From physics to dark matter: Grace Lawrence's journey

Grace Lawrence, women in STEM, photo.

There’s a saying Grace Lawrence would come to learn from one of her Swinburne astrophysics lecturers, "There’s a difference between simple and easy. Physics is simple but it’s not easy."

Growing up in a small regional town in Far North Queensland, Grace always had an unusual combination of passions – ballet and physics – and excelled in both. Although ballet was only a hobby, Grace competed in regional and national level competitions, completed her examinations and gained a ballet teaching qualification. You can see where this is going; even Grace’s hobbies are performed at their highest levels.

Physics has always been Grace’s ‘first love’ and she performed so well in her year 12 exams that a number of universities offered her scholarships. Grace says it was an easy choice to accept Swinburne’s merit-based Vice-Chancellor’s Excellence Scholarship because, ‘Swinburne has an excellent physics program.’ Having graduated from her Bachelor of Science (Physics), Grace is now on her way to completing her Honours year.

Her sheer love of physics has propelled her toward some amazing opportunities, especially for someone whose career is just beginning. Associate Professor Alan Duffy and Professor Jeremy Mould introduced her to the world of dark matter and the Sodium-iodide with Active Background Rejection (SABRE) program. Working through the complex mathematics turned into the basis for her first year research and discovery project.

"What’s the importance of knowing about dark matter? Dark matter and dark energy make up about 90-95 percent of our universe. Baryonic and other components are about five percent so the fact that we don’t understand most of our universe has such large effects."

Swinburne is a member of an international consortium of universities, research agencies and industry constructing the Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory, a kilometre underground at a gold mine in Stawell, Victoria. The lab will house one of only two dark matter detectors in SABRE project - the other is in Italy.

Through a recommendation from Professor Duffy, Grace found herself interning with the SABRE team at Princeton University. For seven weeks, she worked on producing high purity crystals – the defining feature of the SABRE detector. It was life changing in more than one way.

"Being at an Ivy League school as a second year student was a mind blowing experience," Grace says. "The team were incredible. They were so inspired by the work that it really passed down." She came back with a head full of new practical skills and a galvanised passion for the project.

Shortly after her return, Grace and her love of physics caught the eye of Swinburne supporters who generously decided to make a donation which funded a research internship to the Italian lab, the Laboratori Nazionali del Gran Sasso.

"Someone came forward and said they wanted to help out. I’m very lucky. It’s very humbling to know that someone thinks you’re worth investing in."

Grace spent two months working with Italy’s SABRE team on the testing, design and installation of this dark matter detector. Thanks to Swinburne donors, Grace had the opportunity to go deep underground into the cavernous laboratories of Gran Sasso, working alongside a dedicated, dynamic and diverse team noting what a real research career could look like. Her work there provided a detailed and hands on view of the project that she brought back to the Australian branch of SABRE.

"It was a fantastic feeling to know that outside of my class work I was contributing to a real current project that is helping to shine the spotlight onto this missing element of our universe", says Grace.

Grace has almost been part of SABRE since day one, from the foundational work to the proof of principle. She knows the system and the software inside out and is now working on the Australian part of the experiment.

While Grace is still to complete her fourth year of studies she is contemplating the next step towards a career in dark matter.

"I love the mystery as I don’t know what it is and there are so many ways people are searching for it. I’m particularly interested in the simulations, making predictions and testing it. That would be the dream job."

Learn more about research at Swinburne at swi.nu/bigideas