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TRIUMF welcomes next Director, Dr. Nigel Smith

17 May 2021

The TRIUMF community would like to share a warm welcome for the lab’s next Director, Dr. Nigel Smith, whose 5-year term as TRIUMF Director begins today. Dr. Smith has arrived in Vancouver and is this week commencing his on-site work.

(image: Dr. Nigel Smith, TRIUMF Director)

“I am truly honoured to have been selected as the next Director of TRIUMF”, said Nigel. “I have long been engaged with TRIUMF’s vibrant community and have been really impressed with the excellence of its science, capabilities and people. TRIUMF plays a unique and vital role in Canada’s research ecosystem and I look forward to help continue the legacy of excellence upheld by Dr. Jonathan Bagger and many previous TRIUMF Directors.”

Nigel succeeds Dr. Bagger, who departed TRIUMF in January 2021 to become CEO of the American Physical Society.

Despite the challenges of re-locating and starting his new role amidst a pandemic, Nigel is eager to find opportunities to make introductions and engage with TRIUMF’s community as part of his first few weeks as Director.

“It has been a really hectic time since being appointed as TRIUMF Director, as Rosie and I have been planning the move from Sudbury to Vancouver, and the challenges of relocating a Northern Ontario household and two cats during a pandemic. So we are both delighted to have finally made the switch a couple of weeks ago, and to be able to start focusing on my new role at TRIUMF.

In the first few weeks, I anticipate I will be doing a lot of listening as I engage with the TRIUMF team, users, and stakeholders to better understand the organization, and the challenges and opportunities ahead. This is a really exciting time for TRIUMF, with a 20-year vision being developed for new science and research, a new funding agreement in place, changes in governance, and an evolving national laboratory ecosystem. I am really looking forward to meeting everyone and learning about the lab, so we can continue to build on previous successes and forge a clear vision for the future”

Nigel bids farewell to the community at Sudbury-based SNOLAB, where he served as Director for 12 years. The lab is a close and long-time collaborator with TRIUMF on a number of scientific research initiatives, including searches for dark matter (using liquid argon with DEAP-3600 and silicon and germanium crystals with Super-CDMS) and the hunt for rare decays in neutrinos. For some within the two close-knit communities, Dr. Smith’s transition to TRIUMF was bittersweet.

“We were truly lucky to have Nigel at SNOLAB for as long as we did, and we’ll be sad to see him go,” said Dr. Pietro Giampa, a past TRIUMF Otto Hausser Fellow and a current SNOLAB scientist who has worked collaboratively at both labs as part of the DEAP-3600 and Scintillating Bubble Chamber (SBC) collaborations. “However, when I first heard the news, the first thing I thought was ‘I can’t wait to see what he can do for TRIUMF, and how this will benefit science in Canada.’ Nigel was incredibly successful in expanding and diversifying many areas of research and opportunity for SNOLAB, and we are all tremendously excited to see what he can accomplish with the scale and breadth of the scientific programs at TRIUMF.”

“Dr. Smith is both a renowned researcher and experienced laboratory leader who offers a tremendous track record of success spanning the local, national, and international spheres,” said Dr. Digvir Jayas, Chair of the TRIUMF Board of Management, former Interim Director of TRIUMF, and Vice-President, Research and International at the University of Manitoba. “He brings all the necessary skills and background to the role of Director, and The Board of Management is thrilled to bring his expertise to TRIUMF so he may help guide the laboratory through many of the exciting developments on TRIUMF’s horizon.”

We took the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Smith for a virtual Q+A about his arrival, his objectives for his first few weeks, and what it’s like working above ground. 

TRIUMF (T): Welcome aboard! What are your main objectives for your first few weeks at TRIUMF? What are you most excited about?

Nigel Smith (NS): Thanks for the welcome, it’s great to finally get to TRIUMF! So, in the near term my main objective is to learn about TRIUMF and the team here. I want to spend the first few weeks learning the detail about the organization, meeting the staff and users, and finding out about the opportunities, and risks, that everyone sees for TRIUMF. Although I’ve collaborated with TRIUMF on many perspectives, I am keen to better understand the lab, its people, and its science so that I can be effective as a leader and advocate for the lab. One of the key roles of the Director is to help the organization and team accomplish their vision and goals for TRIUMF, and so I am really excited to learn what the lab’s needs are, what the challenges and opportunities are, and the possible research trajectories we have in our future. Coming to TRIUMF at this moment in time is quite unique and exciting as the 20-year vision process is underway, and I look forward to contributing to the continued success of the laboratory.

