Women driving the Large Hadron Collider forward - Part 1

Did you know that only 20% of CERN’s staff members are women? As the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) reopens, DiscovHER gives a voice to the women making their way in this male-dominated environment. This week, we unveil the interview of Margaret Zientek, who is studying dark matter using the LHC.

When did you first hear about the LHC and what did it inspire in you?

I first heard about the LHC in my high school physics class. I think the scale of the LHC and the corresponding international collaboration is what was and still is the most amazing thing about it. Thousands of scientists have created a machine that accelerates protons so they are moving almost at the speed of light. And then, they are actually able to collide these beams, mimicking the conditions of the Big Bang. These scientists have developed extremely complex and huge detectors that work as cameras - taking snapshots of particles that come out of these collisions which such accuracy that we are actually able to find new particles, like the recently-discovered Higgs boson, from their characteristic interactions with the detector.  It is an amazing scientific and engineering feat.

How does the Compact Muon Solenoid particle detector you’re working on operate?

The CMS detector is a complex machine that operates by having several layered specialized subsystems. Two beams of protons collide in the very center of the CMS detector and the particles that are created shoot outwards leaving traces in the detector. The systems work together to calculate the momentum and energy of the particles produced from the collision. Different particles have different signatures so we are able to identify the particles based on how they interact. I take shifts in the CMS control room monitoring the trigger system. The beams collide every several nano seconds. Most of these collisions are uninteresting and we do not have the ability to store the data from every one of them. So there are several layers of "triggers" that decide within fractions of a second if the data should be stored or not.

What do you hope to discover? 

I am working on a search for dark matter particles.

There is overwhelming evidence from cosmology that a completely new kind of matter, known as dark matter, exists and that it makes up a large portion of the matter in the universe. To date, we have only measured dark matter's effect on large scale structures like galaxies through gravity.  It turns out that over 80% of the matter content of the universe is a kind of matter we have never actually seen before!  Dark matter is therefore a blanket term for this whole new sector of matter that is likely just as rich and complex as our own.  However, we have yet to understand its underlying particle structure and how it interacts with ordinary matter.

I am searching for dark matter by looking for events where dark matter recoils off of a Higgs boson and escapes the detector without interacting.  Newton tells us that energy and momentum must be conserved in collisions, so if a particle from a collision goes undetected, this creates an asymmetry in the detector which is registered as "missing energy".

Observing dark matter in the LHC would be a huge leap forward in our understanding of the universe.


Stay tuned next week, as we will be featuring another talented woman driving physic particles research forward! Do you know a woman working at the LHC? Let us know at @4womeninscience!

Margaret Zientek is one of nine PhD students from Cornell University working at CERN. She received a Bachelor of science from the State University of New Jersey-New Brunswick and since 2013 she is studying at the Cornell University to obtain a PhD in Physics. She will spend the next three years at the CERN’s large Hadron Collider where she is preparing an analysis about dark matter with the CMS detector.

For Women in Science

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