[INTERVIEW] Meet Claire Lee, a South African ATLAS physicist at CERN

Anyone with even a passing interest in the sciences must have wondered what it’s like to work at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN. Based in Switzerland, it’s one of the world’s largest and most respected centres for scientific research, birthplace of the worldwide web and home of the gigantic underground particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

What wonders await those who join its ranks? What marvels must there be in the midst of such concentrated brain power?

Since our chances of landing a job at CERN are probably limited to exciting opportunities in catering or sanitation, we figured it’s better to ask someone who does know. Someone like South African phyicist Claire Lee, who works right on ATLAS – one of the two elements of the LHC project that confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson in 2012.

Lee has been involved with CERN since 2008 and has lived at the Swiss institute with her family for the past three and a half years. htxt.africa’s Tiana Cline sat down with Lee for a chat about all-things CERN, astrophysics and the elusive Higgs.


How did you get interested in physics?

Haha, this is a funny story. I’ve always loved science as long as I can remember (when I was very little I wanted to be an astronaut or an archaeologist), and have been fascinated with space since I could walk. But it really started in high school when I read the book Sphere by Michael Crichton. There was a character in the book who was an astrophysicist and I remember thinking to myself “Astrophysicist has to be about the coolest job title in the world, I want to be that!” So I set off to university with astrophysics as my final goal; however the astro-related projects that I ended up doing just didn’t seem to ever grab my interest. It was only in 2004, when for my Honours project I followed a basic version of what a friend was doing for his PhD in high energy nuclear physics, that I really started feeling the excitement.

Map showing countries in collaboration in the ATLAS experiment.

Map showing countries in collaboration in the ATLAS experiment.

So science and physics were always a passion?

In physics, High Energy Physics (HEP) is definitely my favourite, with a focus on Higgs and Beyond the Standard Model (BSM) physics. Our current theoretical knowledge is culminated in what is known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics, though we know that the theory is not complete (it doesn’t explain dark matter or dark energy, for example, nor the neutrino masses, and we have no idea how to incorporate gravity into the mix). So clearly there is lots of work still to do that will keep us hopefully busy with discoveries (or at least progress) for a while.

In other fields, I do enjoy following the latest results in cosmology (such as the Planck vs BICEP2 saga, and AMS) and in particular where the fields of cosmology/astrophysics and particle physics overlap.

And on a more personal note, neuroscience and the way the brain learns is fascinating too.

Before jetting off to CERN, you studied in South Africa at both Wits and the University of Johannesburg as well as in Taiwan…

I started off doing a BSc degree at Wits, I took Physics, Math, Applied Math and Chemistry in first year (2001). I hated Chemistry, so I dropped that first, took a second year Astronomy course, and ended up with Physics & Applied Math in 3rd year. I then did an Honours in Physics which was possibly one of the most fun years I’ve had in my life (we were a great class – 2004). At the end of that year I travelled to Virginia, USA for three weeks to work on an experiment at Jefferson Lab which became the subject of my MSc. I finally finished the MSc in 2009, also through Wits, and then moved to UJ where my supervisor had moved.


As of 2007 South Africa wasn’t yet involved in the ATLAS experiment (though we had been working on ALICE, as well as ISOLDE and some of the smaller NA experiments for quite some time). But the annual South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) Conference we met Ketevi Assamagan, a US citizen originally from Togo, who was working at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) on ATLAS. He had been invited to South Africa to speak at the conference – I think by Zeblon Vilakazi, member of the ALICE collaboration and (I think) director of iThemba LABS at the time. A group of us, especially my supervisor Prof Simon Connell and myself, were particularly interested in the type of physics ATLAS was doing, and a year later (2008) we flew to CERN to attend one of the ATLAS collaboration internal conferences, and meet with some of the heads of the experiment to discuss our involvement.

The end of 2008 also saw the launch of the South Africa – CERN Programme which brought all the groups working on the various experiments together under one consortium.

