Meet the Prof - Dennis Mücher

Posted on Friday, October 30th, 2020



[Collage of campus images]

[Animated University of Guelph logo with Improve Life. Tagline. ]

[Cut to video of Dr. Dennis Mücher in his office.]

Dennis: Yes, there is an anecdote I can share, we, last year did an experiment in Geneva at CERN and I had my entire team there. So, that’s a lot of effort to bring everyone in and plan everything. And so then there was an issue, like the day before the experiment we needed to install a little scattering foil, which we use in our experiment which is made from Tritium. Tritium is very radioactive, so it is not so easy to handle this foil and what happened is that that foil ah, ripped and a small piece, so what we had to do was we had to fit the Tritium foil on to a metal frame which we found. So, I put like two tiny little drops of glue on this foil and I was holding this very radioactive foil with a pair of tweezers and, and I knew I only had this one chance to stick this foil in the right position, because once it touches the glue it will not move again, anymore. So, I thought, if this is not working then the experiment is done and then one year of work was for nothing and I have 10 people there flying over from Canada to Geneva for nothing. So, I think I have never been as nervous under pressure in my life! And this foil is only like, it’s super light, so it is almost impossible to control it. But, I just let it go and let it sink down two millimeters and it sink down in the glue in the perfect way it should be. And so that was a big relief and the experiment was a great success.

[Dennis smiles.] 

Dennis: So, that was really a fantastic moment.

[Fade to black.]

[Music starts.]

[Video starts looking at a computer screen over Dennis’ shoulder.]

Dennis: So, my name is Dennis Mücher

[Music continues. Video follows Dennis walking out of his office, while putting on his jacket.]

Dennis: And I am an assistant professor here at the University of Guelph, in the department of Physics.

[Music with a beat. Cut to feet walking upstairs. Cut to University of Guelph sign.]

[Cut back to Dennis seated in his office.]

Dennis: So, I was a student at the University of Cologne.

[Cut to still image of University of Cologne.]

Dennis: In Germany. 

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office. University of Guelph logo along with his name and Professor, Department of Physics appear at the bottom of the frame.] 

Dennis: And also did my PhD there and after my PhD I spent about a year in a hospital as a radiation Physicist which was very interesting and after that I had an opportunity to step back into research at the Technical University in Munich.

[Cut to still image of Technical University, Munich.]

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: Where I spent about five years as, in a position similar to an assistant professor and in 2016 I came here to Guelph. 

[Cut to white screen with animated text; What is your research about?]

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: So, I am an experimental Physicist working in the field of Nuclear Physics and there is actually two research topics I’m working on. The first topic is, we want to understand where the elements are coming from.

[Video cuts to Dennis standing in front of a large periodic table, explaining something.]

Dennis: So, all of the elements that we now find on Earth were also that we can observe in the universe, the questions is where do they come from?

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: And we do understand already a lot about the lighter elements and we know that they’re fused in stars. Uhm, so you start with Hydrogen and Helium and then they fuse into Carbon and Oxygen and heavier elements, but it is really difficult to understand where the heavier elements are coming from like, for instance Gold. It’s a big mystery and it turns out that you need a very exotic astrophysical environment uhm, to have enough energy and just the right environment to bake together these heavier elements. And so our research tries to understand how that’s working. So, for instance, as an example my ring here made from Gold it’s really fascinating that we still don’t really understand where that’s coming from. Ahm, so what we do is, we do experiments.

[Cut to still image of particle accelerator. ]

Dennis: For instance, at TRIUMPH in Vancouver, which is a big particle accelerator lab. 

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: And so what we do is, this particle accelerator allows us to give so much energy to the particles that they behave as if they are in a star and then we can really try to measure these reactions which are happening, which are forming the heavier elements. And this is a really fascinating, TRIUMPH is one the very few places in the world where you can do these experiments. So, that is what we do. So, basically we try to model in particle accelerator the interior of a star, to see if our theories are correct which describe how these elements are formed. 

[Sound with screen animation, then cut back to Dennis seated in his office.]

