Thank you for choosing me as the winner! I had an amazing time answering all the fantastic questions!!
Barrs Hill School & Community College 1998-2005; University of Manchester 2005-2009 & 2009-2013
A-Levels: English, Maths, Physics, Chemistry; MPhys (Hons): Physics; PhD: Particle Physics
Fermilab 2008-2009; CERN 2009-now (as well as shop assistant, barmaid, receptionist…)
Post-Doc at the Laboratoire de l’Accélérateur Linéaire (Linear Accelerator Lab)
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (National Center for Scientific Research)
Favourite thing to do in my job: Experiment! And really, that’s what science is all about. Saying, “I wonder what happens if I do this…”
I design and test pixel detectors (like those in your digital camera) for the ATLAS detector at CERN and I also study what happens when a Higgs boson turns into taus (heavier versions of electrons).
I work on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland. But I live in Paris and just head over to Switzerland (and sometimes Germany) to do experiments or to meet with people.
At the LHC we send protons (one of the particles in the nucleus of atoms) around a huge ring which is 27 km long and 100 m underground. These protons travel very close to the speed of light and when we think they’re going fast enough we smash them together! This collision happens in the centre of the ATLAS detector (and at other detectors around the ring) to make new particles. One of the new particles we make is the Higgs boson which was only just discovered at CERN in 2012 (it’s also known as the God particle, but I don’t use that name).
Some of these particles have never been studied before, and from them we can learn what the universe is made of and how everything works.
You can think of the ATLAS detector like an onion (like Shrek), it’s made up of layers, and also like a camera, it records information about particles that pass through it (although a camera only does light, this does almost everything). Each layer does a different job, but the layer I’m most interested in is the first one, the pixel detector.
The pixel detector tells us where particles with charge (such as an electron) have gone (which is called tracking). But because it’s first, it gets badly damaged by all the radiation from the particle smashing. So I design and test newer pixel detectors to make them faster, last longer and give us more information (like when you upgrade your camera from 10M to 16M).
The other half of my time I spend studying the Higgs boson, and specifically what happens when it turns into two particles called taus. Taus are just heavier versions of electrons, but because they’re heavier they can change into a lot of other particles. There are theoretical physicists who tell us how often the Higgs should change into different particles and we want to see if they’re right. Although, it’s always more fun when they’re not! It means theres more to find out and that’s what science is all about! 🙂
And if you made it this far, thank you! Also, check out the photos at the bottom which should help to explain everything I’ve just said.
My Typical Day
I can usually be found doing experiments in my lab or at my computer running a simulation or analysing data (if I’m not in another country, that is!).
I don’t really have a typical day, which is brilliant because I like to keep things interesting.
If I’m in Paris, I could be in my lab either putting together equipment, or running an experiment. Generally, I will take a new pixel detector and put a lump of something radioactive on top of it. Radioactive means that the atoms will release a particle because they’re not stable and I can use this particle to test if my detector is working properly. When I’m finished testing it with a source of radiation, then I get the lasers out :). Once I know my new detectors well enough, I’ll take them to an experiment at CERN to use a bigger beam of particles for testing them.
If I’m not in the lab, I’ll be in my office looking at some data from the ATLAS experiment, or maybe running a simulation (getting the computer to show me what we think is happening). Or I’ll be working with the other scientists and PhD students, talking about ideas for experiments or last night’s television.
I could also be in a meeting. Because the experiment I work on is massive, and it needs so many people (about 3500 people), often they’re not all in the same place. In fact they’re all over the planet! So to have a meeting, we have it virtually, online like a Google hangout or a Skype chat.
Although, sometimes we do need to be in the same place. For example when we need to have a meeting with a lot of people (and it would just be confusing to have that many people online) or when we want to present our work to other scientists at a conference. In this case we have to travel for it, and this has given me the opportunity to visit some amazing places all over the world. My favourite was a conference in Disneyland in California! I got to go on roller coasters in my lunch break!!
What I'd do with the prize money
Too many possibilities! But I think I’ve narrowed it down to supporting the International Masterclass programme.
There are so many wonderful projects that could benefit from this money that it is really difficult to only choose one!
Something I would like to support is the international Masterclass programme (http://physicsmasterclasses.org) by expanding it to schools in remote locations (such as countries where they don’t already have any Masterclass events). This programme brings scientists into the classroom to enable students to perform measurements on real physics data. They then connect to other schools around the world to discuss their results, just like real scientists.
I would use the money to travel to the school with a Masterclass kit and give talks to the students about CERN and being a scientist. This could be combined with a Virtual Visit to the ATLAS Experiment at CERN (get your teacher to organise one for your school – they’re great!) where the school would connect online to the ATLAS control room allowing the students to ask questions.
Once they’re setup, the schools can repeat the Masterclass programme every year, increasing the number of students who experience real research. This could eventually lead to their country becoming more involved in physics research!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Curious, happy, traveller.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
Apart from my research, I did a stand-up comedy performance about being a scientist at CERN. 10,000 people watched it!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
Space – I really wanted to explore it! Also, my parents and some great teachers.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
No, I was a geek! Fortunately I had some cool friends who kept the balance right and made me have fun.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
Probably a doctor. Unless the astronaut job came up :)
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
What is the most fun thing you've done?
A helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon – it was amazing! But sky-diving and scuba diving are a close second and third.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
A time machine. A space ship. And to be able to speak any language. Hmmm, I think that’s a TARDIS from Doctor Who! Can I get two more wishes?
Tell us a joke.
A photon walks into a hotel. The receptionist asks if it has any luggage to take to the room. “No,” replies the photon, “I’m traveling light”.