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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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HRH The Duke of Kent Visits CERN

His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Duke of Kent visited CERN on Friday, and I was one of the students lucky enough to meet him.  He is President of the Royal Institution and has taken an interest in the LHC and the work being done at CERN.  In particular, as the former Special Representative for the International Trade and Investment,  he was interested to meet British young people being trained at CERN. During his visit, he was first given a tour of CMS (the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment).

His Royal Highness Price Edward Duke of Kent

His Royal Highness Price Edward Duke of Kent

A representative handful of students, post-docs and spokespersons were invited to gather for discussion with His Royal Highness, together with representatives for STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) and UK Trade and Investment. Prof. John Ellis was there to explain the more complex physics concepts, and some members of the IT side of CERN were there to discuss their skills and impact.

My father has met His Royal Highness twice, many years ago when he was a member of the Territorial Army. Apparently, they shared a plane. However, this was far from a familiar situation for me – I wasn’t sure of the right way to dress, act, stand or introduce myself. Everyone seemed to have this aura of nervousness. However, my concern was quickly dispelled as soon as His Royal Highness greeted me with a pleasant and relaxed “How do you do?” (I am still not sure if I was supposed to curtsey, but if I was, he didn’t seem to mind!)

I told him I was working on the ALICE experiment, which was understandably met with an inevitable confusion, because only last year he came across the ALiCE (Accelerators and Lasers In Combined Experiments) group, visiting the Linac at Daresbury Laboratory. However, he seemed very interested in hearing about the work that ALICE at CERN were doing, if a little blown away!

After the informal introductions and coffee, we were each seated around a large table in one of the Main Building’s meeting rooms. By chance, the students and most CERN staff lined up on the opposite side of the table to the visitors, which felt to me like we were more “on show”. I suppose we were, in a sense, but not in an intimidating way. We each then gave a more detailed description of ourselves, our work, and our roles here at CERN. I felt proud to be representing ALICE in this visit, and there seemed to be much interest in this unusual and lesser-known experiment. As usual, I basked in the opportunity to talk about my work!

The discussion that seemed to raise the most concern was on the topic of undergraduate technical training at CERN. The issue of too few UK technical students taking a year at CERN (an opportunity that I had never previously heard about) was illuminated, and it was not clear whether this was because of lack of knowledge or lack of opportunity. It seemed clear from the discussion that action was soon to be taken.

Finally, I feel I need to say my piece regarding a concern which was not raised but merely implied.The importance of innovation and development for the future of the UK was made clear. We were described as part of the solution to the economic problems, both in the advances and technology that falls from our work and the skills we acquire whilst working here. It is this second point that I felt left a strange feeling in the air. You see, most students working at CERN are enjoying their experience a great deal (myself included), and when asked by His Royal Highness, “Do you intend to stay here?”, almost every response was, “Yes, as long as I can”. Now, my answer to this was somewhat drowned out by these enthusiastic replies. I wanted to reiterate it at a later stage but never found a good moment. So, for the benefit of people who read these blogs, here it is:

I am from the UK, and have every intention of returning to work there permanently – it is my home. CERN is the most exciting place in the world to me right now and has been for many years, and to have the opportunity to conduct analysis for my PhD here makes me one of the luckiest people in the world. However, this is training I hope to be able to bring back to the UK.

So there it is. I want to bring my skills to the UK. In what field though, I am not sure. It does not seem too likely that I will be able to remain in my field of research in my country. In particle physics it is usually expected that you travel to many different countries on post-doc placements. However, that is not the only reason I will need to change direction.

Despite ALICE being one of the four large LHC experiments, the only institution in the UK working on the experiment is the University of Birmingham. This is not to say our contribution is small – our group contributes the Central Trigger Processor, an essential part of the ALICE detector that controls when each of its sub-detectors should send information about an event and when they should reject it. Our analysis is also important, and wide-ranging, from measurements of the very first few minutes of data to more long term detailed analyses. The problem is that we are low in number. As a result, heavy ion physics is not well known here, and I fear that defending its funding may be a struggle. Certainly finding myself a career in this field would mean working abroad for many many more years, if not indefinitely. In addition to this, mine is not the only field of research in which there is, not so much a shortage of UK studentships, but a very limited number of post-doc places.

It was mentioned in the meeting that the worth of a PhD student in the US is approximated to around 2 million dollars (apologies for not quoting the correct source of this, but I do not know what it is!). This indicates that training young scientists is a valuable INVESTMENT. The point I want to make is that, at least in my case, that is exactly what the UK is doing by allowing students to work here – INVESTING. CERN is a centre for knowledge and development and trains young people so that they can return to their home countries with these skills. I have learned so much being out here, I have developed in ways I never even expected. However, what I am yet to find out is, in what career my skills will be so useful, and in what way I will be part of “shaping the future”, as it is so often described. I am told that my skills are vital, but where?

Needless to say, some career-research needs to be done on my part, and I do have a fair idea already. I can tell from what I know so far that the possibilities are varied and almost endless. Another post, perhaps. As for where I myself will end up, time will tell, I suppose! All I know is, it is an exciting journey into the unknown. In the meantime, and perhaps for the rest of my life, I will continue to fight for fundamental research and its importance, and hopefully post-LHC discoveries, future generations may see improvement in opportunities in heavy ion and nuclear physics research in the UK. I can but hope (and do as much shouting about it as possible!) 😀

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