Research sends physics faculty to Chicago, Switzerland

Dec 17th, 2010 | By | Category: December 16, Research

Of UNL’s more than 7,000 employees, nearly all work somewhere in Nebraska in the university’s “500-mile campus,” with by far the biggest portion working on one of the Lincoln campuses.

There is a small group of eight, however — all particle physicists — who are permanently stationed at sites remote from Nebraska. Five work nearly 500 miles from campus at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory at Batavia, Ill., in the Chicago suburbs. The other three work almost 5,000 miles from Lincoln at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research on the Swiss-French border near Geneva, Switzerland.

They’re all part of a massive, worldwide effort to understand what the universe is made of and how it works by studying the basic constituents of matter — the fundamental particles that make up the sub-atomic particles that make up the atoms that make up all matter.

Three of the researchers, research assistant professor Mike Eads, postdoctoral researcher Ioannis Katsanos and graduate student Kayle DeVaughan work on the DZero experiment at Fermilab’s Tevatron accelerator. Eads and Katsanos have leadership roles in working groups on DZero, an effort that has been under way since the early 1990s and has made a number of major discoveries, including co-discovery of the top quark in 1995.

The other researchers are involved in the Compact Muon Solenoid experiment, one of the two largest experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Postdoctor-al researchers Helena Malbouisson and Jamila Butt are based at CERN, while fellow postdoc Jose Lazo-Flores works at the Paul Scherrer Institute, Switzerland’s largest re-search center. In addition, two CMS researchers, research assistant professor Sudhir Malik and postdoc Suvadeep Bose, are at Fermilab

They’re part of a high-energy physics team that UNL had in mind when Greg Snow arrived from the University of Michigan in 1993 to start a program that would collaborate at the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas. But those plans were put on hold when Congress canceled funding for the SSC.

However, continued successful experiments at Fermilab and Europe’s decision to go ahead with the LHC kept plans for the UNL high-energy physics program alive and it has grown to include five faculty members — Snow, Dan Claes (hired in 1996), Ken Bloom and Aaron Dominguez (2004), and Ilya Kravchenko (2008). Including postdocs and graduate and undergraduate students, the group has grown to 18 individuals, and some of them need to be stationed in Illinois and Switzerland if they are to be effective members of the CMS and DZero experiments.

“For young scientists, it’s really good to spend time at the experiment,” Snow said. “It’s where the action is. It’s the hub of the scientific discourse and analysis. For a senior guy like me, it’s not as important as for the younger post-docs, assistant professors and grad students who really want to have some visibility in those projects.

“If you’re at Fermilab or at CERN, you’re with a larger number of humans who are in your working group than you would have on your university campus. If you have a question, you can go right next door to someone who’s doing a similar thing. Whereas, if you’re in Lincoln, then you have to send e-mail, or set up a video conference, or whatever. The connection is just not as tight as when you’re really there.”

Malik, who received his five-year service award from UNL this year, said it’s important for Bose and him to work at Fermilab, where they both work at the LHC Physics Center in Fermilab’s iconic Wilson Hall.

“Back home, you can’t do much except computer work, but we can do quality control of data from here,” he said.

Working shifts in the LHC Remote Operations Center at Fermilab, watching monitors that give the status of the accelerator and detector, and display pictures of particle collisions, they are able to monitor data incoming in real time. If they notice a problem with a detector, they can immediately alert somebody at CERN through a 24-hour video conference system that connects the center with the CMS control room in Geneva.

“That really helps them be very plugged into the actual pulse of the experiment,” Snow said.

Malik and Bose agreed that one drawback for their location is not being part of traditional college life, working 488 miles from campus, according to (They aren’t UNL’s most-far-flung U.S. employees, though. That honor belongs faculty and staff working at the Sioux County Extension Office in Harrison, 504 miles from Lincoln.)

Bose said he has a Husker coffee mug that he proudly carries around Wilson Hall as a token of his affiliation with UNL, but both said the daily pulse of campus life is missing. Weekly video conferences involving researchers in Lincoln, Batavia and Geneva aren’t the same thing.

“We only experience campus life when we visit Lincoln and the rest of the time, we have no choice but to miss it,” Malik said. “But we try to stay in close touch with the people in our group — and the UNL Travel Office has been very good to work with. I go to CERN every two or three months and they do a great job taking care of my travel arrangements.”

It was suggested that getting UNL’s Fermilab group together on Saturdays to watch Nebraska football games on television might be a way to develop a little long-distance campus spirit. But Malik said there’s a problem with that idea.

“I’m not a sports person at all,” he said with a laugh. “I’m so not a sports person. I don’t know much about ‘Go Big Red,’ but sometimes I’ll try to memorize some information about the team and pass it on to my son. He knows I’m faking it.”

In other words, the quest for a national championship takes a backseat to the search for the Higgs boson, dark matter and any other secrets the LHC may uncover.

– Tom Simons, University Communications

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