Finding Answers to Basic Questions About the Universe

UC Riverside graduate students make significant contributions to particle physics research at CERN

Elizabeth Kennedy ad Jesse Heilman.

Elizabeth Kennedy (left) and Jesse Heilman are two UC Riverside graduate students working at CERN, Switzerland.Photo credit: Sarah Charley, CERN.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Hundreds of graduate students from around the world work diligently at CERN in Switzerland, the location of the powerful particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).  Among them are graduate students, such as Jesse Heilman and Elizabeth Kennedy, from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Riverside, who are working on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, a large particle-capturing detector at the LHC.

Heilman has been at CERN a little over two years, and expects to stay there until the end of 2015. He got interested in high energy physics as an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, Canada, when he took a class on particle physics as an elective. He works with Stephen Wimpenny at UC Riverside.

Kennedy has been at CERN since April 2013 and plans to stay at CERN through at least 2015.  She knew for a very long time that she wanted to study the most fundamental aspects of the universe, and got to do research on astroparticle physics as an undergraduate at Ohio State University. She works with Robert Clare at UCR.

Watch the short video here of them discussing their research on CMS that could lead ultimately to discoveries that can help answer questions such as: Are there undiscovered principles of nature? What is the origin of mass? Do extra dimensions exist? What is dark matter? How can we solve the mystery of dark energy? And how did the universe come to be?

A Q&A with Heilman and Kennedy:

Jesse Heilman

Jesse Heilman is a graduate student at UC Riverside.Photo credit: Sarah Charley, CERN.

Jesse Heilman:

What makes CMS a scientifically important experiment to do at the LHC?

CMS, of which UCR is a founding member, is one of two experiments at the LHC that has the capability to make measurements on things such as the Higgs boson.  It is designed to be able to sense a very broad range of phenomena and act as the most powerful microscope that our species has ever constructed.  Using CMS and the LHC we are gaining insight into how the most fundamental pieces of our universe are constructed and work.

What do you hope to learn at CERN?

At CERN I would like to get a solid grasp on how experiments such as CMS are conducted.  We have thousands of people working together to build a multi-billion dollar monolith to the search for knowledge.  A project of that magnitude takes a special skill set and a special view on what people can achieve together.  In addition to all the scientific knowledge I can gain here, the skills of working with and helping manage such a large project will help me most in my career after my doctoral degree.

What surprised you most at CERN?

What surprised me most at CERN is how people actually build and construct something like CMS. The types of things we research seem so unattainable because they are so far from our everyday lives.  It seems like we should have some science-fiction technology to look at them.  But working with CMS is dirty.  We have to use our hands and apply force to things and build in a way that is very simple and extraordinary at the same time.  When I come home from a day in the CMS Underground Experimental Cavern – a huge cavern excavated for the construction of CMS – I’m often covered in grease and dust, but I know I have worked on a piece of equipment that will examine particles smaller than anything we have ever glimpsed before – and that is immensely gratifying.

What advice do you have for undergraduate students thinking about specializing in particle physics?

I would recommend to undergraduates that if you’re interested in particle physics you should make a point to work in group projects and be an active member of those groups.  Experiments in particle physics are only going to get bigger and take longer as time goes on.  So, working by yourself in a lab isn’t going to be a part of your life.  You have to learn to work with all sorts of people and find strengths in your differences.  Any other details and learning you can do in your classes or with your mentors.  But without practice in creative teamwork, you won’t succeed.

Elizabeth Kennedy.

Elizabeth Kennedy is a graduate student at UC Riverside.Photo credit: Sarah Charley, CERN.

Elizabeth Kennedy:

Why is financial investment in projects like the LHC a good idea?

Ambitious experiments like the ones we do at the LHC require advancements in everything from computing power and data storage to superconducting magnets, so new and better technology comes from the demands of the field of experimental particle physics. Additionally, and just as important, we train young scientists in not only particle physics, but general scientific research, engineering, and computer science.

Why does particle physics matter?

Aside from the indirect benefits of generating advancements in technology, basic particle physics research often has implications for medical imaging and radiation therapy. Additionally, insights into the fundamental nature of our universe yield information important to every field of science that deals with the microscopic.

What are some pros and cons of working with a large team of scientists at CERN?

I love working as part of a big collaboration. I am surrounded by experts on any topic in my field that I might want to learn more about, and throughout the day we have lots of opportunities to exchange ideas and information with our colleagues. Most important, when hundreds of scientists work together, it allows us to conduct experiments and analyses that would be impossible for a small group.

The major downside of size of our collaboration is that we all depend on the smooth functioning of CMS and the LHC for our data collection. If something major were to go wrong with our detector or the LHC, we would have hundreds of scientists and analyses waiting for data. This is why we spend so much time during the shutdown doing commissioning and troubleshooting and doing things like global runs.

What will a lasting CERN-memory be for you?

My work in building and installing the ME4/2 chambers – about 75 cathode strip chambers – is definitely one of my best memories so far. I learned an incredible amount about electronics and detector technology during the production phase. Even better was getting to work in the experimental cavern, putting the chambers – that I personally had helped to build – onto a part of the biggest science experiment in the world.

Media Contact

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Additional Contacts

Jesse Heilman

Elizabeth Kennedy

Sarah Charley, US LHC Communicator at CERN

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