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This Sussex Life: Dr Nicola Abraham “I’m going to use the skills I learned at CERN to help tackle climate change”

Dr Nicola Abraham in front of the ATLAS Experiment at CERN

Dr Nicola Abraham is a post doctorate researcher in particle physics working at CERN with the ATLAS collaboration, which discovered the Higgs Boson particle in 2012. Her next step will be to apply her data analysis skills to the problem of rising ocean levels.

I live in Switzerland and am part of the ATLAS experiment at CERN.  I analyse data from the Large Hadron Collider where beams of protons, moving almost at the speed of light, whizz around the 27km route in opposite directions until they collide. Our experiment analyses what happens in the collisions.  There are so many collisions that we can’t look at every single one. So we’ve built a trigger in the system to spot and record only the things that look interesting. We write computer codes to search the data, looking for evidence of new particles.  It’s like detective work. That’s how the Higgs Boson particle was discovered in 2012 by two collaborations including our own.  
 
What I enjoy the most is searching for the fundamental nature of the universe. You feel like you’re a part of something bigger.  In particular I’m looking for ‘super symmetric’ particles which could be the answer to the mystery of ‘what is Dark Matter?’. These particles haven’t been discovered yet but the mathematics that predicts them is one of physics' most elegant - and therefore convincing - explanations. We predict that they're matching 'partners' for the particles we already know about, but much heavier.
 
It’s exciting to be part of the hunt for Dark Matter.  Whoever discovers it will win a Nobel Prize.  We know that Dark Matter is out there – we can see its effect on galaxies. They wouldn’t spiral like they do without it; they’d just fling apart. So we know there’s got to be more gravity coming from some heavy particles we just haven’t yet discovered. The Large Hadron Collider is being upgraded at the moment, and will eventually be able to exploit the full potential, with a view to collecting ten times more data than in the initial design. So we’ll have more data to analyse and we hope to make some new discoveries. 
 
Studying with Sussex has been really enjoyable. The international atmosphere at the university, the feeling like you’re working on the greatest mysteries of the universe – it’s been incredible.  The teams I work with are made up of people from all over the world. I once worked with a team which included someone in Canada, another here in Switzerland, and one more in Beijing. We were stretching a lot of time zones! It’s rewarding and interesting to work in this way: it feels like I’m working in a truly international environment.
 
I actually quit school when I was 17. I worked for ten years doing office work, which wasn't particularly satisfying. I realised I really wanted to get back to my physics A-level. I had kept up an interest in physics and continued to read lots of pop-science books, and so when I was re-evaluating everything aged 27, I knew I would be happier spending my days learning about physics and the universe. I stumbled across a physics foundation course and decided to go for it. Going back to physics was the best decision I ever made. I did a foundation course, a degree, a masters, a PhD and now a Post Doc.  Sussex gave me the opportunity to change from astrophysics in my masters to particle physics in my PhD. I’d always been interested in the very large and the very small. So I went from galaxies to particles - one extreme to the other.   
 
Next I’m going to use the skills I've learned at CERN to help tackle climate change.  Everything I’ve learned is directly applicable: working on large data sets, being able to use computer codes.  I’ll be moving to Germany to work at a scientific research institution called Helmholtz Zentrum Geesthacht to anaylse data from the oceans, to try to create a holistic view of the earth. I’m really happy that I can stay in a field where I feel like I am making a difference. 
 
Interview by Anna Ford

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By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Wednesday, 27 November 2019

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