Physics group in York’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. “York has a great physics department with an international reputation. I hope they can join the TRIUMF team," Lockyer said. "They have a lot to contribute.”

As part of his vision for TRIUMF, Lockyer hopes to see all universities in Canada participating in the lab’s work. For example, he would like to see several York undergraduates join others from across Canada on summer research projects where they could work with senior TRIUMF scientists. “I am sure they would learn a lot and have lots of fun doing it.”

Above: Workers pose for a picture in 1972 during construction of TRIUMF’s cyclotron

Although his main role as TRIUMF’s director is to promote the lab’s scientific program and direct its work, Lockyer, who was a member of the team that co-discovered the top quark – the heaviest elementary particle yet discovered – is still driven by the search for answers to basic questions about our earthly matter which was derived from the “big bang” explosion billions of years ago. “Everything on earth is made out of fundamental building blocks and I would like to understand what those building blocks were and how they came together to form the chemical elements. TRIUMF is one of the leading research centres in the world addressing that problem. The fact that the world is actually made out of some number of simple elements that add up to something sophisticated is almost unbelievable but fascinating.”

Lockyer’s work at the University of Pennsylvania has been focused on high-energy particle experiments, at the energy frontier, and included study of the heaviest quarks, bottom and top. His interest in detector research and development, and particle accelerators has been driven by their importance to the field of high-energy physics, but he has also collaborated on proton therapy applications and medical physics detectors with colleagues at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

Lockyer will assume his duties officially on May 1, 2007, but is already travelling and promoting Canadian science and TRIUMF’s central role.

For more information about TRIUMF, visit its Web site at www.triumf.ca.

This story was written by David Fuller, York communications officer.