Physics Spotlight

October 2017
Professor Spotlight

Rafael Coelho Lopes de Sa

Ph.D., Stony Brook University (2013)

We have chosen Professor Coelho Lopes de Sa to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight.  This is due to his research of the Higgs Boson in fundamental interactions by developing new detectors and data analysis methods. His Research interests in Experimental Particle Physics reinforces his commitment to following one’s passion for science.  Please take a moment to review Professor Coelho Lopes de Sa's website here to learn more about one of our newest members of the Physics Department!

Welcome to the University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus! As a new professor, what are you excited about the most with regards to your first semester here?

Thanks! I am excited to join the ATLAS group at UMass Amherst, to teach and work with students, and to set up my research group and lab in the new Physical Science Building. In general, I am thrilled to be part of the UMass community.

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what?  How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I first studied to be an electronic technician in Brazil. I worked for two years in a physics lab in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) with a group that was building new detectors for the D0 experiment at Fermilab. Working with physicists encouraged me to study physics in college. I went to the State University of Rio de Janeiro, where I obtained a degree in physics. I obtained my first graduate degree in String Theory, in the State University of São Paulo (Brazil). More recently, in 2013, I obtained my PhD in Experimental High Energy Physics from Stony Brook University (New York) with a thesis in the D0 experiment. From 2013 until last month, I was a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab (Illinois).

I believe that my education in different fields, different countries, and different large-scale experiments bring a somewhat different perspective that can be positive for the UMass Amherst students.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

If you want to work with research in physics, graduate school is the part of your education when you become a professional. In this sense, I didn’t feel that my education was complete until I obtained my PhD. I chose my grad school based on the quality of the research group in the field I wanted to study. For students that would like to pursue careers in research, I would tell them to learn as much as possible during their graduate school years. During your graduate education, you are free to learn, to make mistakes, and to develop an intuition and inspiration in the field that will probably be your research focus for many years to come. So make sure to use these years wisely.

What is your advice for a student who wants to go into this industry?

I have never worked in industry, so my comments are less an advice and more an observation. I feel that working in industry opens a whole new avenue for your ideas to become something real. While working in academia will give you ways for your creativity to become new ideas, industry will give you resources for your ideas to become a product. And, while it is true that ideas are important, so are products. Because of that, working in industry can be as intellectually stimulating as working in academia. A college degree in physics will educate you with eyes towards an academic career, mostly because that’s what all your professors did, but you should not ignore industry as an exciting career path.

 What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?


 Do you take undergraduates in your research group?  What type of work do they do?  Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

Yes, I do! I work with them on experimental methods for detector physics. The particle detectors we use in the ATLAS experiment are very large and complex. Understanding the physics involved in the design of these detectors is an excellent application of basically all the physics topics studied during an undergraduate course.

What do you like best about being a professor and a physicist at that?

I believe that it would be the extreme creative aspect of my work. Coming up with new measurements that can teach us about fundamental interactions in nature requires a lot of creativity and hard work. Even coming up with a new method to measure something already well established may require a lot of new ideas.

What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on in the past?

I don’t think I would be able to single out one that I would list as the most interesting. In a way or another, every project that I worked in the past taught me a bit more about fundamental interactions. Some of them taught me more than others, but you never know before you start. And that’s the challenge of scientific research.

 What do you do outside of physics?  Do you have a hobby?

I enjoy movies, running, and traveling.