For a scientist who studies the paths traveled by neutrinos, Mayly Sanchez
has blazed a bright one of her own. Sanchez, a particle physicist at the U.S.
Department of Energy's (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, received
an Outstanding Technical Achievement Award from the Hispanic Engineer National
Achievement Award Corporation, or HENAAC.
Sanchez, who was born in Venezuela and has worked at Argonne since 2007, received
the honor for her work in high-energy physics. The Outstanding Technical Achievement
award is presented to a scientist who has made "significant contributions
to science, engineering or technology." Sanchez heads a team that searches
for the traces left behind by neutrinos, one of the elementary particles of
the universe, as they change form.
Physicists know that neutrinos come in three different types, or "flavors":
electron, muon and tau. Although a neutrino's flavor can change during its lifetime,
researchers have never caught one in the act. "We see them disappear, and
we can see signatures of missing neutrinos," Sanchez said. "Now we're
looking for the neutrinos that reappear."
Sanchez's experiment capitalizes on the fact that neutrinos can pass
through solid matter undisturbed—in fact, millions pass through the human
body every second. Fermilab, a high-energy physics laboratory located in Batavia,
Ill., beams a ray of neutrinos through the Earth. Almost 500 miles away, an
underground physics chamber located in an old iron mine beneath Minnesota's
Iron Range mountains detects the neutrinos.
Sanchez and her team hope to find the trace of a particle that changed from
a muon type to electron type along its journey. "Neutrinos are more likely
to change type the farther they travel," Sanchez explained.
Unfortunately, even over 450 miles, the events remain extremely rare. In the
two years of data, Sanchez and her team have found fewer than 10 likely instances
of suspected transformations.
For Sanchez, the tiny particles could help scientists understand one of the
biggest problems in contemporary physics. "What is matter really made of?
I love that question," Sanchez said.
Sanchez developed her interest in physics early on, when a friend brought a
copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos to school. "Then I asked for the book
for my birthday," Sanchez said. "My parents must have thought that
was so weird—a 14-year-old asking for an astronomy book." Her fascination
with the universe only deepened, though, and it propelled her into physics classes
"That's what I like about this award—it's an award with
a message," Sanchez said. "I want kids in high school, especially
girls, to think about it. Stick with your math and physics classes—if
you like it, you should pursue it, because it's a great career. You get
to work with people all over the world."
HENAAC considers candidates as role models to the Hispanic community, in addition
to evaluating the significance of their scientific work.
HENAAC is an educational non-for-profit program, which runs programs designed
to introduce students from kindergarten to college-age to careers in science
and technology. The program also awards scholarships and travel grants to college
students across the country. The award was presented at HENAAC's annual
National Career Conference and Awards Show, held October 8-10, 2009 in Long
Sanchez is the eighth Argonne scientist to receive a HENAAC award since 1998.
Most recently, Monica Regalbuto, head of Argonne's Process Chemistry and
Engineering Department, and Juan Carlos Campuzano, Argonne Distinguished Fellow,
both received awards in 2007.