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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

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A fish out of water

Note:  The following is a contribution from Lindsay Kroes, a talented and insightful University of Waterloo undergraduate student who spent a four-month work term at TRIUMF in the communications office. Upon being asked what she would tell her peers about the lab when she returned to campus this summer, Lindsay took to pen and paper to describe her experience.

“Fish out of water” doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt on my first day at TRIUMF.

The initial welcome meeting and the Health and Safety seminar were part of the usual on-boarding routine, but as soon as I set foot on the TRIUMF site, this co-op job began to feel a whole lot different than any of my past experiences.

Along with the flock of other new co-op students, I followed our guide along labyrinthine tour route, along catwalks which overlooked vast halls of humming equipment, up steep staircases flanked by tangles of tubes and cords, and through enormous halls dominated by cranes and concrete blocks. Everything I saw was foreign to me – and the explanations coming out of our guide’s mouth did little to dispel my confusion.

Of course I had googled “what is a cyclotron” before my interview. I had even signed up for an open-online Intro to Physics course (although in the bustle of the Christmas holidays, I only got through the first module). This was paltry preparation for what awaited me at TRIUMF, where physicists work at the very cutting edge of their field. See, in my studies, there’s more talk about soliloquies than supersymmetry… more focus on alliteration than acceleration. Bridging the gap between English literature and subatomic physics was going to take a lot more googling than I had initially accounted for.

The first few days I felt like I was drowning in a deluge of new and incomprehensible information.

“The LHC accelerates particles to 99.9999991% the speed of light!”

“TRIUMF’s cyclotron tank must support 2,600 tons of atmospheric pressure.”

“Beamline temperature is kept at negative 258 degrees Celsius; cryogenic pumps literally freeze the air out of the beamline.”

These were scales and concepts that I was completely unaccustomed to considering. It was difficult to wrap my head around the fact that within the convoluted maze of metal cylinders and cables of the DRAGON experiment, star explosions from the early universe were being re-created and studied. Or the fact that the blinking, droning computers that I glimpsed through the window of the ATLAS Tier-1 Data Centre held data that had travelled through a single wire all the way from Switzerland – data which may transform our understanding of the basic building blocks of the universe.

My first article assignment – a historical interest story about cyclotron development – found me poring through the pages of a scientific paper, decoding it line-by-line with the help of my co-workers and the “simple English” option of Wikipedia. In some sentences, it was difficult to discern which words were the verbs and which were the nouns. During interviews with scientists, I couldn’t even find the correct vocabulary to ask the question (let alone grasp the answer), and my article drafts were frequently returned rife with revisions, correcting the grossly inflated claims or blatant inaccuracies I had inadvertently reported.

When I explained to others – both within the lab and outside – where I was working, I was often met with raised eyebrows. “How did you end up there?” they asked, and I began to wonder myself. How could someone with no science background whatsoever find a place for themselves in one of Canada’s premier science laboratories?

I found the answer myself during one of my favourite writing assignments of the term, in which I accompanied a TRIUMF scientist to a Human Library event at a local high school, which connected grade nine students and science professionals for brief question-and-answer sessions. At one point during the discussion, he said, “Science is a human endeavor.”

This was a new idea to me. It had seemed that science was about calculations, machinery, technology, statistics – very far indeed from the “humanities” fields where I felt at home. However, the “human side” of science was apparent in the respect he expressed for colleagues and the obvious passion which fuelled his long career in academic research.

It was impressed upon me later in the term in the many tributes to Erich Vogt, an internationally-esteemed scientist and one of TRIUMF’s founding directors, who passed away during my term at TRIUMF. Erich was well-remembered for the incredible legacy he left to the physics community– but also for his prized tomato plants, his jovial sense of humour, and his strong ability to forge meaningful connections with people of any nationality and background.

The human side of science is also visible every day in the camaraderie that exists at TRIUMF – the feeling that “we’re all in this together,” especially at crunch time, when deadlines for high-priority projects are looming or important VIP visitors are knocking at the door.

It was demonstrated to me many times in the enthusiasm that scientists have for their work, as well as their patience and willingness to explain it – even to someone who couldn’t tell the difference between a neutrino and a quark if her life depended on it.

I realized that behind the baffling facts and figures, the state-of-the-art technology, and the data points flashing by on Powerpoint slides, there are people who are driven by the desire to give something of value to this world.

After four months of trying, I still may not understand precisely what they’re doing – but that doesn’t mean I can’t be inspired by it.

– Lindsay Kroes, TRIUMF Communications Assistant