A Summer at CERN

Hi there! My name is Alison Weiss, and I am a rising senior at Amherst. This summer, I am working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland. As a physics and computer science double major, it is exciting to be spending the summer at the place where both the Higgs boson was discovered and the World Wide Web was invented.

 CERN, the largest particle physics laboratory in the world, is a different scientific environment from my past research experiences, which have been in smaller college and university labs. At Amherst, I work in Professor Hunter’s atomic physics lab. I joined the lab remotely for SURF the summer after my first year, and I will continue to work in the lab for my senior thesis. I have also worked in Professor Rechtsman’s group at Penn State, researching topological photonics. For my final college summer, I wanted to gain exposure to a different subfield of physics, and to a different style of research. Getting to live in Switzerland is the cherry on top. 

I am a member of the University of Michigan’s CERN REU program, which allows 15 American undergraduates to participate in CERN’s summer student programme. In addition to the Americans, there are about 300 international summer students. So far, one of the biggest perks of the program has been getting to know the other summer students. We are paired with research groups scattered throughout CERN, but many of us live in the same building. We also attend a morning lecture series together. The topics range from particle physics to statistics, and are presented by leading experts in each field. 

To really bring home my point that CERN is big, out of the hundreds of summer students, I am the only one working on my collaboration. I work in CERN’s Antimatter Factory, on The Atomic Spectroscopy And Collisions Using Slow Antiprotons (ASACUSA) experiment. One of the biggest unanswered questions in physics is why the universe has so much more matter than antimatter, when theories predict them to be in equal proportion. This discrepancy is called the Baryon Asymmetry. Antimatter is studied to try to unravel this mystery. ASACUSA’s goal is to measure the hyperfine structure of antihydrogen for comparison with hydrogen’s hyperfine structure, which is very precisely known. Currently, the collaboration is working to increase antihydrogen production. My project is to simulate and analyze antihydrogen annihilation patterns within ASACUSA’s apparatus. Understanding the annihilation patterns is important for interpreting our experimental results and optimizing our experimental set-up. In addition to my programming-heavy project, I regularly get to lace up my steel-toed safety shoes and don my dosimeter to assist with the physical apparatus on the Antimatter Factory floor. 

I am hopeful that I will be able to make a tangible contribution to the ASACUSA collaboration this summer, and I am certain that I will learn a lot about particle physics. Outside of my research, I plan to take advantage of my time in Europe. While I am busy with physics during the week, I am free to travel during the weekends. So far, I have swum in Lake Geneva, Lake Annecy and the Mediterranean Sea, attended Fête de la Musique and Geneva’s street food festival, hiked in the Alps by Chamonix-Mont-Blanc, and climbed Roman amphitheaters in Lyon. The first few weeks have been incredible, and I’m so excited for the rest of the summer!