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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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Day in the #PostdocLife

Recently, my wife, a.k.a. Polly Putnam, Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, did a post for A Day in the Creative Life, a Tumblr page organized by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport. So I thought I would borrow an idea from them and post about a day in my life. I’ve left the word “Creative” out of my own title, but it’s worth noting that scientific work is still very creative. I work every day on original ways to slice and dice data collected by the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC); a lot of creative work goes into achieving that goal.

It’s also a team effort. As I go through the play-by-play of my day, you’ll see there are a lot of meetings and conversations and emails. Indeed, people often joke that CMS stands for Continuous Meeting Society! You might be tempted to see this as overly bureaucratic, but I hope to it will come across to you that the way we organize ourselves is a necessary approach to worldwide collaboration on one of the biggest of Big Science experiments there is. Just in a single day, the colleagues I interact directly with are in America, the UK, France, Switzerland, India, and China.

06:00 Wake up, in the darkness, slightly later than usual.

07:00 Out the door and warming up the car. Normally my wife would drive me to the train station, which is just across the river from the palace she works at, but today she’s at home and I’ll drive myself. This is scary, because most of the driving I’ve done in my life was on an automatic transmission in the United States — here, I have to deal with the clutch, drive on the left side of the road, and deal with far less space than I’m used to.

07:24 My first train leaves Hampton Court Station. I sit down and resume reading Seeing White, a textbook recommended by Harvard Astronomy Professor John Asher Johnson as a starting point for learning how to help address racial inequity in science and beyond. My trip involves changing trains once and a bit of a walk through London at the end.

08:30 I arrive at the office at Imperial College London and take stock of my day, especially the emails about the meeting I’m leading in 90 minutes.

09:00 Chat with colleagues about their contributions to the aforementioned meeting.

09:30 Throw together my own “news” slides outlining the status of the project and how people can help.

10:00 Go to a meeting room and “phone in” to the meeting I organize, where we work on preparing software for “Higgs to Gamma Gamma” — that is, to (re)discover and study the Higgs boson decaying into pairs of photons when LHC Run 2 starts this summer. I give my overview, others give more detailed talks on their progress, and we discuss what we need to do next.

11:00 Breathing a sigh of relief, I finally start on a bit of actual work for a new project I’m helping with. “Actual work” usually means, to me, writing and testing C++ code, although at the moment I’m also editing a wiki page so that colleagues can follow along with what I’ve figured it out. While my code is compiling I correspond with colleagues who want to contribute to my other project — informal discussion meetings are set up for tomorrow, which will also be “by phone.”

11:30 I grab a sandwich and eat it, along with delicious roast vegetable stew.

12:30 On “the phone” with another colleague, talking about handing off a coding task that I originally planned to start on but no longer have time for. After walking through what I know so far, I promise to help as needed with the details.

13:15 More interleaved emails and bits of coding.

14:30 I drop in on one of the academics I work with. As a senior postdoc, I do most of my work — and even help organize others’ work — mostly independently, but the overall priorities of CMS and my research group are set by more senior folks. I go to them with questions or just to check in about my overall progress and next steps.

14:40 Start a major edit of the instructions on my new project, testing each step as I go.

15:00 “Phone in” to the general Higgs to Gamma Gamma meeting. This is a broader meeting than the working meeting in the morning, where I can keep track of other work on analysis development and preparation for the next LHC run, as well as the analyses that continue on the data we already have.

15:03 Computer crashes. Reboot in a panic, phone back into meeting just in time for it to start.

15:20 Realize the instructions I was editing were lost in the reboot. Restart from where I last saved and repeat my work as I listen to presentations in the meeting.

17:00 After the meeting ends, I finish my documentation and check in with the person organizing that project. Check back in to help the colleague I talked to at 12:30.

17:45 Process an email with new code for the Higgs to Gamma Gamma analysis framework. Check that it works before adding it to the overall project.

18:05 Start going home. Have several train mishaps but eventually sneak on. Work on a bit of blogging when I finally get a seat.

19:15 Get off the train, get in the car, and go grocery shopping.

20:15 Supper. Couples’ Minecraft. Eventually, sleep.

And then I start it all again the next day.