“Our current theoretical knowledge is culminated in what is known as the Standard Model of Particle Physics, though we know that the theory is not complete…” — Claire Lee, South African particle physicist 

ATLAS is an expensive experiment to keep running, and as such requires a financial commitment from its member institutions. There are yearly fees based on personnel (students are free), as well as a joining fee which equates to about R1M. The agreement was that we would have two years to account for the joining fee (from the DST), and BNL would cover our yearly fees in the meantime. In 2009 Prof Connell was at UJ, and Wits hired an ATLAS physicist Prof Trevor Vickey. Together they got their respective universities to commit to R250k each of the ATLAS joining fee, and the government to the other R500k, and in July 2010 the two universities were officially voted into the ATLAS collaboration as part of a single South African institute. (Since then UCT and then UKZN have joined the cluster.)

I also lectured at UJ (first year calculus-based physics, extended programme) for two years from 2009-2011, and my son was born in May 2010.

Thanks to popular TV shows like the Big Bang Theory, places like CERN and the idea of being a physicist has been somewhat romanticised. What is life at CERN really like?

My best friend came to visit and described it as “Just like a huge university, with no undergrads” and that’s a pretty good explanation! There are so many facets to it, but for the most part you wouldn’t say you were at one of the world’s top scientific institutions just by walking around: most of the buildings were built to pretty utilitarian standards. We joke that all expense was spared above ground here, but it is part true as the most important part are the accelerators and detectors below ground. CERN itself employs less than 3 000 people – some scientists, but mostly staff in management, HR and engineering. There are about 10 000 people working on CERN projects in total, but most are attached to their own University or institute, and definitely not all at CERN at once!

CERN has a large turnover of people, one of its missions is to train people in a worldwide environment and then let them take their experience back home, and so there is always a flux of especially young people moving in and out of the area (it gives you a whole new perspective on the concept of friends). A lot of people will move to CERN for a year or so of their PhD, especially at the start, to completely immerse themselves in the physics, and then move back to their home institute for the rest of their degree, just making occasional trips to CERN.


It’s easy to just focus completely on the physics aspect, but of course there is a large social side too, and CERN has a number of clubs and societies for just about anything you can think of (sailing, dancing, karate, LGBT and so on). CERN also does a great deal of outreach – I have hosted a number of underground visits to ATLAS, and virtual visits to the control room, competed in, compared and judged the FameLab competition, as well as co-organised two standup comedy evenings!

I think one of the things I really like about the CERN ethos in general is that it doesn’t matter who you are, what matters is what you are good at. And CERN has become pretty good at using the talents of their personnel to their best advantage (as long as you’re happy for them to be used, of course!).

What has been the most interesting part about being at CERN since you moved to Switzerland at the end of June 2011?

There have been so many interesting things – being on shift and looking after a part of the detector during the 2012 physics run was great, and the Higgs boson discovery and announcement was a huge highlight! But also the people – everyone I meet is pretty great in one way or another, and I have made some very close friends who are all amazing at what they do as well as in their extracurricular activities. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by so many exceptional people.

Also, on a personal note, watching my son grow up in the French-speaking world has been amazing. He was just over a year old when we moved over, and at one and a half he started going to a French creche (my husband looked after him full-time for those first five months while I worked). He now speaks fluent French (WAY better than either of us) as well as English.

Lee hosts a virtual visit with Algeria from the ATLAS control room (Image: CERN)

Lee hosting a “virtual visit” with Algeria from the ATLAS control room.

A silly question – but what do you actually do on a day-to-day basis?

My standard day is usually comprised of some mix of coding and attending meetings (either in person or remotely via Skype), interspersed with coffees and lunch. There are many different types of work one can do, since I am mostly on analysis this means coding, in C++ or Python, for example to select a particular subset of events that I am interested in from the full set of data. This usually takes a couple of iterations, where we slim down the dataset at each step and calculate extra quantities we may want to use for our selections.

The amount of data we have is huge – petabytes of data per year stored around the world at various high performance computing centres and clusters. It’s impossible to have anything but the smallest subset available locally – hence the iterations – and so we use the LHC Computing Grid (a specialised worldwide computer network) to send our analysis code to where the data is, and the code runs at these different clusters worldwide (most often in a number of different places, for different datasets and depending on which clusters are the least busy at the time). At the ultimate or penultimate step our personalised datasets are usually small enough to put somewhere local (either on a laptop or university cluster) from which we can make nice-looking plots etc.

Various meetings happen all day every day on ATLAS, though of course you only attend the ones relevant to the work you are doing as it would be impossible otherwise! Whether it’s an analysis- or performance-related meeting (analysis is, eg, a particular physics analysis, such as a Higgs measurement, while performance studies relate to the measurement and calibration of the physics objects – like electrons – that are used in the analyses) people will present their most recent work, and usually there will be some discussion on how to move forward.

