Duke Undergrads Spend Summer at LHC

Friday, August 12, 2011

Seven undergraduates from the Duke Physics department spent time this summer working and learning at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland: Alex Bodel, Alejandro Cortese, Will DiClemente, Laura Dodd, Andrew Ferante, Josh Loyal, and Zongjin Qian. In addition four others did LHC-related research at Duke: Travis Byington, Zach Epstein, Jake Sganga, and Ben Trautman.

Alejandro Cortese (pictured above), a rising senior from Durham, worked with the highly ionizing particle (HIP) group, which is part of the ATLAS experiment at the LHC. The group is looking for evidence of the existence of HIPs, which carry charges in higher multiples than known particles, which all have a charge of plus or minus the charge of an electron. The existence of HIPs would support new theories that are extensions of the Standard Model of particle physics that has reigned for decades.

Under the advisement of Prof. Mark Kruse, Cortese studied the efficiency of detecting the presence of HIPs in the collision data collected by ATLAS by using multivariate analysis techniques on quantities derived from the energy loss of particles traversing the tracking detectors. “This will help us to determine how feasible it would be to identify HIPs in the ATLAS detector if they are produced in collisions,” Cortese says. Cortese’s two-month stint at the LHC was funded through the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. “Without question, the most rewarding part of the experience was getting a chance to contribute, even in the smallest way, to one of the largest physics experiments and global efforts ever seen in science,” he says. Three rising juniors, Zongjin Qian, Josh Loyal, and Will DiClemente, worked with Prof. Al Goshaw and the W gamma Z gamma group, also part of the ATLAS experiment. Prof. Goshaw says, “It has been an absolute pleasure to work with Josh, Will, and Zongjin this summer. They learn so fast, and are now making very significant contributions to the ATLAS experiment’s electroweak physics program. I expect that the research they are doing at CERN this summer will evolve into important senior thesis projects.”

Zongjin Qian, who grew up in Wuxi, China, was at the LHC from the beginning of July until mid-August. His trip was funded by a Duke Physics department summer research grant. Qian worked on several projects. He went through data generated by ATLAS to pick out events where a W boson decays into an electron, a neutrino, and a photon. The larger group was also doing this, so Qian served as a crosscheck. “To work with such a humongous data set wasn’t easy,” Qian says. He began learning the techniques from Prof. Goshaw during spring semester and found the process to be long but satisfying. “To have the chance to work at the LHC and to be able to serve as a useful crosscheck was tremendous,” he says. He also calculated the chances that a particular background event—a Z boson decaying into an electron and an anti-electron—would be accidentally picked out as a W boson decay. His favorite project was one he worked on with Josh Loyal. “We want to measure the polarization of W and Z bosons which is an intrinsic property,” he says. “It’s turning out to be very interesting and challenging.” Another aspect of the summer that he enjoyed was learning from all the other scientists there from all over the world. “We really got to talk to the experts at CERN,” he says. “We went to a lot of the lectures and colloquia, and some of them are especially designed for summer students. It’s an experience we can only get at LHC.” To read about Dean Robert Calderbank visiting the Duke undergrads at LHC this summer, click here.