Physics Professor Louise Skinnari and her lab were recently awarded a multi-year grant from the United States Department of Energy. We caught up with her to discuss her experience at CERN, the transformative affect of funding on research, and her time at Northeastern.
You have just received a DOE grant awarded in the field of “high energy physics” can you explain to readers what this means?
“The field of “high energy physics” tries to understand how our universe works on the smallest and largest scales. We study the most fundamental building blocks of nature, tiny sub-atomic particles, and how they interact. It is called “high energy” physics because, at the single particle level, it involves very high energies. We use particle accelerators to produce these energies. At CERN, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) accelerates protons (primarily) in a 17-mile ring and collides them head on at very very high (to the individual particles) energies.”
This grant is awarded over a five-year period. What do you plan on doing with it primarily?
“This grant enables me to carry out an extensive research program, together with a team of student and postdoctoral researchers! Specifically, this research program is centered around studying the heaviest of all known elementary particles – the top quark and the Higgs boson – using the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN. The goal is to advance our understanding of how fundamental particles behave at high energies. In parallel, my research team will develop very fast (~µs) identification of electrically charged particles that traverse the CMS detector. This is key to improve how the CMS experiment selects in real-time which collisions to read out and save for later physics.”
Please briefly explain your work, and what role you play at CERN with the LHC and CMS
“I am a member of the CMS collaboration, which has about 4000 physicists, engineers, technicians, and students from all around the world working together. That may seem like a lot, but the experiment both involves a highly complex detector (the CMS detector is 50×70 feet large and weighs about 14000 tons!) and is used to study countless different physics processes and phenomena. CMS is one of four main experiments recording and analyzing the LHC collisions. My work recently has focused on physics involving top quarks, and upgrading the CMS “trigger system” that is responsible for deciding which collision events to store (only a small fraction of the LHC collisions are kept for later analysis).”
Can you discuss how Covid-19 has affected your researching? Is remote work possible, or even needed at the LHC?
“I have been in a highly fortunate position of being able to maintain my research despite the pandemic. The biggest change is that I, like most people, have been working from home for the past months. Since the CMS members are spread out at research institutes and universities around the world, we were already before the pandemic well-adapted to remote work. The collision data are accessible from anywhere, and research meetings always have a video conferencing option. The LHC was not in operation this year but instead planned maintenance and upgrade work was taking place. So some of my collaborators were more affected when this work had to be paused. One challenge has been that my immediate research group is spread out over three continents, so sometimes finding a time zone for meetings is difficult!”
What “big questions” are left to solve in physics? How might the solutions to these questions impact peoples’ lives?
“There are many big questions left to solve in high energy physics: What makes up “dark matter” (which is a large fraction of all matter in the universe)? Why do we not observe any antimatter in the universe? Are there more than three dimensions? Etc. Answers to these questions will per se not directly impact people’s everyday life, however, research at a place like CERN indirectly has important benefits. High energy physics research has e.g. led to proton therapy for cancer treatments, technologies used in PET scans came originally from particle detectors, the World Wide Web was developed by particle physicists. Etc.”
Considering these bigger harder questions, what role does the planned HL- LHC have in answering them?
“The High-Luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) will increase the intensity of the collisions, which in turn will result in an order of magnitude larger datasets compared to the “original” LHC. This lets us probe very rare physics processes. New detector technologies that are developed for HL-LHC can also enable entirely new physics studies, for e.g. certain type of long-lived particles that could be associated with dark matter.”
Working at CERN could be considered a pinnacle for a physicist. What goals do you have for the future?
“CERN really is a unique place to work and do research. I am excited about the years ahead – we have only analyzed a fraction of the expected data, and currently we are midst developing the detector systems that will be installed for the HL-LHC in ~2025. We have many years ahead of exciting physics research with the LHC.”
How much overlap does your role at Northeastern have with your role at CERN? How did you end up at Northeastern?
“There is complete overlap. The research that I do, which is an important part of my role at Northeastern, is carried out at CERN with the CMS experiment. Some of this research takes place physically at Northeastern (some detector development, data analysis, …), but it is fully connected to CERN.
I ended up at Northeastern rather randomly. Northeastern was hiring in my field of research when I was applying for faculty jobs, and it ended up being a great fit! Northeastern has a strong research group working on the CMS experiment – we are four faculty along with postdoctoral researchers and PhD/masters/undergraduate students!”
As part of your Northeastern role, you’re surrounded by the next generation of physicists. What kind of work do you think they will be doing?
“This is a great, and difficult, question! I think one clear theme is that both for academic research and in industry, more and more work is computational in some form. Using programming techniques, advanced machine learning, quantum computing, … I am sure will be an integral part of the work of the next generation physicists.”
What interests you about physics?
My interest in physics stems from a deep fascination with the universe – what is out there? How does it work? What is it made of? These are the type of fundamental questions that still excite me about my research.