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Researcher profile: Heather Gray on life at Cern #lnlm12

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Heather Gray, originally from South Africa and currently working at CERN, is one of the attendees producing a video diary to document her time at the Lindau meeting this year. I caught up with her over email just before the start of the meeting to find out what a day’s work at CERN is really like – and what she could tell me about the hunt for the Higgs boson.

Can you tell me about your research?

I work on the ATLAS experiment, one of four at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). During my PhD I spent most of the time working on the pixel detector, which is the table-top sized detector right at the heart of ATLAS. I was also one of the main contributors to the first physics paper published by ATLAS in which we measured the number of charged particles produced in proton-proton collisions. Since becoming a fellow at CERN, I have continued to work on charged track reconstruction and, in particular, on the optimisation of the algorithms for the higher than anticipated number of proton-proton collisions per event at the LHC. My physics focus has switched to the Higgs boson. I am working on a search for the Higgs using the decay to a pair of bottom quarks. If the Higgs exists and has a low mass, then this will be a crucial channel in determining that an observed resonance is actually the Higgs boson.

Can you tell me anything about the search for the Higgs boson? Do you think we’ll have a definitive answer by the end of the year?

At the moment we’re all very busy analysing the data to present updated results at the ICHEP conference which starts in Australia next week. So right now, I can’t say anything definitive, but you might want to ask me the same question again at the end of next week. Given the excellent performance of the LHC this year, I expect that we should have enough data by the end of this run to give a definitive answer about whether the Standard Model Higgs boson exists or not.

Will you work have practical applications beyond the experiments at CERN?

If we were able to answer this question right now, it would certainly simplify our lives in terms of obtaining funding, but the honest answer, is that when one does this type of fundamental research, the practical applications come such a long time after, that one never has a clear idea of them at the time that the research is being performed. The other way to think about this is historically: in the end pretty much all the ground-breaking discoveries resulting in amazing practical applications, but these were not developed by those people making the discoveries. The applications were done by others, later.

What is it like being a PhD student at CERN?

There is a great sense of community amongst PhD students at CERN because there are typically a few hundred of us there for a similar period. I really enjoyed being at CERN because it meant that I was in the centre of the detector development and commissioning and now with all the physics results that are being produced. On the other hand, Switzerland is quite an expensive place, so it was not the easiest place to live from a financial perspective whilst being on a student’s salary.

What is an average day like for you?

My days can be quite variable, but the most typical day would be as follows: Cycling to work, pain chocolat and espresso in restaurant one (on a nice day, this has a view of Mt Blanc), answering emails for a few hours, attending meetings to either show or discuss our latest results, a few hours programming to update the results and then informal meetings over coffee with a couple people. Our days don’t tend to be very quiet…

What are you most looking forward to about attending this year’s Lindau meeting?

I’m not entirely sure what to expect, but I think I’m very interested in getting to know all the different people who will be there and to hear the talks from people in different fields. Being at CERN, I tend to hear about almost everything that is going on in particle physics, but I don’t have all that much exposure to other fields. I’m also looking forward to enjoying the summer sun by the lakeside.

From 1st to 6th July I’ll be at the Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting in Germany. You can read my posts here or check out what the other bloggers are writing on the Lindau blog.

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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