View of the ATLAS cavern side A beginning of February 2008, before lowering of the Muon Small Wheels.

View of the ATLAS cavern side A beginning of February 2008, before the lowering of the Muon Small Wheels.

And on the ATLAS Experiment?

The ATLAS experiment is one of the four large experiments at the LHC. It is also the biggest of the four detectors (in volume) and like CMS, is a general-purpose detector, designed to detect all particles from the high energy proton-proton collisions. This allows ATLAS to cover many different aspects of physics, from measurements of the Higgs boson to searches for new physics. The detector itself is built like a giant three-dimensional puzzle of different detector components, with each part measuring a different aspect of the final-state particles from the collisions as they move through the detector.

To be able to do any analysis, after the data has been recorded the events have to be reconstructed, meaning that the signals from the different parts of the detector are combined and fitted into objects such as electrons, muons, jets etc. Analyses can then select events based on the objects they have in them – a Higgs boson decaying to four leptons, for example, would then select events containing electrons and/or muons.

“One of my main tasks has been developing a new and complimentary method of measuring the missing transverse momentum, only this time we use particle track momenta rather than calorimeter energy measurements.” — Claire Lee, South African particle physicist 

Other quantities based on these objects are also calculated, such as the missing transverse momentum, which is the vector sum of the energies of all the particles in the event, measured by the calorimeters (and comes about due to conservation of momentum). This is important for events where we have particles that we do not detect, such as neutrinos, and so the only way we know they are there is by noticing an imbalance in the total momentum (the neutrino would then be going in the other direction). A very large amount of missing momentum, by the way, could also be a signal for a supersymmetric particle, so this quantity is used in a number of analyses.

I’ve done various things – I worked as an online expert for one of the ATLAS calorimeters, for example, making sure that it was running properly and able to take good data while the collisions were happening. This sometimes involved being called in the middle of the night to solve problems!

But one of my main tasks, and what my thesis is on, has been developing a new and complimentary method of measuring the missing transverse momentum, only this time we use particle track momenta rather than calorimeter energy measurements. This method has proven to be very useful, especially when combining the result with the “traditional” measurement from the calorimeter, and is used in various Higgs analyses to help separate signal from background.

We’ve heard that there are over 3 000 physicists working on ATLAS. Who are the other African scientists working at the institute? It must be interesting working with such a diverse group of people.

Ketevi Assamagan (who is now a co-supervisor of mine), for example, was the first ATLAS physicist I ever met. My other supervisor (Rachid Mazini) works for Taiwan but he is originally from Morocco. And of course although the groups have grown in the past few years, the High Energy Physics community in South Africa is pretty small, and we all fall under the SA-CERN programme, so we know each other quite well.

There are over 100 different nationalities represented on ATLAS, so you become quite culturally-aware, especially when it comes to being sensitive of others’ commitments around things like Thanksgiving, Ramadan, Christmas, etc, as well as personal issues like kids. I’ve found that people are in general pretty tolerant, and as long as your work is coming along well you are pretty free to work as you see fit.

Several hundred of the 1700 scientists contributing to the LHC accelerator and experiments gathered in June 2008 in CERN's building 40.

Several hundred of the 1 700 scientists contributing to the LHC accelerator and experiments gathered in CERN’s building 40.

Back to South Africa – are you positive about the state of science/physics education here?

Yes and no. I think universities are doing a good job, mostly, we do have some top quality researchers here in South Africa and are able to place well on the international scale. On the other hand, the quality of the schooling is going down terribly, and some of the students gaining university entrance nowadays and qualifying for these courses know extremely little. This only puts pressure on the universities, increasing lecturers’ loads, which is unfortunate.

[You can read about Wits’ new CERN-related data lab here – Ed]

Science is tough generally, and the sort of high-pressure environment that ATLAS is even tougher, so you need to have some internal reason to continue doing what you do. Second, making sure you have really supportive people around you also is important, people who encourage you to succeed and are there for you when you need them. And finally, it’s about making contacts; attending meetings (in person if you can) and talking to people and presenting your work regularly, as well as more “fun” stuff like outreach, all helps to get people to know who you are and what you can do.

[Images – Atlas.ch]

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