One more triumph for Vetterli

May 18, 2006, volume 36, no. 2
By Jennifer Gardy

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Leading the ATLAS Data Centre - Canada's most recent contribution to the biggest physics experiment ever - is just the latest in a series of triumphs for SFU/TRIUMF researcher Michel Vetterli.

Since joining SFU 21 years ago, Vetterli has played key roles in a number of international physics collaborations, become an integral part of the Canadian high-performance computing community, and even cycled hundreds of kilometres in charity and community events.

Pretty big accomplishments for someone who studies the smallest particles in the universe.

Vetterli can trace his interest in subatomic physics back to the simple childhood desire to understand how the world around him worked. “I've always been fascinated with how things work - breaking them down to their bare essentials,” he explains. “Searching for the fundamental building blocks of matter and how they interact is the ultimate example of disassembling your father's transistor radio to see how it works.”

After completing a PhD in nuclear physics at McMaster University, Vetterli joined SFU in 1985, taking a position at the TRIUMF laboratory.  Working first as a postdoctoral fellow and then as a research scientist, Vetterli took part in several TRIUMF experiments and then worked on the HERMES project through the 1990s. HERMES is an international collaborative experiment in which researchers study the substructure of the proton by observing high-energy electron-proton/neutron collisions.

In 2001, Vetterli moved to the Burnaby Mountain campus as a professor in the department of physics, where he joined the ATLAS project as coordinator of computing for Canada. “2001 was a real break,” he says. “Being a full time research scientist tends to get a bit too focused for my taste, but teaching and the interaction with students rejuvenates my enthusiasm for physics.”

Vetterli's move to SFU was of benefit not only to the physics department, but also to universities around the world. Vetterli is one of the co-principal investigators at WestGrid - a high-performance grid computing network used by researchers across Canada and even as far away as the UK, France and Australia.

Portions of the system reside at six locations across B.C. and Alberta, and are seamlessly linked to allow users to carry out everything from computationally intensive data analysis to sophisticated videoconferencing.

Vetterli has been quick to take advantage of the WestGrid conferencing capabilities. “My priority outside of work is to spend time with my family,” he explains. “When the HERMES project started taking data in 1995, I was in Hamburg about 50 per cent of the time. I now travel much less than before, but I still have extensive interaction with my colleagues at CERN and around the world through the use of the WestGrid facilities.”

The devoted family man is also an avid sportsman, and the recent warm weather means that he has swapped his ski boots for his cycling shoes. Vetterli is a member of Velo SFU, a club formed in 2005 by a self-described bunch of “crazy, middle-aged SFU faculty” in order to participate in charity rides and raise SFU's profile in the community.

Don't look for this speeding particle physicist on the roads just yet, however. “It's been a very slow start this year thanks to the ATLAS data centre.”

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