From a desk in Loomis Lab to CERN: a story of my undergraduate research in nuclear physics
9/8/2022 1:21:53 PM
I put on my helmet and entered the test beam area where our detector setup was located. Standing with other scientists, I watched as a massive crane slowly lifted each detector and set it in place. This was only the beginning of a week-long physics campaign. Just one year prior, I had no inkling that I would be spending three weeks of this summer at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.
Hi, my name is Farah and I am an undergraduate student in engineering physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. During the summer of 2021, I joined the ATLAS Zero Degree Calorimeter (ZDC) Group, headed by Illinois Physics Professor Matthias Grosse Perdekamp. Throughout the following school year, my lab mates and I spent many hours at Loomis Laboratory of Physics building two reaction plane detectors, or RPD. These detectors are slated to be installed in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in November 2022 for the first heavy-ion data taking in Run 3.
Before installation, however, the RPDs needed to be tested on-site at CERN in a test beam to benchmark and troubleshoot the detectors’ performance. A group of scientists from different institutions collaborating on the ATLAS ZDC/RPD project were needed to collect data at CERN in July 2022 and to analyze this data in the months preceding the first heavy-ion data taking in Run 3. Thanks to support from the UIUC Nuclear Physics Lab and the DaRin Butz Foundation Research Scholarship, I had the incredible opportunity to be one of these scientists who traveled to CERN and participated in this test beam.
By the end of June, I was at CERN with four of my lab mates: my mentor, Illinois Physics postdoctoral researcher Riccardo Longo, and three Illinois Physics graduate students, Chad Lantz, Matthew Hoppesch, and Mason Housenga. We arrived a week before the scheduled test beam, giving us ample time to make necessary preparations and explore parts of CERN. In between constructing support structures and running function tests, we ventured to the COMPASS experiment, the CERN Control Centre, and the ATLAS site and control room. These impressive facilities gave me a new perspective on the magnitude of scientific achievements made possible by international collaboration.
Simultaneously, our collaborators from Columbia University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and Ben-Gurion University were beginning to arrive on site, ready to test alongside our new RPDs the existing ATLAS ZDC that was recently refurbished—with contributions from several of my lab mates from the summer of 2021. On July 5, the day before the start of the test beam, Run 3 launched, reaching a record energy of 13.6 TeV, a historic moment taking place only 100 meters below me.
When test beam week arrived, work ramped up. On the first day, we worked side-by-side with CERN technicians to crane the ZDC modules into the test beam area. It was the perfect image of collaboration: scientists from five institutions were working together in two languages to enable some phenomenal physics to happen. Once the detectors were in, the rest of us completed the grounding and cabling necessary to power the detectors and collect data.
Everyone exited the test beam area and gathered in a nearby control room, where the setup and beam could be controlled remotely. From there, we began the week-long physics campaign. Four people at a time took on 8-hour shifts that covered all 24 hours of the day, to profit from all the beam delivered by the Super Proton Synchrotron. Every few days, we would enter the experimental area to switch the detector setup to collect different data.
This research experience was incredibly valuable. I had the rare opportunity to contribute to an actual particle physics experiment and witness its spectacular highs and inevitable lows. I connected with the collaborators, finding mentors and friends among the twelve scientists present. On the third day of the test beam week, we began collecting data using the RPD: seeing signals in the detector that I had helped build was exceptionally rewarding.
Towards the end of our trip, Riccardo connected me with Valentina Cairo, an outstanding CERN physicist currently co-convening the ATLAS Inner Tracking Combined Performance Group. She lent me her insights into the careers of young women in physics. We had a lot in common regarding our career goals and personal beliefs and speaking with her was incredibly illuminating. One of our many topics of discussion was impostor syndrome, a feeling of inadequacy and self-doubt that many people experience, despite having a strong education and accomplishments. She gave me some invaluable advice that I will always carry with me.
She told me: It can be easy to doubt yourself in this environment, which is populated by and relies on excellent researchers. Remember that what matters most is how you reach other people and how they reach you. If you are passionate, capable, and hard-working, be assured that the community will notice it, and it reflects who you truly are, even when you question yourself.
Her advice perfectly summed up my experience at CERN. Collaboration is a critical element of research. From constructing the RPD, to setting up the detectors in the test beam area, and onward to collecting large amounts of data, the work we accomplished would not have been possible without help from other scientists. And the impact each person makes on one another will stay with them and carry forward into future projects and endeavors.
I know I certainly will carry with me the skills acquired and lessons learned from traveling to CERN. Overall, it was an incredible and rewarding experience, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to a great physics campaign!