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#OdySci Profile Day 3: Dr. Isabel Trigger

As part of Science Odyssey, we are interviewing a variety of STEM innovators to investigate pathways into STEM and to discuss the future of STEM learning and careers. 

Dr. Isabel Trigger graduated with a B.Sc. from McGill in 1994 and went on to complete an M.Sc. and a Ph.D. at the Université de Montréal between 1994 and 1999. Her Ph.D.included definitive measurements of the self-coupling of standard model gauge bosons and is considered one of most challenging experimental analyses performed at the Large Electron Positron (LEP) Collider. Dr. Trigger is currently TRIUMF Research Scientist, ATLAS experiment at CERN. 

What sparked your interest and eventual career in physics?

I had some good teachers, around the time I was deciding what I wanted to do at university, who really brought out the way new ideas lead to better experiments, and better experimental results ultimately lead to new, simpler, clearer ideas about how the universe works. I always enjoyed the “fundamental” sciences, but I especially liked this “hands-on” experimental aspect of physics and chemistry. It was a chance decision to improve my French in the summer of my first undergrad year by applying to the Université de Montréal for a summer internship that led to my first trip to CERN and really falling in love with particle physics.

What role does mentorship play in engaging youth in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)?

I didn’t really know any scientists well when I was a kid. My father was an archaeologist, but he had a lifelong passion for astronomy and used to tell me about the stars and planets. He always claimed he would have liked to do astronomy in university, but "didn't have the math". I'm not sure that was true, but it made a big impression on me, the idea that there were exciting things you could do, but only if you "had the math". The science I remember from school is all the experimental stuff: simple things with bottles and water and paper bags and hot air. It's when you see science in action that you really engage in it, and think about what is happening, and why, far more than when you just read about it or listen to someone. I suspect the important thing is to have someone in your life who teaches you that it’s good to ask questions. 

Did you have a mentor who supported you in your education/career pathway or otherwise (please elaborate i.e. what point in life)?

Many, at different stages. When I was in grad school, there was a succession of people I admired and tried to emulate. My husband, Rob McPherson, who is also a particle physicist, has been a constant mentor since I first met him when I was a graduate student. Particle physics is the kind of career that requires you to choose where you live as a function of where you get a job offer, so having a supportive and flexible spouse is absolutely critical. In our case we were fortunate, because he already had a job, and it was one that allowed him to be based almost anywhere in Canada, so we were less constrained in that respect than a lot of particle physics couples. 

It’s important to work with people who often make you feel a bit small and humble, and remind you of how much you still have to learn, and how much room there is for improvement, which is one of the reasons why working at CERN is so much fun. Ideas never come from a vacuum - you need constant discussion and argument. For the past two years I have had the privilege of working with one of the originators and foremost developer of the type of thin-gap wire chambers we are building. Working with people who are really the leaders and pioneers in their field reminds me of what it is that I was looking for in science: the chance to be the ultimate expert on something, to create, to innovate, to find solutions to problems large and small on a daily basis. 

What did you want to be when you were small?  Did you plan your current career path?

A dancer, a figure skater, an actor, an author, and ultimately a scientist. I am not really sure how I settled on science - I think I just decided that because the science classes were the most challenging and rigorous ones I was taking, and the requirements for getting into science programs were tougher, then that must be the “best” thing to do - in retrospect, a totally crazy way to choose a path in life. If I had known as a kid what I was going to end up doing, I would have taken shop classes, drafting, and lots more electronics and computing. I would have tried to learn about plumbing and HVAC systems. I would have helped my mother maintain her car and build bookshelves. There is a lot I would have done differently if I had had a plan! But it has mostly worked out in the end. 

Tell us about your work with ATLAS-Canada:

Currently we are working with colleagues from Israel, Chile, China and Russia to build some wire-chamber detectors that will ultimately be assembled into two wheels, ten metres in diameter (called the "New Small Wheels") that will replace the existing “small wheels” of the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the international particle physics lab near Geneva, when the LHC gets upgraded to take data faster than our present detector can handle it. I set up some of the infrastructure at TRIUMF to spray graphite coating onto the giant circuit boards that are the basic building blocks of our wire chambers. Then I came out to CERN for two years to work on integrating the chambers into the wedges that make up the wheels. 

There is also an occasional direct outreach component to my work, both at TRIUMF and at CERN, giving visitors tours of the facilities, or talking to a variety of audiences. I think my favourite recent outreach experience was telling a classroom of ten-year-olds here in France how the biggest machine in the world was operating literally under their feet (within a few tens of metres), shooting particles around a 27-km ring at close to the speed of light in a tube that is colder and emptier than outer space. Lots of schools from all over BC send groups to TRIUMF to see the (smaller) accelerators we have there, and learn about the different kinds of jobs that people have to do to make our experiments happen.

What do you think the future of STEM looks like in BC?

I believe it is going to play an increasingly major role in the BC economy. When we started building these detectors, and interviewing candidates to work as technicians, I was amazed to learn from the CVs we received how many tech-related companies we have in the Greater Vancouver area. We get incredible people who want to work with us, everything from recent BCIT graduates to veterans. STEM is the basis of a huge number of careers, including a lot of skilled trades. Math and physics are such a huge part of our everyday lives that we don’t always notice them - they feel intuitive there, and a lot of people who use STEM skills all the time don’t think of themselves as “math people” because those everyday calculations that we do in our heads from experience when we throw a baseball or stop our cars just feel too natural, too “un-science-like”. 

What is Science World’s role in promoting and supporting STEM learning and careers in BC?

Science World does the very important job of making learning about science fun! Nobody comes to Science World to write a test or do a calculation; they come to be amazed, and to marvel at the ingenuity of nature and of their fellow humans. Getting that message out - that science is all about appreciating the beauty of the world we live in - is the key to helping people feel comfortable with STEM, and realize that science is not something alien that clever people with bad hair do, but something natural that everybody does.

Isabel tells us that "ideas never come from a vacuum". Investigate this with a group of friends or peers with Creative Problem Solving from Science World Resources. 

Who is TRIUMF? 

TRIUMF is one of the world's leading subatomic physics laboratories. It brings together dedicated physicists and interdisciplinary talent, sophisticated technical resources, and commercial partners in a way that has established the laboratory as a global model of success. TRIUMF is a signatory to the BC Science Charter, a participant in the BC Science Outreach community, regularly supports Science World's Around the Dome Science Festival and supports many scientists to volunteer their time in Science World's Scientists and Innovators in the Schools program. 

What's happening today for Science Odyssey

Green Roof Tours at TELUS World of Science. 11am and 3pm. (weather permitting)