SFU PhD grad’s research in particle physics sheds light on universe's building blocks

October 06, 2021
In 2018, Etienne Dreyer stands in front of the ATLAS detector, 100-metres underground at CERN outside Geneva. Dreyer graduates this fall with a PhD in physics.

Seeking answers to fundamental questions about the universe is what motivated Etienne Dreyer in his graduate research. This fascination, which he traces back to childhood, brought him to SFU in 2015 to start a master’s program in the Department of Physics at the age of 20.

Although Dreyer had many options for graduate school, the warm reception he experienced at SFU is part of what helped him decide.

“The people in the Physics Department were so helpful, and reached out to me on a personal level. I realized that this kind of relationship and support would be very valuable in my program of study,” says Dreyer.

At the heart of Dreyer’s research was the search for an entirely new fundamental particle which is part of several new theories for how particles behave. If discovered, it would help make sense of current mysteries in theoretical physics.

“For example, we know that particles such as electrons have mass,” says Dreyer, “However, we don’t know why they have the different masses that they do. We also know that dark matter exists in outer space. But we don’t know what particles are responsible for its make-up.”

Etienne Dreyer

The best place to go for the data that would support his research was the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. With support from SFU and NSERC, Dreyer was able to spend over a year at CERN with the research team analyzing data for signs of the new particle.

“I’m very grateful that SFU supported me to go to CERN and conduct this research. Looking back, this was a defining experience in my research journey,” says Dreyer.

They became the first team to publish results using the full volume of data collected by the ATLAS particle detector. And while their search did not turn up evidence for the new particle, Dreyer translated their results into implications for new theories. This information is invaluable feedback for physicists around the world working on problems including dark matter.

Dreyer also actively contributed to SFU outside of research. On multiple occasions he helped with high school student tours on campus and department outreach events, and he served in the Physics Graduate Caucus executive.

Now working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science through the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program, Dreyer focuses on optimizing the ways in which data from the ATLAS detector are processed and interpreted by using developments from deep learning and artificial intelligence. He is also working on uncovering more information about the properties of the most recently discovered elementary particle  ̶  the Higgs Boson  ̶  out of data collected from ATLAS.

As Dreyer reflects on his time at SFU, his only regret is not being able to travel back from Israel to attend his convocation.

“When I started, I couldn't have understood the work that I would eventually do and where it would lead me. So SFU is a special place for me. I'm thankful for always having the support of others in the Physics Department and my supervisor, Bernd Stelzer.”