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Good things come in threes: Another physics student wins DOE award

May 7, 2018

Tyler Burch

For the third consecutive year, an NIU student in physics has landed a prestigious graduate student research award from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science.

The DOE announced earlier this month that NIU’s 25-year-old Tyler Burch, a Ph.D. degree candidate, is one of 60 students from across the nation to receive the 2018 award. NIU graduate students Daniel Boyden (2017) and Blake Burghgrave (2016) are previous award winners.

The goal of the highly competitive awards’ program is to prepare graduate students for science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) careers critically important to the DOE Office of Science mission, by providing graduate thesis research opportunities at DOE laboratories.

From September 2018 through August 2019, Burch will receive monthly stipends totaling about $36,000 to conduct research for his dissertation at Argonne National Laboratory near Lisle.

“Tyler is an exceptionally dedicated, hard-working student, eager to dive into new topics,” says his adviser, physics professor Jahred Adelman.

Burch doesn’t shy away from complex challenges, either.

He is currently conducting research at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) located at the CERN laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. Burch is interested in understanding the nature of the Higgs boson, the last discovered particle in a suite of elementary particles that make up scientists’ best picture of the universe and how it works. The discovery of the Higgs was announced in 2012 by two large LHC experimental collaborations, ATLAS and CMS. Continuing to measure the properties of the Higgs is a continuing focus of efforts at the LHC.

Burch and Adelman are among thousands of scientists collaborating on the ATLAS experiment. Burch is working on analyses that look for two photons (the force carriers of light) in the detector coming from the decay of a Higgs boson. In the coming years, as the LHC delivers more and more collisions, scientists’ ability to find photons cleanly and efficiently will degrade significantly.

With the support of the new research award, Burch will work at Argonne on the development of new tools to help maintain efficient, robust photon identification, even in the presence of a large number of collisions.

“The work is critically important for fully mapping out the nature of the Higgs boson and searching for exotics physics,” Adelman says.

The new tools use advanced machine-learning techniques, include convolutional neural networks for image and pattern recognition in the ATLAS detector. The algorithms are being used more and more, both in particle physics as well as outside of the field in areas such as image and facial recognition and natural-language processing. At Argonne, Burch will have access to high-performance computing (HPC) resources as well as machine-learning experts.

“I’m incredibly interested in machine learning and its applications,” Burch says. “Working on machine-learning problems in particle physics would be an interesting and exciting path forward.”

Burch grew up in downstate Belleville and earned his bachelor’s degree in physics, with minors in mathematics and music, at Murray State University. He chose NIU for his graduate work because of its proximity to Argonne and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, two premier national labs.

“It will be nice now to be able to return to Illinois and make use of the proximity to Argonne with this award,” he says.

He’ll also be closer to his Ph.D. adviser.

“Working with Jahred is fantastic,” Burch says. “He always finds time to answer my questions, be it a high-level theory question or a nitty-gritty question on some programming code that I’m stuck on. He’s incredibly knowledgeable in the field, and I’ve never met anyone in my life who is more efficient or has a better work ethic than Jahred—it’s truly inspirational.”