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Part of a special feature celebrating the success of Memorial's graduates. This feature coincides with spring convocation 2017.

By Kelly Foss

Cole Walsh didn’t come to Memorial University with the intention of doing research. In fact, he’d be the first to tell you he didn’t even know what research was when he started his undergraduate degree at Grenfell Campus.

But when an earth sciences professor offered the former Nameless Cove resident a short-term position in a lab, a career in research was born.  Mr. Walsh has since gone on to a variety of projects while combining his new love with an honours degree in math and physics.

“I worked with my earth sciences professor for six weeks in the soils lab at Grenfell,” he said. “Since then I worked on projects at Memorial (St. John’s Campus) with Dr. Danny Summers in the math department looking at electrons in the earth’s magnetosphere, Dr. Kris Poduska in the physics department doing radiocarbon dating of archeological samples and Dr. Ivan Booth, also of the math department, on black holes – which I just finished my thesis on. This summer I’m working with Dr. Poduska again on a project involving magnetic clams.”

IceCubes and neutrinos

Mr. Walsh also spent some time at the University of Toronto working on the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory project. That project involved the collection of data from 5,000 detectors installed at a depth of 1.5 to 2.5 km beneath the Antarctic ice.

“Neutrinos are very difficult to detect,” he explained. “About 100 trillion pass through a person’s body every second, but you would have to wait 100 years for a neutrino to interact in a detector the size of a person, which puts into perspective how elusive these particles really are.”

IceCube is designed to detect particles from cataclysmic events that have energies a million times greater than nuclear reactions and can detect 275 atmospheric neutrinos daily. This data is sent from the South Pole via satellite to North America and Europe to be analyzed by approximately 300 scientists at 48 institutions in 12 countries.

“IceCube gives us an avenue to research things we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do,” he said. “We’re not sure why these particles reach us, or what the mechanism is behind their acceleration, but that’s the cool part about the project.”

American dreams

This fall Mr. Walsh heads off to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, to begin a six-year PhD program. It’s a huge move for him, considering he’s never visited the United States and doesn’t even have a passport.

“I’ve dreamed of going to the States for graduate school for several years now,” he said. “It’s a pretty big thing for me. It’s daunting for sure, to commit to six years. But it’s also exciting. This is the type of thing you wouldn’t be able to do if you weren’t entirely committed to it.”

While at Cornell he hopes to focus on his studies for the first couple of years before delving into thesis research for the last four. His biggest decision will be choosing an area of focus.

“When you apply at Cornell they don’t ask you to specify the area you’re interested in,” said Mr. Walsh. “What’s important to them is you come in and get a broad background in all areas of physics. That’s something important to me too as you can see by the kinds of research I’ve done.”

“I know at some point I’ll have to pick a specialization and commit to it,” he added. “But I’ve enjoyed dabbling in many areas and Cornell lets me do that. You can work with different people and see what works for you before you commit to doing a PhD thesis.”

His ultimate goal is to be an academic, and though he understands there aren’t a surplus of faculty positions available, Mr. Walsh believes that his different skills will increase his employability.

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