Accelerator physicist and science communicator Suzie Sheehy discusses her work, her new book, and how to increase the appeal of a research career.
How did you end up as an accelerator physicist?
Somewhat accidentally, because I didn’t even know that being a researcher in physics was a thing you could be until my second year of university. It was around then that I realised that someone like me could ask questions that didn’t have answers. That hooked my interest. My first project was in nuclear physics, and it involved using a particle accelerator for an experiment. I then attended the CERN summer student programme, working on ATLAS, which was my first proper exposure to the technology of particle physics. When it came to the time to do my PhD in around 2006, I had the choice to either stay in Melbourne to do particle physics, or go to Oxford, which had a strong accelerator programme. When I learned they were designing accelerators for cancer treatment, it blew my mind! I took the leap and decided to move to the other side of the world.
What did you do as a postdoc?
I was lucky enough to get an 1851 Royal Commission Fellowship, which allowed me to start an independent research programme. It was a bit of a baptism of fire, as I had been working on medical machines but then moved to high-intensity proton accelerators. I was looking at fixed-field alternating gradient accelerators and their application to things like accelerator-driven reactors. After a while I found myself spending a lot of time building sophisticated simulations, and was getting a bit bored of computing. So I started a couple of collaborations with some teams in Japan – one of which was using ion traps to mimic the dynamics of particle beams at very high intensity. What I found really interesting is how beams behave at a fundamental level, and I am currently working on upgrading a small experiment called IBEX to test a new type of optics called non-linear integral optics, which is a focus of Fermilab at the moment.
And now you’re back in the medical arena?
Yes – a few years ago I started working with people from CERN and the UK on compact medical accelerators for low- and middle-income countries. Then in 2019 I felt the pull to return to Australia to grow accelerator physics there. They have accelerators and facilities but didn’t have a strong academic accelerator community, so I am building up a group at Melbourne University that has a medical applications focus, but also looks at other areas. After 20 years of pushing for a proton therapy centre here, the first one is now being built.
How and when did your career in science communication take off?
I was doing things like stage shows for primary-school children when I was a first-year undergraduate. I have always seen it as part of the process of being a scientist. Before my PhD I worked in a science museum and, while at Oxford, I started an outreach programme called Accelerate! that took live science shows to some 30,000 students in its first two years and is still running. From there, it sort of branched out. I did more public lectures, but also a little bit of TV, radio and some writing.
Any advice for physicists who want to get into communication?
You need to build a portfolio, and demonstrate that you have a range of different styles, delivery modes and use language that people understand. The other thing that really helped me was working with professional organisations such as the Royal Institution in London. It does take a lot of time to do both your research and academic job well, and also do the communication well. A lot of my communication is about my research field – so luckily they enrich each other. I think my communication has the potential to have a much bigger societal impact than my research, so I am very serious about it. The first time someone pointed a video camera at me I was terrified. Now I can say what I want to say. We shouldn’t underestimate how much the public wants to hear from real working scientists, so keeping a very strong research base keeps my authenticity and credibility.
What is your work/life balance like?
I am not a fan of the term “work/life balance” as it tends to imply that one is necessarily in conflict with the other. I think it’s important to set up a kind of work/life integration that supports well-being while allowing you to do the work you want to do. When I was invited back to Melbourne to build an accelerator group, I’d just started a new research group in Oxford. I stepped down my teaching and we agreed that I would take periods of sabbatical to spend time in Melbourne until I finished my experiment. I have been so incredibly grateful to everyone on both sides for their understanding. Key to that has been learning how other people’s expectations affect you and finding a way to filter them out and drive your own goals. Working in two completely different time zones, it would be easy to work ridiculously long days, so I have had to learn to protect my health. The hardest thing, and I think a lot of early/mid-career researchers will relate to this, is that academia is an infinite job: you will never do enough for someone to tell you that you have done enough. The pressure always feels like it’s increasing, especially when you are a post-doc or on tenure track, or in the process of establishing a new group or lab. You have to learn how to take care of your mental health and well-being so that you don’t burn out. With everything else that’s going on in the world right now, this is even more important.
You are active in trying to raise the profile of women in physics. What does this involve on a practical level?
There has been a lot of focus for many years in getting more women into subjects like physics. My view is that whenever I meet young people they’re interested already. In many countries the gender balance at undergraduate level is similar. So what’s happening instead is that we are pushing women and minorities out. My focus, within my sphere of influence, is to make sure that the culture that I am perpetuating and the values that I hold within my research groups are well defined and communicated.
I kind of pulled back from active engagement in panel sessions and things like that a number of years ago, because I realised that the most important way I can contribute is by being the best scientist that I can be. The fact that I happen to have a public profile is great in that it makes people aware that people like me exist. One of the things that has helped me the most is to build a really great community of peers of other women in physics. I think for the first seven or eight years of my career, when imposter syndrome was strong and I questioned if I fitted in, I realised that I didn’t have a single direct female colleague. With most people in my field being men, it’s likely that when choosing a speaker, for example, the first person we think of is male. Taking time to be well-networked with women in the field is incredibly important in that regard. Today, I find that creating the right environment means that people will seek out my research group because they hear it’s a nice place to be. Students today are much savvier with this stuff – they can tell toxic professors a mile away. I am trying to show them that there is a way of doing research that doesn’t involve the horrible sides to it. Research is hard enough already, so why make it harder?
Tell us about your debut book The Matter of Everything?
It’s published by Bloomsbury (UK/Commonwealth) and Knopf (US) and is due out in early 2022. Its subtitle is “The 12 experiments that made the modern world”, starting with the cathode-ray tube and going all the way through to the LHC and what might come next. It’s told from the perspective of an experimental physicist. What isn’t always captured in popular physics books is how science is actually done, but it’s very human to feel like you’re failing in the lab. I also delve into what first interested me in accelerators, specifically the things that have emerged unexpectedly from these research areas. People think that Apple invented everything in the iPhone, but if it wasn’t for curiosity-driven physics experiments then it wouldn’t be possible. On a personal note, as I went through these stories in the field, often in the biographies and the acknowledgments, I would end up going down these rabbit holes of women whose careers were cut short because they got married and had to quit their job. It’s been lovely to have the opportunity to learn that these women were there, and it wasn’t just white men.
You have to learn how to take care of your mental health and well-being so that you don’t burn out
Do you have a preference as to which collider should come next after the LHC?
I think it should be one of the linear ones. The size of future circular colliders and the timescales involved are quite overwhelming, and you have to wonder if the politics might change throughout the project. A linear machine such as the ILC is more ready to go, if the money and will was there. But I also think there is value in the diversity of the technology. The scaling of SLAC’s linear electron machine, for example, really pushed the industrialisation of that accelerator technology – which is part of the reason why we have 3 GHz electron accelerators now in every hospital. There will be other implications to what we build, other than physics results – even though the decisions will be made on the physics.
What do you say to students considering a career in particle physics?
I will answer that from the perspective of the accelerator field, which is very exciting. If you look historically, new technologies have always driven new discoveries. The accelerator field is going through an interesting “technology discovery phase”, for example with laser-driven plasma accelerators, so there will be huge changes to what we are doing in 10–15 years’ time that could blow the decisions surrounding future colliders out of the water. This happened in the 1960s in the era of proton accelerators, where suddenly there was a new technology and it meant you could build machines with a much higher energy with smaller magnets, and suddenly the people who took that risk were the ones who ended up pushing the field forward. I sometimes feel experimental and theoretical physicists are slightly disconnected to what’s going on with accelerator physics now. When making future decisions, people should attend accelerator conferences…it may influence their choices.