Interview with Erin O’Sullivan

Dr. Erin O’Sullivan

I am from Toronto, Canada. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph and my PhD at Queen’s University. I chose to become a physicist because I liked how collaborative the work was, even at the high school level. I was fortunate to have a strong science department in high school, including a physics teacher that had a talent for piquing our interest in current physics events. During one class, he discussed the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory and I was really interested in the idea of studying this elusive particle deep in a Northern Ontario mine. I carried this idea with me into my undergraduate career and it set the course of the eventual research I would choose to do. I still like how collaborative the work is and that I get to learn from and share ideas with my collaborators. I also like the freedom that comes with being a researcher, especially that I get to pursue the ideas that are interesting to me. The biggest challenge of being a scientist is having to get through the monotony (getting code to run, making small adjustments to figures, etc) in order to extract the science.

What is your field of research and/or what project are you involved in at the OKC?
I am a neutrino astrophysicist. I am a collaborator on IceCube, as well as the proposed Hyper-Kamiokande experiment.

What are your research plans for your time in Sweden?
I am a software convener for Hyper-Kamiokande, so I spend some time developing the Monte Carlo software package, WCSim. I also have plans to get involved with multi messenger astronomy involving IceCube neutrinos. We would like to expand the number of public alert channels that we send out from IceCube, as well as get involved with the search for coincidences between IceCube’s neutrinos and gravitational events from LIGO-Virgo.

Which of your skills are you most proud of? What new skills would you like to learn in the next year?
I have been fortunate to work on a few different neutrino experiments throughout my career. I did my PhD focusing on solar neutrinos in SNO+, which are low energy (MeV-scale). Before coming to the OKC I was a postdoc with the Super-Kamiokande experiment where I looked for astrophysical neutrinos that were in the mid-energy range (GeV-scale). Now at the OKC, I am working with IceCube where neutrinos with energies above PeV can be measured. So, I guess the skill that I am most proud of is my general knowledge of the whole picture of neutrino detection. I am still learning a lot about detecting neutrinos at the highest energies, so I would like to continue to learn more about that in the next year.

What advances or new results are you excited about or looking forward to?
I would love to measure a galactic supernova using neutrinos. The last time there was a nearby supernova was in 1987 and there were only a few neutrino experiments online and they weren’t as powerful as today’s detectors. If there was a supernova today, detectors would measure a detailed picture of the rate and energy evolution of neutrinos coming from a supernova. This would allow us to see inside a supernova and learn about the progenitor properties, and it would allow us to study how neutrinos behave in dense matter environments. Too bad there are only a few galactic supernovae per century!

Why did you choose the OKC?
I was working in the US when we visited Stockholm for vacation, and I was surprised that there was a similarity between Sweden and Canada. I knew that there was a good IceCube group here, and just after our vacation a faculty position became available in the astronomy department. My husband is an astrophysicist and and getting jobs together can be a challenge, so this seemed like it could be a good opportunity, and indeed it worked out for us.

How do you relax after a hard day of work?
On the weekends I like to explore Stockholm and maybe cook something nice for dinner. Weeknights are pretty busy, but if there’s time I like to catch up on my favorite tv shows (we just finished Stranger Things 2) or play board games (currently Pandemic Legacy 2).

What do you hope to see accomplished scientifically in the next 50 years?
Neutrino astronomy is interesting because neutrinos allow us to see into the interior of violent astrophysical events that are difficult to probe with electromagnetic messengers. I would love for neutrino astronomy to become similar to how we do electromagnetic astronomy now where we could see many neutrinos coming from the same astrophysical object. This would allow us to really start using neutrinos to probe the behavior of astrophysical phenomena. I would also like to see neutrinos enter into the multi-messenger picture where they could be detected in coincidence with gravitational waves or EM detections (or both!). I’m actually hopeful that doing multi messenger physics with neutrinos won’t be 50 years away and could soon be a reality. We have had some recent hints that this could already be happening!

Erin is a postdoc in the SU IceCube group. She joined the OKC in July 2017.
Thanks Erin, and while you’re exploring Stockholm check out Millesgården (one of my favorite places)!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *