Minute Matter

Physicist Mayly Sanchez studies the smallest known particle to understand the origins of the universe
| Wed, 01/17/24
Mayly Sanchez. Photo by Amy Walden.
Mayly Sanchez. Photo by Amy Walden.

Think about the tiniest thing you’ve ever seen, then think smaller. Whatever it is, you’re still probably not thinking as small as the neutrino, a tiny fundamental particle that can give scientists a window into the history of the early universe.

For Florida State University particle physicist — and neutrino expert — Mayly Sanchez, the biggest leaps forward in scientific knowledge often start when the unseen is revealed.

“My passion for particle physics began when I realized one way to understand the universe is by starting with the smallest details,” said Sanchez, who holds the Wyatt-Green Endowed Chair in Physics and is part of FSU’s renowned High Energy Physics group, which has participated in some of the most important discoveries in the field, including that of the Higgs boson particle in 2012.

Although new to FSU, the Venezuelan-born Sanchez has led the way in neutrino research for almost three decades. After completing a doctorate in physics at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, she conducted postdoctoral research at Harvard University in Cambridge and simultaneously joined the Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search team at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois. Sanchez also received two prestigious National Science Foundation awards for her work with neutrinos — the Early Career Development Award in 2011 and the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2012.

While FSU’s HEP group has concentrated on theory and experiments related to discovery of fundamental particles for nearly 70 years, pursuing research that enhanced understanding of neutrinos had remained on the wish list.

“Mayly’s research program fits exceptionally well with the HEP group, and she’s providing expert leadership as we expand in neutrino physics,” said Sam Huckaba, College of Arts and Sciences dean. “She’s an influential researcher and a dynamic addition to our faculty.”

Fundamental particles like the more widely known protons, neutrons, and electrons form the atoms composing all known matter — substances that make up the observable universe. While protons, neutrons, and electrons can decay into neutrinos and other particles, neutrinos are as small as matter gets, and their properties are largely unknown. They’re produced constantly by natural and manmade processes when atoms come together or break apart, from star explosions to the natural radioactivity of potassium in bananas.

A look inside one of the 12-meter cube prototype neutrino detectors developed to test technology ahead of the detector build for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment at Fermilab. Photo courtesy Max Brice/CERN.

“When the universe initially came to be, there were equal amounts of matter and antimatter that could be entirely annihilated. That we are here means something caused more matter to survive. There’s a good possibility this was caused by particles decaying into neutrinos, so neutrinos absolutely connect to fundamental questions about the universe,” said Sanchez, who was named among Latin America’s top 10 women scientists by the BBC in 2013.

While neutrinos, which scientists first discovered in the 1950s, are known to have mass, no experiment to date has succeeded in measuring them. They’re also difficult to study because they rarely interact. To better observe neutrinos, researchers engineer massive detectors where intense sources of neutrinos are directed to create interactions.

“The way neutrinos interact is very elegant,” Sanchez said. “When a neutrino interacts with the nucleus of a material, charged particles like electrons are produced. A clean interaction occurs when we clearly see particles coming out of the interaction.”

The Wyatt-Green Chair in Physics Sanchez holds is made possible by the generosity of physicist, entrepreneur, and FSU alumnus Philip Wyatt who endowed the chair. The name also honors nuclear theorist Alex Green, founder of FSU’s nuclear physics program and one of Wyatt’s faculty mentors. In this role, Sanchez enhances research within the department and fosters critical collaborations among FSU researchers and scientists from around the world. Her work, including the Fermilab experiments, adds to the legacy of HEP research at FSU.

“One project, the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, DUNE, is a large international collaboration among over 1,400 scientists and involves giant underground neutrino detectors at Fermilab and the Sanford Underground Research Facility in South Dakota,” she said.

Another project Sanchez leads, the Accelerator Neutrino Neutron Interaction Experiment, ANNIE, consists of a 26-ton water-based neutrino detector at Fermilab and supports scientists developing a next-generation detector equipped with advanced photosensors.

Sanchez is also shaping the future of the entire field. She serves on the 25-member Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, which meets every 10 years to prioritize research most critical to propelling physics forward in the next decade and to advise DOE and NSF.

“Thanks to Mayly, FSU has a huge leadership role in ongoing and new U.S. physics experiments,” said Emeritus Professor of Physics Kirby Kemper. “Her involvement in the preparation of the latest long-term plan for high energy physics is a clear demonstration of the community’s respect for her advice and expertise in moving this important field forward.”

McKenzie Harris is a two-time FSU alumna who earned a master’s degree from the College of Communication and Information in 2022 and a bachelor’s degree from the Department of English in 2020.