EastBay Today

Posted April 12, 2019

Back to the Beginning

Cal State East Bay students to study at CERN, world’s largest particle physics lab

Deep underground in an accelerator spanning the border of two countries, protons race toward each other at lightning speed. As the particles collide (nearly 1,000 million times per second), these collisions trigger detectors that measure the momentum of each charged particle and record data about the energy carried by each. These data are then sent back to the lab, where data scientists pore over the numbers, searching for a sign of the invisible forces that have shaped our universe since the beginning of time.

Assistant Professor Kathryn Grimm looks on as her students explain physics concepts.
Garvin Tso

This is CERN.

Located in Geneva, Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics lab in the world.

And this summer, it will be home to three Cal State East Bay students who will spend 10 weeks there alongside physicists analyzing data and helping build the next generation of detectors.

The ATLAS Collaboration

CERN began in the 1950s as a small lab for scientists from Europe and North America. Its vision was to stop the “brain drain” to the United States and Canada that was occurring during and after the Second World War and to “provide a force for unity in postwar Europe.”

These days, it serves as a world-class research facility focused on fundamental physics. CERN unites people from all over the world, with a focus on pushing the “frontiers of science and technology, for the benefit of all.”

“The primary focus is on particle physics … and fundamental research removed from most practical applications,” said Assistant Physics Professor Kathryn Grimm. “It used to be that different countries had their own accelerators to do particle physics, but at this point, everyone in the world works on the same one.”

“It’s one of those collaborations that in this particular field is a really cool thing to be a part of, it’s kind of like saying you work for NASA, it’s kind of the particle physics equivalent.”

The Large Hadron Collider steers particle beams to collide in the middle of the ATLAS detector. By examining the debris of the collisions, scientists are able to understand particles that existed in the early universe.

At just shy of seven stories tall, the ATLAS detector is used for one of the largest, most complex physics experiments ever conducted and could have 3,000 scientists, 1,000 students from 174 universities and laboratories in 38 countries working with it at any one time.

Beyond fundamental research, the technology developed for the ATLAS detector has led to advances in phenomena and research ranging from the eye to the brain to creating a system for finding and rescuing people using infrared sensors. These sensors can be helpful in cases of emergency where people are often difficult to find, such as in a mine or if smoke or fog is present.

A Small Part of Something Big

Grimm, who worked as a post-doc in Switzerland at CERN, said the California State University system has joined 45 other U.S. universities to be a member of the ATLAS collaboration. As a result, a group of students from Sacramento State, Fresno State and Cal State East Bay are able to access and study the data collected by CERN. The other two CSUs have sent students to the summer program for several years, but 2019 will be the first year Cal State East Bay will participate.

The accelerators within the Large Hadron Collider contain metallic chambers,seen here, containing an electromagnetic field known as radiofrequency cavities.
Courtesy of CERN

Each participant must have taken and done well in a particle physics class at Cal State East Bay and be currently enrolled in a computer programming class to learn the data-side skills needed to work at CERN.

Three students — Alex Penaflor, Guanhao Su and Madeline Monroy — were identified by Grimm earlier this year and are eager to put their skills to the test.

“It’s one of those collaborations that in this particular field is a really cool thing to be a part of, it’s kind of like saying you work for NASA, it’s kind of the particle physics equivalent,” Penaflor said.

And while the Cal State East Bay students are used to having access to hands-on experiments from virtually day one, at CERN they’ll instead see themselves as a small part of a much, much larger research effort.

“It’s really cutting edge the work they’ll be doing, but the fact is that because it’s so big, the part they are doing can feel really small,” Grimm said. “They have what we call tabletop experiments at East Bay where they do a large chunk of an experiment or research project, but there they’ll be doing just one tiny part.”

“Recently I’ve been looking into engineering positions, but the experience I gain from the coding I’m going to do over the summer may be enough to get into the data science field.”

That cross-disciplinary work is key, Grimm said, for students who may or may not end up working within the particle physics fields.

“A lot of the same tools used for big data are involved in this work, so there’s a lot of people who have left particle physics and [gone] to Silicon Valley. So these are really good skills that can take students different directions.”

And that’s exactly what Penaflor is hoping happens.

“Recently I’ve been looking into engineering positions, but the experience I gain from the coding I’m going to do over the summer may be enough to get into the data science field,” he said.

Not Just Science

For two of the three students traveling to CERN, this summer experience will be their first time living and studying abroad.

Fortunately, while the scientists at CERN speak dozens of languages, the work is conducted in English. Still, Grimm says, there’s value in students living abroad and challenging themselves in more social-science ways as they meet people from around the world and navigate cultural differences.

“They’ll have to work with people from around the world, which means they have to learn to communicate what they’ve done to a diverse group of people,” she said. “And this is a field of science where you have to work with other people; you can’t just do your own thing. We can’t all make particle accelerators.”

As for what will happen when they return, Grimm says she’s hoping to grow the program. She has plans to bring on a post-doc assistant and help drum up excitement from students who want to be on the cutting edge of their field.

“Particle physics tells us about the evolution of the universe … in the beginning, there were all these free particles, but they came together to make where we are now,” Grimm said. “And now we’re testing exactly how much we know about those particles, how they formed our universe, and how they continue to shape the universe.” 

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