Dennis: That is one part of my research. It also turns out that particle accelerators are great to treat Cancer, ahh, so what we also do is we use these accelerated particles, in that case protons to shoot them on patients and the benefit of protons is that you can steer them very precisely into the tumor without destroying too much of the healthy tissue. And that has big advantages for the patient. So, it turns out that proton therapy, this is how we call this new form of radiation therapy. It’s more effective to treat cancers, and also there is less radiation dose to the healthy tissue and we believe that this will reduce the risk of developing like side effects or secondary cancers in the long run. My research specifically deals with the question, how do we monitor and how do we really know where the treatment beam stops in the patient, because that is really critical to know. Like if you have a tumor close to an organ at risk. Like brain stem of something it is very critical to understand where that proton beam stops so that it doesn’t go too far and it hits the tumor. So, we built instrumentation to verify that during the treatment. The interesting thing about my work is that it is basically the same instrumentation that we use for the fundamental research or the nuclear physics research, we use that same instrumentation for this Cancer research. So, there’s a lot of overlap, but it also feels great to do something which is directly applicable to people. Which helps people make their life better. So, I find that really a great combination. So, that’s why I am doing both of these research topics.

[Cut to white screen with animated text; Do you have graduate or undergraduate students working with you?]

Dennis: So, if I start at the most senior level, I have one Post-Doc who is a specialist in building detectors.

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: He actually did his PhD at CERN in Geneva, then I have four PhD Students.

[Cut to still image of Dennis with some students and Post-Docs.]

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: And one Master’s student. Yeah, and undergrad students come and go so I have one undergrad student who does a research project with me and…

[Text appears on screen at bottom of frame: What opportunities do they have?]

[Cut to still image of one Student working at the accelerator.]

[Cut to still image of another Student working at the accelerator.]

Dennnis: So, two of my PhD students work on the Nuclear Physics project and the other two work on the medical Physics side.

[Cut to still image of a third Student working at on the Proton beam.]

[Cut to still image of a fourth Student working at on the Proton beam.]

Dennis: I think it’s really critical that you know why

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: you do this research. Like, what is the big picture and what is the goal. Because you know grad studies sometimes is really hard work. And there are some days when you need extra motivation and those days especially it is important that you know why am I doing this. So, our two topics as I said is, where do the elements come from. I think that’s a great motivation to have a big question in mind and the other one is to help people fighting Cancer, which also great motivation. 

[Graphic screen wipe.]

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: Then the other thing is that all our experiments and all our research happens in larger international collaborations, so all of my students are exposed to a larger, international research environment. So, they can travel to Vancouver, or to Japan or Germany or wherever we do our experiment and meet different people and different cultures and network. And networking is really important in the field of science, but also later if they want to go for a job and they can show that they worked in an international research environment, that’s always good and it’s also a lot of fun and brings some motivation. 

[Text appears on screen at bottom of frame: What drew you to physics?]

Dennis: Okay, so I started being interested in astronomy as a high school kid and, so I wanted to observe the stars and understand what’s going on. I bought myself a telescope and uhm, so went out in the cold winter days to figure out where the galaxies are and how that’s all working. I found that really fascinating. So, then I wanted to study physics and to become an astronomer. And then I got sidetracked into nuclear physics, but now it turns out that nuclear physics is very closely related to astrophysics, so finally after like ten years or so I am coming back more and more into the world of astrophysics. Which is really cool. That’s what I always wanted to do. 

[Cut to white screen with animated text; Does what you do now fulfill what drew you to physics?]

Dennis: Yeah, it fulfills it a lot, because I am still thinking about the same topics, like what’s going on in the cosmos.

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: And how do we know. So, what I really love about my job is that I can somewhat decide by myself what I want to study and what I want to learn and this is really I think the greatest part of my job. I have that flexibility to study what I want to study and that is astrophysics. So, now that is what I do.

[Text appears on screen at bottom of frame: What do you like about physics at Guelph?]

Dennis: What I really like about this department is the freedom to do the research that I like. For instance, in terms of my medical research that is always something that I will stay interested in, which is why I also worked as a radiation therapist at the clinic after my PhD. But, I never really had the chance to do my own research on that. So here in Guelph I found the environment to do that. 

[Cut to video clip of up-close shots of equipment.]

Dennis: I had the full support of the college to, to help me ramp up this new research, without having any initial funding. And now I do have my own funding. 

[Cut back to Dennis, seated, talking in his office.]

Dennis: So, that really helped me to establish a new research field for me. And, so that’s really different here in Guelph, that they are so supportive and the research environment is so flexible, that you can really do what you think is best.

[Fade to black.]

[Background to white with University of Guelph logo animation, including Improve Life.]


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