Note: article link above has stopped working after a website update from University of Liverpool.
Below is full article as appeared on their website.
During fall 2016, in my second year at University of Liverpool, I decided to apply for CERN’s prestigious summer internship programme in my field of computer science. The process was quite extensive and competitive, requiring significant preparation for personal statements, transcripts, references and other documents, especially as our institute isn’t directly affiliated with them, but by spring 2017 I was eventually successful in securing a three month full time internship with CERN’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment.
Arriving wide-eyed at the main lab on the first day, I discovered that I was among twenty other excited students, from all over the world, ranging from Thailand, Brazil, France, US, India, Italy and many others, all of whom had arrived at different moments during the summer, meaning there was little time for individual introductions to the lab and explanations of the various hardware components and the software code base.
Quickly understanding I would have to take initiative to gather relevant information myself and piece them together, I spent a substantial amount of time in the following weeks submerging myself in the lab’s technical papers, PhDs and presentations to gain a full understanding of the work that was being done at this lab, and how it related to CERN’s overall goals in particle physics, all the while working on my individual allocated project.
As I learnt, CERN’s main goal is to detect fundamental particles at higher and higher energy levels, such as quarks, muons and neutrinos, which are produced by colliding accelerated particles in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). However, to be able to get to these ever-increasing levels of energies, they have to regularly keep upgrading the technology of both the LHC and the four main detectors, CMS, ATLAS, ALICE and LHCb, situated at different places around the LHC.
As it so happened, the CMS detector, with which my lab was affiliated, was not only upgrading its detectors, but actually adding a different type of technology entirely. These new detectors, Gas Electron Multipliers (GEMs), which are produced in Korea, India, and Florida are then tested, in 8 quality control checks (QCs 1-8), at the CMS lab.
My role, as I learnt, was being involved in the last quality control to verify the detector’s hardware was functioning appropriately, by having python code run through its triggers to see if it correctly detected small electrical test collisions, and then improving the software used for these tests by adding new functionalities to the codebase, such as increasing the step size of the displayed graphs, and changing basic configurations of the detectors, which would allow them behave in different ways under different electrical conditions.
This relatively new endeavour of changing the detector’s technology, called the CMS-GEM Collaboration, meant there was, by good fortune, scope for concrete meaningful work at the lab, and an opportunity to gain first hand experience and new skills in a real scientific environment.
On the other hand, the supervisors at the lab were often very occupied, and there was very scarce documentation of their codebase, as the entire project was still being built and updated regularly. As a newcomer, the learning curve was quite steep and the tasks were dense in their technicality, but I was able to power through and solve any issues that would arise by being committed and determined on my work, while also being able to absorb an abundance of information on a regular basis.
Further learning experiences were in interpersonal relationships, learning to ask and appropriately gather information, reporting to one’s (often busy) supervisors in a manner that presents solutions to problems instead of even more issues, working in a team of experienced professionals with deliverables and deadlines, writing down e-logs to keep record of all actions on the intricate machines, handling pressure, welcoming and guiding other international newcomers to the lab.
Overall, it was very valuable learning experience, being my first ever professional internship, with plenty of new technical and professional skills acquired through rigorous hard work in an international and inherently scientific environment. I would therefore really encourage other students in science and engineering to try and get a feel of a real scientific endeavour, in research or the industry, during one of the summers before they graduate, as it adds another layer and dimension to one’s academic and professional outlook !