McGill University, Canada (2005-2011); Joseph Fourier University, France (2003-2004); INSA, France (2001-2003); Fratii Buzesti High School, Romania (1997-2001)
PhD and MSc in elementary particle physics; BSc in physics; Bacalaureat
Research Associate (postdoctoral research) at the University of Glasgow
Research at Glasgow Uni analysing data at the ATLAS experiment at CERN
University of Glasgow
Favourite thing to do in my job: If the Universe were a cake, how was it formed? I study the smallest building blocks of the Universe and the recipe that keeps them together to create stable atoms, and us.
I write software and analyse huge amounts of data and simulations from the ATLAS experiment at CERN to study the properties of the Higgs elementary particle.
Humans have always been curious about how the world began and what allows us to exist. Science rephrases these questions.
Think of it this way. If the Universe is a cake, what are the bowl, the ingredients and the recipe?
Living things are made of cells that are made of molecules. So biology is applied chemistry. Molecules are made of atoms. So chemistry is applied physics. Atoms are made of even smaller things, made in turn of smaller things.
The very smallest ingredients of the Universe are called elementary particles. The electron is one. The quark is another. The bowl that contains them is space. In order to form atoms, and allow us humans to exist, our recipe needs something to stick the ingredients together.
The fundamental forces do that. The electric force is one example. The gravitational force is another.
Finally, the elementary particles need to be slowed down from the speed of light they originally had after the Big Bang. You can’t make a cake if your eggs, flour and butter are whizzing around the kitchen.
To explain this slowing down, a revolutionary idea was proposed 50 years ago. I helped prove it right, as part of a large team that discovered the Higgs boson, a new elementary particle.
My Typical Day
I join videoconferences, supervise students, write software, analyse data, write papers, think of interesting problems to solve, teach programming.
I am a research associate. I’m also called a postdoctoral researcher. It means research after PhD. It’s the time in the scientific career when one works for a university or lab on a two or three year contract before getting a permanent position in academia or industry. It’s the time to really do scientific research. As a PhD student, you do research, but you mostly get trained. As an academic, you do research, but you mostly teach, help keep the university running, and apply for research grants. As a postdoc, however, you mostly do research.
Research involves many aspects. Since I work in a collaboration of 3,000 people from across the world, we have lots of video-conferences, and email exchanges. We keep up to date with the progress of our colleagues and offer constructive feedback. We also receive it from them. We write internal papers, conference papers and journal papers. We then review them as a collaboration. I supervise PhD and master students in their day to day work. That means I also check the software they write and give them feedback on how to improve it. We also discuss the physics questions that are worth answering, and how to tackle them. In the summer I coordinate one summer student in a research project.
When I do research myself, I design methods to improve the measurement of one elementary particle called the bottom quark. That helps a lot in searching for the Higgs boson when it decays to two bottom quarks. This process has not yet been seen. It is important to validate it to confirm that the Higgs boson discovered in 2012, for which the Nobel prize was awarded in 2013, is indeed the one predicted by the current theory. If it has different properties than predicted, a new revolution in science could start! I design algorithms, implement them in the software, validate the code. We debug when necessary. We then run it in simulations and check if it behaves as expected. We pass the results to our colleagues to confirm that we want to use it officially. The process is long, but worthwhile, for the rigurosity of science. The method I created in the past year is used for results that will be shown soon at conferences.
But research is not all I do as a research associate.
I also teach. I teach programming for data analysis and science. I supervise a group of third year students to simulate using programming a physical system. I teach C++ and ROOT for PhD students across Scotland so that they are able get up to speed with data analysis.
I help in administrative duties too. I run the summer student research recruitment and maintain the mailing lists for the particle physics experimental group at the University of Glasgow.
I am actively involved in science communication to the general public and schools. I make visits to schools, write pieces for the media, help run masterclasses, man open day stands, or give talks at science events, liked TEDx, Researcher’s Night and Pint of Science.
What I'd do with the prize money
I will engage school students with CERN research by empowering them to analyse publicly available CERN data via programming and data analysis tutorials I create.
Analyzing CERN data isn’t just for grown-ups. Children can do it too, if presented in a fun and easy way. The ATLAS experiment at CERN is about to release to the public a limited set of data: both simulated data and real data. This can be used by schools to engage students in science. By getting engaged, they learn more science, too! The CERN science is very fascinating, like searching for the Higgs boson or dark matter!
Programming is key to analysing these data. But programming does not have to be hard. Modern programming languages like Python are very easy to learn and use. Students will use ATLAS publicly release data and simulations to perform a very basic data analysis, visualise the results and discuss about their deep meaning about the subatomic world!
I will create such programming tutorials with simple code examples that work out of the box with CERN data and simulations, as well as new questions asked where student write their own code. I will use the money to travel to schools to deliver the hands-on tutorials. As it will be freely available, I plan to engage also students from the developing world.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
I am curious, rigurous, dynamic.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
My PhD result was the most precise in the world at the time (summer 2011) in searching for the Higgs boson in a particular way, still not found today (when decaying to two bottom quarks).
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
In the sixth grade I understood how day-night and seasons are created by the movements of our planet. I got hooked! I studied hard at physics and watched lots of documentaries.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
The teachers loved me, as I was curious, studied hard and asked lots of questions.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
I would be an archaeologist or historian.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
I love listening to folk music from cultures around the world.
What's your favourite food?
I enjoy exploring foods from around the world.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Science took me to month long stays in the exotic countries of Japan and Brazil.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. Take a gap year to travel around the world while communicating science to the public; 2. Find a permanent research and teaching position in a prestigious institution; 3. Help the developing world contribute to the research at CERN through data analysis tutorials.
Tell us a joke.
The Higgs boson walks in a church and says: wait, without me you can’t have mass!