The U of M cosmic connection
Physics grad part of major discovery
While there have been many media reports concerning the discovery by Canadian astronomers of unusually fast radio bursts from faraway objects in the Universe, none have noted that one of the co-discoverers is here at the University of Manitoba.
From the summer of 2016 to the summer of 2018, Michelle Boyce (BSc/85) was working at McGill University for the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment (CHIME) telescope’s Fast Radio Burst (FRB) group, near Penticton, BC, when the instrument detected its first FRB. She had been helping a large international team of astronomers and astrophysicists build the computer database infrastructure necessary for peering into the cosmos, looking for the source of these mysterious bursts.
I am back here doing what I love: studying the Universe.
During the pre-commissioning phase of CHIME FRB, the huge, strange-looking instrument the size of a football field picked up a flash of energy from something very far away.
“It was the last week I was working for CHIME FRB,” says Boyce, “and I was there when we detected the first FRB. It was very exciting.”
Boyce received author credit on the announcement of the discovery, published in the scientific journal Nature.
One of Boyce’s specialties is developing software and databases for aerospace projects. She says she “always wanted to be an astronaut,” but as a kid was simply fascinated by science, wondering, “What is an electron?”
Boyce graduated from the University of Manitoba in physics, then was at Alberta for her Master’s and Carleton for a doctorate in theoretical physics (and then, later in life, a Master’s in aerospace engineering at Concordia). She then traveled widely, advising and working on sonar, the maritime helicopter program, propulsion systems, and emerging technologies with companies as diverse as Bombardier, Rolls-Royce, and General Dynamics.
Her fascination with the mysteries of the universe even led her to spend a year in Antarctica at the South Pole, helping to build and maintain an astrophysics experiment called the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), a prototype neutrino detector, now known as the IceCube Neutrino Observatory.
“The IceCube is a giant block of ice, about one cubic kilometer in size,” she says. “It detects particles called muon-neutrinos that pass through the Earth and only interact weakly with other particles.”
Boyce is now a research associate at the University of Manitoba in the department of physics and astronomy in the Faculty of Science. She is developing software for the Canadian Initiative for Radio Astronomy Data Analysis (CIRADA) using observations from the Very Large Array Sky Survey (VLASS), searching for objects such as active galactic nuclei, starburst galaxies, and supernovae remnants.
“I’ve come full circle,” she explains, “from tinkering with science projects, such as telescope making as teenager, and my undergrad here at the U of M, I’ve been learning more and developing my abilities literally around the world, and I am back here doing what I love: studying the Universe.”