Physics Spotlight

May 2020
Physics Spotlight

Stephane Willocq

Ph.D., Tufts University (1992)

The Physics Department has chosen Professor Stephane Willocq to participate in this month’s Physics Spotlight! His research interests center around Experimental Particle Physics, more specifically, the ATLAS experiment based at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. Some of his contributions consists of data analysis that the group one day hopes to uncover answers to mysteries such as the origin of mass, the nature of dark matter, the unification of fundamental interactions, the search for extra dimensions, and more. To find out more about Stephane, please see his Q&A below!

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 earned a physics degree from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels) but initially planned to study engineering with a physics concentration. Then earned a Ph.D. degree from Tufts University in Medford, MA. I started working on my Ph.D. in Brussels but funding difficulties forced me into spending a year working on my neutrino experiment as a visiting scientist at Fermilab with no prospect for earning a Ph.D. It was at Fermilab that I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in the US. My path was not a straight line and included a couple of redirections following difficulties. In that sense, I am a strong believer in giving people a second chance.

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?

I was interested in understanding the world around us at a fundamental level and did not have a strong interest in working in the private sector after earning a B.S. degree in Belgium. My choice of graduate school was unusual as I explained above. I only applied to about half a dozen US institutions that were part of the neutrino experiment I was working on at Fermilab. My advice is to consider a path as early as possible and learn what it takes to get there. However, that path is not always straight and alternate routes may provide an opportunity to reach the goal of earning a Ph.D.

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

It is probably most useful to gain experience working on one or more specific research projects under the supervision of one of the Professors in the Department. In particular, students should look for an opportunity to do something new. This advice is valid for students aiming to go to graduate school as well.

In 140 characters, explain your research:

My research aims to elucidate the most fundamental constituents of matter and their interactions, the origin of mass, the Universe evolution, even the fabric of space and time.

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

The closest class is Physics 556: Nuclei and Elementary Particles.

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

I have supervised the research of a fair number of undergraduates and enjoy doing so. Being engaged in research gives students the opportunity to see a completely different aspect of physics compared to what they are exposed to in their course work. These students are typically engaged in data analysis, most likely simulated data for a particular analysis that I am pursuing on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. It is rather difficult to include undergraduates on the author list of ATLAS papers but I did succeed doing so for one paper in the past given the exceptional contribution made by the student.

In General, what is your favorite class to teach, past or present?

I particularly enjoyed teaching the Physics 286 laboratory course focusing on the Modern Physics curriculum.

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

We have the privilege to have a job in which we can pursue our interests exploring the world around us. There are constraints but also a fair amount of freedom about conducting our research.

What is the most interesting research or project that you’ve worked on thus far?

I am currently working on the ATLAS experiment based at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. This is a truly massive project involving well over 3,000 physicists and a large number of technicians and engineers. The experiment provides one of the best opportunities to test our understanding of the most fundamental aspects of physics and hopefully reveal new phenomena leading to a deeper understanding. 

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

I devote a lot of time to my work, doing research, teaching, and service for the Department. In the time that is left, I enjoy music and riding my bicycle.