Inside Story: Unleashing the physicist within

A well-organised school trip to a laboratory like CERN can change a young person’s life.

When I was 17, it was a very good year – a very good year for inspiration to enter the wonderful world of high-energy physics research. At that point I knew I wanted to study physics at undergraduate level, but after a four-week-long placement at the University of Liverpool – hunting for Higgs signals in simulated data sets, making histograms, writing reports and designing posters – I was hooked on becoming a researcher.

That was in 2010. I am now a third-year PhD student at the same university, working in the electroweak group at the LHC’s LHCb experiment. This summer I had the opportunity to provide 18 students at that same point of study with a similar experience to the one that set me on the road to where I am today.

Each year the University of Liverpool organises a week-long summer school for high-school students in several UK schools. The school has grown year by year and the most recent edition was mine to organise. One of the things that has been included since the very beginning is a ROOT workshop in which the students spend half a day getting stuck into coding, producing histograms and developing selection criteria to isolate a simulated KS π+ π signal. Helping them to understand the code for the first time reminds me of exactly where I’ve come from.

But there’s more to the school than C++. With help from some other postgraduate students, a lecture course is always included with talks on the Standard Model, the LHC experiments and searches for new physics. We teach the students about how particle detectors work, how antimatter is produced and trapped, and the way neutrinos are produced and studied at experiments around the world. There are trips to the ATLAS visitor centre and LHCb surface area, as well as to Microcosm and the Globe. This year we were also lucky to be taken to the CERN Control Centre and to the CMS experiment. I was excited to see some of these places now, so I can’t imagine what the geeky little 17-year-old me would’ve been like!

All of this is then applied to a challenge for the students to design their own particle-physics experiments, which are assessed at the end of the week for their physics accuracy, creativity and feasibility. This year I was amazed to hear 17 year olds eagerly explaining how they planned to use Lagrange points to position dark-matter detectors in space.

But the school isn’t all academic. As an initial welcome, we hosted a quiz of both physicsy and not-so-physicsy questions (anybody know whether “adamantium” is stronger than “vibranium”?) and some time to chat with PhD students about life, the universe and everything (or, to see that physicists are really just like everybody else). We finished the week with the traditional end-of-school meal, so the students know what to expect when they present their own groundbreaking discoveries at future conferences.

I’m made up that I was able to give so many young people an experience like the one that led me on my career path as a research scientist. Hearing stories of students from past years who were inspired to go on to study and work in physics is even greater thanks than the card and presents my gang gave me on our last day.

These things take effort, of course, and often rely on the good nature of colleagues to give up some of their time. But I would encourage any student or researcher in high-energy physics to get involved with such activities, either via their home institutions or official CERN channels. Not only might it inspire a young person to follow a science, technology, engineering and mathematics career, but, if my experience is anything to go by, it brings valuable perspective to your career too.

About the author

Heather Wark, University of Liverpool