For physics student Hannah Glaser, taking off for a summer of hands-on research at the world’s largest particle collider is both exciting and terrifying.

But, Glaser says, joining the thousands of scientist at work at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) also feels a lot like going home.

“It’s such a huge relief to finally be in a group of people who who are interested in the same exact kind of problems that you are,” said Glaser, a rising junior at Virginia Tech. “It really is just this ridiculous nerdy feeling when you finally meet a group of people who have the same obsession with math and science.”


Undergraduate physicists embarking for a summer at the LHC, posed in front of a map of CERN and neighboring town St. Genis hand-drawn by physics professor Al Goshaw. From left: Wei Tang (Duke), Ifeanyi Achu (Southern Methodist University), Spencer Griswold (Clarkson University), Elisa Zhang (Duke), Emily Stump (Williams College) and Hannah Glaser (Virginia Tech).

Glaser is among six undergraduates — two from Duke and four from other institutions — who will be working alongside Duke scientists at the LHC’s ATLAS experiment this summer. Each will tackle a bite-sized piece of the immense particle physics project, primarily by helping to analyze the massive amounts of data generated by the collider.

“Just going to CERN will be a mind-blowing experience,” said Ifeanyi Achu, a junior at Southern Methodist University, at an orientation event at Duke last week. “I’m looking forward to getting a window into what life could be like as a physics researcher.”

Before setting off for CERN, the group spent the month of June with other REU students on Duke’s campus, learning the basics of quantum mechanics and Root, a software platform used CERN and other particle accelerators around the world.

In addition to grappling with complex physics, the students also had to prepare for the more practical aspects of spending six weeks abroad – like the fact that they will be living in the French town of St. Genis while working in Switzerland, requiring that they regularly cross the border and navigate among two or more currencies and languages.

However, the thrill of spending time with some of the world’s biggest experiments should make the travel anxiety worth it.


Duke student Wei Tang hopes to get a picture with a giant LHC detector while working at CERN this summer. (Credit: CERN)

“I’m definitely looking forward to taking a picture with a giant detector,” said Wei Tang, a Duke junior majoring in physics and computer science.

As members of the ATLAS experiment, The Duke high-energy physics team hopes to spot particles or forces not predicted by the Standard Model of physics, the theoretical framework that currently forms the basis of our physical understanding of the universe. New particles or forces could provide clues to solving some of the mysteries that remain in physics, such as what is the nature of dark matter.

“This is probably the most exciting year for the LHC,” said Duke physicist Al Goshaw, who will be onsite advising the students for part of the summer. “Data taken in this run really offers an extraordinary opportunity to look for physics beyond the standard model because it is the first time the LHC is operating at its full potential. It really could be the discovery run, and we are excited to be involved in that.”

But even if new discoveries aren’t made this summer, the students are still thrilled to be a part of the experiment.

“To know that you have done just a tiny bit of science at CERN – it’s just a dream come true for anyone interested in particle physics,” Glaser said.

Kara J. Manke, PhD

Post by Kara Manke