23 June 2008

Kate Shaw

Nationality: British

Kate Shaw

“I’ve always wanted to do it I guess,” considers ATLAS PhD student Kate Shaw. “It was probably books by Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose… They inspired me to start with – to understand the fundamentals of the Universe.”

Kate’s love affair with physics began early. Her mum decided to study A-Levels in science and maths when Kate was around 11 years old, bringing literature and dinner-time conversation topics into the family home in Norfolk, England, which Kate recalls being “absolutely fascinated” by. Her interest was noted and fed by the people around her, who bought her birthday gifts of popular physics writing. She was already well clued-up on the building of the LHC during her first years in secondary school, and had no hesitation in deciding to study Physics for her Bachelors Masters degree, which she completed at Liverpool University.

Despite all this, Kate did have some initial misgivings about specialising in particle physics: “I wasn’t keen on the idea of sitting in front of a computer for three years,” she admits. But some gentle persuasion from Sheffield-based ATLAS Supersymmetry group leader Davide Costanzo was enough to convince her to take the plunge into a PhD on ATLAS – a decision she clearly doesn’t regret: “Coming here has been great, because I’ve been able to work on hardware as well as physics analysis. The experiment is so big and diverse – you can get involved in all sorts of different things.”

Kate – who will spend the whole of the second year of her programme on the ground in Geneva – arrived in October 2007. She splits her time fifty-fifty between working on hardware and physics analysis. “I love the hardware side of it,” she smiles. “When I got here I was helping on the heat exchanger installation for the SCT, so I was working down in the pit a lot every day. I really enjoyed that because I was working right in the very centre of the detector, where it’s all going to be going on,” she grins, “with the beam pipe right next to my head!”

Since then, she has been working on the installation of temperature and humidity sensors, and developing tools to monitor the Inner Detector environment as part of the SCT Data Control System. At the same time, she has consciously been “keeping a foot in the doorway of the physics analysis”, and has already got one analysis set up for SUSY.

“I’m trying to find the mass of one of the right squarks. That’s if they exist,” she explains. “But calculating the mass of supersymmetric particles is complicated, because you can’t just detect them like you can other particles. What we’re looking for is missing energy.” According to Kate, this part of her research involves a lot of “back of the envelope work” looking at kinematics, before she can even begin translating this into computer code.

“I enjoy SUSY because it’s a little bit more exciting; a little bit different,” she smiles. “People are looking for the Higgs boson, or to understand more about the Standard Model. Supersymmetry goes just that little bit further.”

“If we find it, that’ll be completely mind-blowing,” she enthuses. “It would mean there are double the amount of particles that we once thought there were, and it might even give a candidate for dark matter.”

Kate was lucky in that she moved to Geneva with a ready-made group of friends. “In the UK, everyone who’s doing a PhD in particle physics goes to the same conferences and so on, so I already knew a load of people here,” she explains. She also moved over with her boyfriend, and the pair of them have taken full advantage of the local terrain – buying a van and going off snowboarding in the Alps most weekends during the last season. Living in pretty Saint-Genis, Kate has been exploiting her proximity to the Jura by hiking in the recent good weather, and in September she plans to take a trip to the Alps to walk the Tour du Mont Blanc – a beautiful 11-day walk that goes right around the Massif du Mont-Blanc.

Kate is clearly an explorer at heart, and isn’t only excited by the local mountains and the prospect of finding never-before-seen sub-atomic particles; she has also taken seriously her explorations of Geneva and the rest of Switzerland. Her favourite discoveries so far include a number of quirky hidden-away bars in Geneva town, and beauty-spots like Luzern, 275 kilometres northeast of Geneva. She is somewhat in awe of her boyfriend’s apparent ability to pick up new languages wherever they go (she succinctly describes herself as “not a languages person”), and harbours ambitions to learn a little more French before her time at CERN is up.

Thankfully, she is a gifted communicator in her mother tongue, and has put her talents to good use as an ATLAS guide, speaking to the public at the 2008 Open Day, and even writing for us here at eNews. Along with her clear and engaging style, Kate brings enthusiasm – by the bucket load – an essential attribute for any science communicator.

“This is the biggest experiment in the world!” she grins. “We’re going to discover things that have never been seen before, and we’re going to fire particles at energies that have never even been approached before. Even if we don’t find SUSY, we’re definitely going to find some amazing things.”

Quizzed on her estimations of the chances of finding Supersymmetry, Kate is philosophical: “A lot of people think we’re not going to find it – it’s a very far-fetched theory,” she smiles, “but I’d like to think we will.”


    Ceri Perkins