Pairing world-class facilities with talent and funding

 The work of Queen’s University professors Roel Vertegaal (left) and Gilles Gerbier (right) enables the continuation ofa powerful legacy in research excellence, which includes Arthur McDonald becoming co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2015. Outcomes include a holographic flexible smartphone called HoloFlex. supplied

The work of Queen’s University professors Roel Vertegaal (left) and Gilles Gerbier (right) enables the continuation ofa powerful legacy in research excellence, which includes Arthur McDonald becoming co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2015. Outcomes include a holographic flexible smartphone called HoloFlex. supplied

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it yourself” – Queen’s University professor Roel Vertegaal agrees whole-heartedly with the quote from computer scientist Alan Kay and is busy developing “disruptive technologies and new ways of working with computers that are viable 10 to 20 years from now.”

Yet in a fast-paced environment like technology, where new devices sweep the market in ever shortening intervals, how do you stay ahead of the curve?

By positioning a team within grasp of novel technologies, encouraging it to envision what those technologies can mean in the future and then implementing those ideas, says Dr. Vertegaal, who is researching organic user interfaces that allow computers to have any shape or form through flexible displays and other non-flat display technologies.

Out of Dr. Vertegaal’s “investigation into what flexibility and thinness mean” comes an exciting new device called HoloFlex, a holographic flexible smartphone that allows users to inspect a 3D object from any angle simply by rotating the phone, for example.

Among the conditions that enable such developments are cutting-edge facilities like the Human Media Lab, funding and top talent, which is nurtured by a unique balance between research and teaching at Queen’s, explains Dr. Vertegaal. “You need people with experience who can apply lessons and rules from the past and extrapolate what they mean for the future,” he says.

“Professors take their research into the classrooms and the students get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build their knowledge and skills for a career.”

Gilles Gerbier, Queen’s professor and Canada Excellence Research Chair in Particle Astrophysics, also sees inspiring students as an important aspect of research at the university. “We have to keep the curiosity for science alive,” he adds.

For Dr. Gerbier, a renowned dark-matter researcher, every step along the way to discovery can yield positive benefits that include honing the skills of researchers, informing methods of scientific inquiry and helping to develop technology that may be useful and applicable in other fields.

Echoing Dr. Vertegaal’s sentiments, Dr. Gerbier says his reasons for joining Queen’s in 2014 are facility, talent and funding. In his case, the facility is SNOLAB, which is one of the deepest operating underground labs, the talent is the excellent team of physicists doing the kind of research he is interested in and the funding support comes from the Canadian government.

Dr. Gerbier’s work will build on a powerful legacy, which started with the first Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNO) collaboration in 1984 and has seen a number of milestones, including Arthur McDonald becoming co-winner of the Nobel Prize in physics in 2015.

Dr. Gerbier aims to leverage his position at Queen’s to strengthen the Canadian presence in international dark-matter research and encourage the sharing and transfer of expertise and knowledge between European and North American researchers, he explains. “For many years, I’ve been trying to create collaborations that enhance capabilities and competencies by creating synergies between the teams.”

Dr. Gerbier is currently working on two projects: one aims to identify weakly interacting massive particles, which are well-motivated candidates for hypothetical dark-matter particles, with cryogenic detectors. A test facility for assessing detectors from a range of research collaborations will be ready next year, he says. The second project studies other dark-matter particle candidates with a different technique: a gaseous spherical detector, which Dr. Gerbier believes will be capable of detecting extremely tiny impacts from very light dark-matter particles.

This research involves building new detectors and training a team in this new technique, and Dr. Gerbier says knowledge gained from developing particle detectors has potential for applications in related fields. “The search for dark matter has been going on for many, many years, and there’s a strong incentive to develop new techniques, which are often almost as important as discoveries,” he says.

It can be difficult to gauge the potential impact of a future scientific discovery on society, especially in a research field like dark matter, which – together with dark energy – is thought to account for about 95 per cent of the universe.

“Would the nature of dark matter be identified, our change of view of the universe may be compared to the one which occurred when it was realized that our planet was not at the centre of the universe but rather an ordinary celestial object among billions of others,” says Dr. Gerbier.
Research like that, as well as innovation aimed at a 10- to 20-year window, are essential for a viable economy, says Dr. Vertegaal.  

Fortunately, at Queen’s, he finds a strong commitment to enabling researchers to push the boundaries of discovery and innovation. “[Research is] understood to be a core value of the university,” he says.

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