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RSA's Brilliant Minds: Dr. Ryan Dorrill

You can usually find Dr. Ryan Dorrill wearing an Aloha shirt and a smile, so you might be surprised to find a black belt behind this friendly demeanor. Dr. Dorrill’s personality is full of unexpected turns and surprises and so is his career.

Dr. Dorrill is a physicist at RSA. Most recently, he’s been working on calculations to determine the Jervis Autonomy Module’s (JAM) visual range, and planning for its radiation testing.  

He received his PhD in Elementary Particle Physics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa on Oahu; however, his career began on a different island in the Pacific.

Dr. Dorrill gives a talk on his neutrino detector research at the Neutrino 2018 conference after placing in the conference’s poster competition.

Elegant Universe

Growing up in Baltimore, Dr. Dorrill preferred writing over science in school. It was an influential high school physics teacher and one particular book that would lead him to a career in physics.  

“I wasn’t really into science as a kid,” he said. “Then in high school, I had a really great physics teacher, and he got me interested in physics and math a little bit more. He recommended this book called, ‘The Elegant Universe.’ Reading that book and having that good teacher helped the material come easy to me, which was a new experience for me.”

Even after that experience, Dr. Dorrill thought he would pursue engineering at the University of Maryland.

“I thought I was going to go into college and maybe be an engineering major, because it’s a little more practical and hands on,” he said. “But then I really enjoyed my physics classes in college and stuck with it all the way through college.” 


After graduating with a bachelor’s in physics and a minor in writing, he was eager to explore the world. He found himself in a small fishing village in Japan, teaching English to a diverse range of students, from babies to high school students.

“It gives you so much perspective on your own culture and your own country,” he said. “Even little things that we take for granted every day are different in other places around the globe.”

At a traditional Japanese autumn festival in the fishing village of Fukuura, Dr. Dorrill utilized a traditional conch instrument used to call villagers to meet.

He fondly remembers watching the Japanese teachers greet their students.

“Children would walk up the pathway on their way into the school and the teachers would shout out the windows, ‘ohayou’ which means good morning, basically for every kid that came by.”



After his teaching position, Dr. Dorrill hoped to return to Japan to work on the Super-Kamioka Neutrino Detection Experiment, a project that would reveal neutrino properties through the observation of solar neutrinos, atmospheric neutrinos, and man-made neutrinos.

“I was really hoping to work on the Super-K and get back to Japan, but that project was wrapping up, so I joined an academic advisor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa that was working on a smaller version of that technology,” he said.

Dr. Dorrill’s PhD advisor was building a small detector to deploy near nuclear reactors and look for neutrinos.  

“You can study what’s going on inside the reactor for radiation safety, to help prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and to study basic particle physics,” he said. “In theory you can deploy these detectors to watch for nuclear material moving around the globe because neutrinos go through everything, all the time, and you can’t hide them.”

Ryan stands on a trail in Maui ready to go on a hike with his fellow grad students.

Researchers are still developing detectors to monitor the movement of nuclear materials in places like airports and shipping ports.

“They’re still working on making that a reality, but it ended up being the focus of my PhD and the reason why I cared about it,” he said. “It’s important to protect people from nuclear dangers and prevent dangerous people from getting a hold of nuclear weapons.”

Hello, Chi-Town

Following his PhD, Dr. Dorrill would head to Chicago to join Illinois Tech as a research associate and to work with Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. There, he would work to oversee operations on the MicroBooNE detector, an underground and neutrino detector full of liquid argon.

The 40-ft long MicroBooNE detector is a 170-ton liquid-argon time projection chamber (LArTPC). It was the largest LArTPC operating in the U.S., and a prototype for future technology.

“Argon is a noble gas, like helium,” he said. “They built a big tank with this cold noble liquid which does a lot of neat things. When particles passed through it, it created a lot of charge and light which was able to pass through the noble liquid to the readout wiring and light detectors. It was able to measure lots of neutrinos, and help search for new particles like the sterile neutrino, which has yet to be discovered.” 

MicroBooNE investigated the low-energy excess events observed by the MiniBooNE experiment, measured a suite of low-energy neutrino cross sections, and investigated astroparticle physics. MicroBooNE also served as a prototype for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE) in South Dakota.

While working on MicroBooNE, Dr. Dorrill also served as the co-convener of the Detector Physics Group, collaborating, and managing a global team of researchers.

The Left Coast

After his work in Chicago, Dr. Dorrill moved with his wife to the San Francisco Bay area where he is working with our Los Angeles and New Mexico offices, contributing his extensive expertise in physics to the RSA team, offering invaluable physics reviews and radiation test planning for projects employing JAM.

Dr. Dorrill poses for a photo with his wife Gina after defending his PhD in Hawaii in the summer of 2019.

“Anything going to space has to be able to survive a certain amount of radiation,” he said. “Just going around Earth is one level of radiation, but if we go somewhere like Jupiter then it's much more intense and it is tricky to deal with. Given recent headlines, if there’s a nuclear weapon that goes off in the vicinity, it must be able to survive that too.”

Dr. Dorrill still finds time to flex his literal and figurative muscles when he’s not solving complex equations. He holds a black belt in Taekwondo and enjoys creative writing during downtime.

Dr. Dorrill practices karate.

“Writing is a way for me to express my creative side while working in this super analytical, mathematical, physics world,” he said. “Sometimes you can be creative but a lot of times you’re beholden to numbers, physical laws, and principles. Now I see there are ways to be creative in fields like physics, but writing also really engages my imagination.”

Dr. Dorrill’s imagination drew him to physics, and it’s what makes him so great at what he does.

In the words of one of the most famous physicists, Albert Einstein, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”



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