Thomas Elias Cocolios
There can be only one!
McGill University 2000-2005; KULeuven 2006-2010
BSc Joint Honours Math&Physics; MSc Atomic&Nuclear Physics; PhD Nuclear Physics
STFC Ernest Rutherford Research Fellow
The University of Manchester
Favourite thing to do in science I love it when everything comes together. When you combine a gazillion state-of-the-heart techniques, each with a high-risk of failure, seeing it coming together is almost as improbable as life on earth. And look: here we are!
I shine lasers at radioactive stuff at CERN to check their potato-like form and understand where the elements in the universe come from.
Radioactive nuclei are ever so slightly different from the stable ones. As a consequence, they shine with a different colour. The difference is so subtle that your eyes could not tell them apart but a laser certainly can! At CERN, we produce and clean radioactive elements to study their properties, and I work on a team that checks that aspect in particular. With the information we gather, we are able to extrapolate the information to the very very radioactive nuclei, i.e. those that are so radioactive that we have never seen them. We know, however, that they are produced in giant stars and supernova explosions. By combining our powers with astrophysicists, we are trying to understand where the elements in the universe come from. A bit like the Avengers Assemble!
My Typical Day
How come this to-do list has grown AGAIN!?
Academic research is a tricky balance between teaching, research and management. Like everything in life, you can draw a triangle and hope that you are fair in your treatment of each task. But it never works! There is even no need to kid yourself! I come everyday with a plan for the day but, like every plan you make, it only lasts until you begin, and then it is a free for all.
Here is how it goes…
9:15am. Arrive at work, turn on computer. 10 new messages, let’s sort through that and then I can tackle that to-do list. I’m slightly late, but I left late yesterday so that I do not really feel guilty about that…
9:30 am. My student arrives. Long time no see, Dr T! Would you have some time later today to discuss my progress? — Sure, let’s do that after lunch…
10:00 am. Time to get some tea. I’ve skipped breakfast again and now regret it (again). At least some tea to keep warm and fuzzy will be good… On the way there, I bump into Prof SJF and start talking about that new project we are writing about. It was not really in my plans but he needs my help checking some numbers out. I guess I shall do that first and tackle that to-do list later.
11:30 am. The phone rings. It’s Dr J from that laser company. You said you’d be interested in a laser. Can I pass by tomorrow? Can you give me some more info? Let me write that down and I’ll get back to you. No matter how fast you speak and how fast they write, 20-30 minutes have just flown by… a probably another hour tomorrow!
1:00 pm. That costing spreadsheet has no end! I have been turning it upside down and inside out for hours (literally. 3 hours to be precise) and it is still not clear to me that we got it right. Well. I have had enough and I need food, so I pass on my comments to our partners in that project and get a walk (fresh air, sun/rain) and joins in with the rest of the group. When I get back from lunch, I shall get on with that to-do list.
2:00 pm. Time for my first task (the one I had planned for 10am…) My student knocks on the door. Right. Chose promise, chose due! Let’s have a quick chat.
3:30 pm. Quick is relative, I guess. But I have the feeling that it was a good catch up and I had fun sharing with my student. Now for that to-do list. Wait. What!? It’s that time already? Quickly, I have to check that everything is fine in the teaching lab! I am taking that over next month and need to be up to speed. Not a minute to spare. To-do, later!
4:00 pm. I have had a quick look at the setups, but I think I need to clear an afternoon in my schedule next week to check it out… Well. Time for tea.
4:15 pm. Back at my desk. Skype rings. It’s CERN this time. Let’s talk about the status of the work there and what is needed. Feedback from the laser hunt and new ideas flying from all directions. It is super exciting and we are all in there 100%. The 10 minute discussion seem to go slightly overtime, but that’s how it goes when you have fun, right?
6:00 pm. Meeting adjourned. I guess it was closer to 100 minutes… Time dilation or something? Now to task number 1: send e-mails. Well. Too late, I might as well do that tomorrow. My brain is busing anyways from all that chatter and excitement and some numbers float before my eyes, I should try to do something not so brain demanding: my research website! And in 30 minutes, I go home.
