Particle physics research

Yale physics professor named deputy director and director of research at Fermilab

Professor Bonnie Fleming of Yale’s Department of Physics leaves the university to become research director and deputy director of the US Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.

Akash Chakka and Valentina Simon

10:05 p.m., September 22, 2022

Collaborating Journalist and Staff Journalist

Courtesy of Fermilab Creative Services

Yale physics professor Bonnie Fleming is leaving the University after 18 years to lead the research division of the nation’s flagship laboratory for particle physics and accelerator science.

Fleming, a faculty member and researcher in Yale’s Department of Physics, has been named Deputy Director and Research Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Fermi National Accelerator Laboratorylocated outside of Chicago, Illinois.

She will take a joint position as a professor of physics at the University of Chicago, where she will continue her research on the liquid argon time projection chamber. Fleming has been involved in Fermilab experiments since 1997, but is now transitioning from a research-focused role to a leadership-focused role within the organization.

“I will still be involved with neutrinos, but playing a different role,” Fleming told The News.

The new position involves administering research in the accelerator complex, scientific computing, working on particle physics at the Large Hadron Collider, and advancing new quantum science efforts at Fermilab.

Fleming’s research career was defined by the study of neutrinos, which are small fundamental particles with near-zero mass and zero electrical charge. Today, she is expanding her role as a collaborator on neutrino-based projects to directing all of the laboratory’s research in the field of particle physics.

One of the challenges she faces in this new role is executing the DUNE project, the largest particle physics project ever in the United States. DUNE will extend from Illinois-based Fermilab to South Dakota to detect minute differences in neutrino and antineutrino oscillation, in hopes of figuring out how matter was produced in the early universe . DUNE is expected to complete construction by 2029.

Fleming’s involvement in neutrino research and his collaboration with Fermilab through DUNE and MicroBooNE projects, shaped his time at Yale.

“Dr. Fleming had a broad impact on the department,” Karsten Heeger, chairman of Yale’s physics department, wrote to the News. “On the research side, she led the development of liquid-argon neutrino detectors at Yale and R&D on these detectors at the new Wright Lab.Within the department, she most recently served as director of graduate studies and helped lead the program during the pandemic.

Eighteen years ago, when Fleming first came to Yale, she founded Scientific investigations for girls, a program designed to motivate school-aged girls to pursue careers in science. The program will continue at Yale under the direction of Rona Ramos, lecturer in the physics department.

Fleming hopes to continue promoting girls’ science education through programs at Fermilab and potentially also at the University of Chicago. In fact, Fleming’s attendance at the Girls’ Scientific Salon as a Fermilab Lederman Fellow was what sparked Girls’ Science Investigations.

At Yale, Fleming conducted research on neutrino detection mechanisms. Liquid argon time projection chambers, initially prototyped in Europe, were first introduced in the United States in 2007 by Fleming’s lab.

The devices have since been incorporated into the MicroBooNE and DUNE experiments due to their incredible accuracy in detecting neutrino oscillations. Fleming would continue his neutrino research at the University of Chicago as a professor in the physics department.

University of Chicago Physics Department Chairman Peter Littlewood is delighted to welcome Fleming to the university’s physics community.

“The fact that liquid argon detectors are the detectors of choice is strongly propelled by Fleming and all of his research,” Littlewood said. “Having this program here is great for us. Accelerator-based neutrino physics is the first thing pushed by the American high-energy community. Having this work here puts our department at the center of what are going to be some very exciting decades of research in this area.

The particle physics community is currently in the midst of a planning process that occurs every decade with the P5 Process Critical Subgroup, a conference intended to advise US investments in particle physics.

Scientists are meeting to ponder the future of particle physics based in the United States and abroad, and the subgroup will soon embark on several months of meetings. With Fermilab involved in these discussions, Fleming will be at the forefront of new projects that will emerge from the discussion.

Fleming described her role as “a true eye-opener in terms of scientific breath that encompasses the lab’s mission.”

Fleming began her role as Director of Research and Deputy Director of Fermilab on September 6, 2022.


Valentina Simon covers astronomy, computer science and engineering stories. She is a freshman at Timothy Dwight College majoring in Data Science and Statistics.