Zoe Louise Matthews
I was born in 1985 in Birmingham, U.K., with a rather annoying thirst to understand everything. I remember lying upside-down on a sofa at around five years old, staring at my finger close to my face and demanding to know why I could see it twice. I was the kid at primary school who stuck her finger in her glass of water at lunch and asked if anyone knew why the water bent. I grew up in Manchester and learned the answers to many of my questions. However, by the time I reached secondary school, my questions were bigger. I became interested in the nature of our universe — galaxies, star formation, the Big Bang. My parents got confused and bought me books about aliens and UFOs for Christmas. Bewildered but impressed, they supported and encouraged my strange fascination every step of the way.
When I finished school I knew I wanted to study physics. I loved the puzzles, the challenge of solving a problem that seemed impossible. I took my A-levels and moved back to Birmingham, starting an Mphys in physics with astrophysics. Very soon, it became clear to me that the really big questions I was interested in were either answered, or being heavily investigated, by the physics of the small (particle physics), so I quickly changed specialisation. I have been hooked on particle physics ever since, and it became my dream to work at CERN, home of the most powerful particle accelerator in the world, which was still being built. My parents started getting me "space" related calendars for Christmas. They weren’t sure what particle physics was. I loved to spend time explaining it, to them, my little brother and anyone who would listen, as best I could. I visited CERN a few times with the university and in my final year as an undergraduate, I worked on an experiment called BABAR at SLAC in Stanford, California, which was trying to answer one of the biggest and most interesting questions of all: Where did all the antimatter go?
I decided to apply for a Ph.D at Birmingham and worked on the ALICE experiment at the LHC, an experiment designed to look at how, at high temperature or density, strongly interacting matter (such as nuclear matter) can transform into a state called the Quark Gluon Plasma (or QGP), where quarks are no longer bound together as baryons and mesons. This is how matter existed for the first 10 microseconds after the Big Bang, and it is recreated in tiny amounts by smashing heavy nuclei together. I lived in France for 18 months helping the experiment make vital early measurements with proton collisions and watching history unfold. By this time, thanks to the nonsense of Dan Brown and the enthusiastic efforts of people like Jim Al Khalili and Brian Cox, everyone knew what the LHC was. My taxi driver would tell me excitedly what he knew about the Higgs boson. By 2011, ALICE was making headlines for its heavy ion research and my supervisor, Dr. David Evans, was named as one of the top 100 most influential men in the world by GQ.
Then, at a time when nuclear physics funding was still sparse, I was lucky enough to be able to continue working in heavy ions, becoming a research assistant at the University of Liverpool. As part of the ASYEOS (ASYmmetric Equation of State) Collaboration, I am once again involved with understanding the phase transitions of hadronic matter. This time, I will be working with a new experiment using beams at GSI/FAIR, and working to understand the properties of isospin asymmetric (more neutrons than protons) nuclear matter as it is placed in a high density environment (much like that of neutron stars).
I enjoy communicating physics, whether through outreach, in a classroom or just being the kind of person who sticks their finger in their wine at dinner parties and explains why it bends. I refute the comments of silly people in the media who say things like "scientists can’t communicate." When I am not working, I can be found baking, reading, talking about science or dreaming about weddings.