Carnegie Mellon University
April 11, 2018

Physics Major Headed to Switzerland to Conduct Research This Summer

By Emily Payne

Jocelyn Duffy

Physics major Ian Harris knew that he wanted to spend his summer studying particle physics. Though he’s only a sophomore, Harris is set on pursuing a career in fundamental particle research. Thanks to the ThinkSwiss scholarship, Harris will be able to begin working in the field this summer when he travels to Switzerland to conduct research at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

ThinkSwiss is a scholarship program managed by the Office of Science, Technology and Higher Education at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, D.C. The program promotes cross-cultural exchange by supporting American and Canadian students who wish to study or conduct research in Switzerland.

Before applying, students have to find a host professor at a Swiss university who will accept them into their research group. After some preliminary searching, Harris connected with Professor Aurelio Bay at EPFL, who coincidentally worked with Harris’ physics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Curtis Meyer, when the two professors were Ph.D. students at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The project about which Professor Bay told me sounded exactly like what I want to do in my eventual career, so I applied for the scholarship in order to be able to work on that project,” Harris said.

His research project will consist of testing and analyzing data from particle detectors that will be used in the Search for Hidden Particles (SHiP) experiment at CERN. Specifically, he will be building a prototype of a particle detector based on scintillating fibers and solid-state photomultipliers and debugging data acquisition electronics for the SHIP experiment. Harris will also have the opportunity to travel to CERN, the largest hub for particle physics research in the world and home to the Large Hadron Collider, to conduct beam tests and calibrate the detector.

“The SHiP experiment is searching for various particles, including heavy neutral leptons, which can theoretically explain baryon asymmetry and neutrino masses and oscillations, as well as providing a candidate for dark matter,” Harris said. “I am looking forward to contributing to a cutting-edge experiment. Furthermore, I am excited to work with and test the hardware as my prior research experience consisted entirely of analysis and simulation.”

As a research assistant for Carnegie Mellon’s Medium Energy Group, Harris analyzed Compton polarimetry data from the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Virginia.

Since learning he received the scholarship, Harris has been reading up on travel destinations and Swiss culture to prepare for his three months living abroad. He said he hopes to learn the secret to Switzerland’s well-known expertise in work-life balance and looks forward to getting involved in the international physics community.

“Ian is a highly motivated student, and his accomplishments are all the more remarkable in light of the fact that he is only in his second year at Carnegie Mellon,” said Richelle Bernazzoli, assistant director for undergraduate research and national fellowships, who worked with Harris throughout the application process. “ThinkSwiss will be an exciting opportunity for him to build an international network and make important contributions to particle physics at one of the world’s most important centers of research.”