T: Can you tell us a little about what it’s like transitioning to a lab like TRIUMF from SNOLAB? What are some of the unique opportunities you envision?

NSI’ve spent almost thirty years working in national laboratories in the U.K. and Canada, and recognize that many aspects of running labs are very similar, whilst there are unique differences and opportunities. SNOLAB is about a quarter the size of TRIUMF in terms of the size of the team, and so there will be similarities around supporting and developing a dynamic team with great ideas – likely more ideas than we can resource. Coming from a background of running labs in active mines, another similarity will be ensuring the safety of staff, users, and visitors – although the hazards are different at TRIUMF, the principles are the same. The research and governance environment we work in is always changing, so labs need to be agile and capable of responding to changing needs and ensuring the drivers of the stakeholders are met. The dreadful pandemic we are experiencing now showed the strength of fundamental research, and the ability of science to respond to changing needs – TRIUMF, and SNOLAB, were both involved in the MVM ventilator project, which demonstrated the benefit of having well connected, networked teams who could pivot quickly to address a pressing need. A clear opportunity arising from that work will be to strengthen connections between national labs, research platforms, and relevant partners to build a robust network in support of Canada.

One of the differences at TRIUMF, which is a clear opportunity, is the breadth of the research and technologies that are being supported and explored. The convergence of particle, nuclear, and astroparticle physics with materials and life sciences, along with the technical expertise of the accelerator, instrumentation, computing and radioisotope teams provide a great many opportunities for new ways of looking at scientific problems – and a great many opportunities for societal benefit. I am also looking forward to learning about the differences in governance and funding, as incorporation provides new opportunities for the laboratory to build on the strengths of our national network of university,  funding partners, and our international collaborators.

I am really honoured to be leading TRIUMF through this exciting period, with a great many research and science opportunities being developed in the 20-year vision, and many changes underway as critical systems and processes are refreshed. As I shift from studying particles created by natural accelerators in the Universe, to more controlled artificial accelerators, I am looking forward to exploring the new prospects TRIUMF science and technology will bring.

T: You bring a long track record of success from your tenure at SNOLAB. Which of the lessons learned are you most looking forward to applying in your new role here at TRIUMF?

NS: I think the main lesson that any Director learns is that the key to success is having a strong and well-motivated team, with a clear and inspiring vision for the direction of the laboratory, one which everyone is working towards. The science that TRIUMF is driving is really amazing, both in the fundamental research we are engaged in, and in the applications for societal benefit. With several strategic planning exercises underway within our community, TRIUMF has a great opportunity to help support the Canadian research community, whilst building our own unique vision.

Another lesson learnt is that research flourishes best when strong collaborations are built. I am really looking forward to exploring the opportunities for collaboration between TRIUMF and the world, including with the Canadian national research platforms like SNOLAB where we already have strong connections and the chance to bring major new international projects into Canada. Within Canada the discussion of how best to support infrastructure for ‘big science’ is ongoing, and TRIUMF has a clear role to play in helping frame that discussion.

T: We couldn’t help but note that several people in our Twitter community quipped about you having to adjust to spending less time at two kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface; beyond that, is there anything in particular you’re looking forward to about living (at sea-level) in Vancouver?

NS: Indeed! TRIUMF will be the first lab that I have worked at which is at sea-level, the others being +3000m (South Pole), -1100m (Boulby, UK) and -2070m (SNOLAB). Given the somewhat demanding nature of accessing those environments, I am looking forward to working in a less altitude-challenging laboratory, and maybe even being able to cycle to work again. And certainly over the last two weeks we have been here, Vancouver itself has just been beautiful, with spring in full bloom, and we’re greatly looking forward to exploring a new region. I am told it will rain at some point though…

Welcome, Nigel!