Women driving the Large Hadron Collider forward - Part 2

Among CERN’s staff members only 2% of research physicists are women. This week, DiscovHER continues showcasing the women in science working at the Large Hadron Collider. Today, we unveil a day in the life of Claire Antel, a Heidelberg PhD student in experimental particle physics, working at the Atlas Experiment.

A typical day in my life starts preferably early

I like getting up early to hop on my bike and cycle through the French countryside to CERN when the air is still fresh. Once I arrive at my office, anytime between 8 and 9, I first log messages from the ATLAS subdetector that I work with and check what the LHC is currently up to. Then I start coding.

2.5 microseconds to decide

My work here involves the ATLAS electromagnetic calorimeter. This part of the detector measures energy deposited in cells by particles created during collisions. It is also used as a trigger - meaning this system needs to react very fast in the event of a collision. It is one of the first detector components to analyse an event and it has to irreversibly decide within 2.5 microseconds if the event data contains particles interesting enough to be kept for further processing.

7000 different channels to analyze

One can imagine the fine-tuning such a machine needs! This is where my work comes in. When the trigger system receives pulses from energy deposits, these pulses need to be synced and assigned to the correct collision that created these pulses. In order to do this I analyse collision pulses over millions of collision events that arrive from over 7000 different channels. I verify that all pulses are aligned at the center of the readout window, and if not, determine the correction needed, which can be as fine as 1 tiny nanosecond.

The Atlas experiment’s morning meeting

Besides analysing trigger pulses, a typical working day will start with a daily morning meeting discussing the state of the different subdetectors and plans for the day. With so many people working on the same experiment, communication is essential. The first time I worked at CERN, I felt overwhelmed having to always be ready to present my work to a room full of people. But you get used to it, and honestly there isn't even time to get nervous before a talk.

A shift in the Atlas control room

And a working day may include shift work. Shift work is terribly exciting as you get to work in the control room where the detector is operated from. I have trained for Run Control shifter whose job it is to configure and start up the ATLAS machine, monitor its running state, and shut it down again when needed. All done from a desk with several large monitors lined up in front of you - blinking with moving time-line graphs, message streams, and occasionally red alerts.

One of the first physicists to look at LHC’s new data

I got to be one of the first people to look at the first data from the recently restarted LHC machine - in its raw digital form even! I got to be there at the detector control room, as the LHC provided us with its first beam of particles which it splashed across our detector to light it up, and then again when it produced the first collisions this years. 

Lucky me!

This is an exciting time to start a PhD with an experiment at the LHC. And I am fortunate that I work with the ATLAS group in Heidelberg, because of their direct involvement with the detector hardware itself. It has afforded me the opportunity to work with the detector directly, which I have found very stimulating so far…. and boy, will I appreciate the neatly wrapped-up data (now understanding the complexity and toil behind it) once I start doing physics analysis later on in my PhD!

A male-dominated environment

By the time I started working at CERN, I had become used to working in a male-dominated environment - this goes back to my computer science classes in high school. I cannot think of an instance in which I experienced open discrimination based on my gender. I generally feel comfortable as a woman in physics and my difficulties have always been related to being a young researcher, rather than a young woman, working in physics. Perhaps I have been lucky - having gone to school and university in South Africa and now doing my PhD at CERN - I have always been in working environments in which there is great diversity in race and culture and where gender difference just becomes part of the big mix. Here at CERN, I see a lot of great role models at work, and they are both men and women.

Liked Claire Antel’s story? Stay tuned next week, as we will unveil the last of our LHC interviewees!

Claire Antel is part of a research training group at Heidelberg University, Germany, called “Physics Beyond the Standard Model”. The group is a mix of theoretical and experimental doctoral students whose research focus is advancing knowledge of physics beyond the Standard Model of fundamental particles and interactions. She is studying for her PhD as experimental particle physicist within the ATLAS group at the Kirchhoff Institute, Heidelberg. 

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