8:00 pm. Time flies when you have fun? When you do computer stuff too (programming, blogging, …) This does not mean that you are having fun, just that you get that craving to get it done. Anyways, it’s not perfect yet but it’s online and I’m gone!
8:30 pm. I bumped into a colleague on my way out (yes, I’m not the only one left on my floor, even at 8pm!). He had that new toy just arriving for a demonstration to his class tomorrow. I could not resist and went through it with him! It was quite fun and I am thoroughly exhausted. I have to walk home, and the sun is nowhere to be seen (but the rain surely falls). That’s it. Tomorrow, I tackle that to-do list!
What I'd do with the money
Giant LEGO Nuclear Chart
I plan on building a large chart of the nuclides with different LEGO colours, corresponding to different nuclear shapes, as part of a new exhibit that is being put together at CERN ISOLDE. This exhibit will be used to sensibilise students to the importance of fundamental nuclear research during their visit of the CERN facilities. CERN hosts visits for students and the general public for free all year long, based on voluntary support from its staff and users. Over 100,000 visitors come every year from all around the planet. When will YOU be going there?!
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
International, passionate, loud
Who is your favourite singer or band?
What's your favourite food?
There’s so much to chose from! How can one be favourite!? So I would say almond-anything. (almond tart, almond&tomato sauce on pasta, almonds, …)
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Scuba diving in the Georgia Straight, just off the coast of Vancouver
What did you want to be after you left school?
A fireman baker politician astronaut…
Were you ever in trouble at school?
A few broken bones, but not a single ball entered my goal! (mind you, I was out after the first shot of any game)
What was your favourite subject at school?
Geography. I just loved the understanding that could be achieved from the data analysis.
What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?
I got a few awards for my PhD thesis, but I personally prefer the outreach work I have done, giving tours of CERN to students and families.
What or who inspired you to become a scientist?
I used to draw, as a kid, on the back of chemistry draft reports my parents brought home. Those molecules were very inspiring. I guess it stuck with me. Two specific teachers as well: Mr Ryczywol and Mme Gauthier, to whom I dedicated my Master and PhD theses, respectively.
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A knit store owner
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
Unlimited beam time, 2 extra hours each day, and to be able to eat as much as I want and still look like Tom Daley.
Tell us a joke.
“We don’t serve your kind here!” — A neutrino walks into a bar.
My office is certainly pretty boring (a desk, few chairs, book cases…) but when you go to CERN, that’s another story!
First, you are greeted at the tram stop by a large wooden dome, which houses a permanent exhibit on the work being done at CERN. In front of it, you have a model of the magnet vessels used in the LHC. This is quite an impressive display. In the back, you see a big mural (the one I am showing there during a tour) representing the ATLAS detector. Bare in mind that the real thing is TWICE AS BIG! (but 100m underground) Those serve also as constant reminder of the exciting nature of our jobs and warms me heart whenever I pass by.
My lab is a much smaller scale, but still very impressive. She is called ISOLDE (Isotope Separation On-Line DEvice) and can be found somewhere up a hill, behind the trees, under the sun, with snowy Jura in the background. While the building does not look like much, I can guarantee you that what is done inside is state-of-the-heart. ISOLDE is the leading facility of its type, and has been for the last 50 years!
Inside, work is always busing and we are always busy. Sometimes, there is simply no time to go home and you have to take a rest wherever you can. Your knitting in the control room might just do the trick!
At the experiment, the whole team works together during an experiment. You have to systematically watch and monitor the experiment!
Safety is naturally a primary concern when you work with radiation. There are many kinds of radiation. Lasers can be damage your eyes, induce skin cancer, burn. You have be trained and use them with care. Some lasers are even invisible! As part of the safety procedure, you should wear special goggles, as shown here by one of the students at the CRIS experiment.
Another type of dangerous radiation is the gamma radiation, coming off radioactive nuclei. Gamma radiation can be used to treat cancer, but if you are unnecessarily exposed, it can also cause cancer. To shield yourself from those would require a wall of concrete or a lead skirt (not very sexy…) Since we cannot guarantee a zero exposure, we instead consistently minimise and monitor our exposure, and ensure that we do not carry inadvertently any radioactive material to the outside. Hereby the sexy paper white suite that I wear here, which can be disposed of appropriately at the end of the day.