By Angie Vicars
Just about every physicist on the planet would bend over backward for an opportunity to work at the Large Hadron Collider, the most complex experimental facility the world has ever known.
So how did an undergraduate former art major at UT become one of the 1,700 US researchers trying to solve some of the greatest mysteries of the universe? All she had to do was ask.
When Meg Stuart approached her physics professors about the possibility of becoming a researcher, she was surprised to learn they were already talking about recruiting her. As a sophomore, she was welcomed to the Relativistic Heavy Ion Physics Group—a team of UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers working on the ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) Detector.
OK, so maybe it all wasn’t that easy. A year later, Stuart—a triple major in physics, honors math, and computer science—wrote proposals and sought funding to travel to Switzerland. To be able to lay her hands on the actual equipment her research was trying to improve was paramount.
There were a few bumps in the road, but a grant from the Department of Physics and an undergraduate research fellowship eventually made Stuart’s journey to Geneva a reality. She wound up spending an entire summer at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, as a hardware expert.
But before physically working on ALICE’s systems, Stuart was required to attend training to learn how to deal with heights and safety in confined spaces. Although the heavy ion detector stands nearly fifty-three feet tall and weighs ten thousand tons, physicists and engineers must pass through a tiny entrance about two feet in diameter to reach its inner workings.
“It was exciting to see the inside of the detector—something tangible behind my research,” Stuart recalled.
Due to the dangers of radiation, the detector is accessible for maintenance only when the ion beam is fully shut down or temporarily stopped for a technical issue. “You don’t ever know when that’s going to happen, because it’s usually running around the clock,” Stuart said. “There were times when I was down in the detector at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.”
Being ready to go at a moment’s notice was a challenge she happily accepted. “I was mostly making improvements to the cooling system for ALICE’s electromagnetic calorimeter data processing units,” Stuart said. “It’s the last detector the particles hit, and they deposit their energy there. It’s where you get measurements on energy momentum.”
Other times she was doing little fixes like shoring up loose cords that were causing faulty data. “One time it was something as simple as going in and unplugging a cord and plugging it back in—little things like that,” Stuart added.
One morning as she was heading down to the detector, an oxygen deficiency hazard alarm went off. Luckily it was just a malfunctioning fresh air pump, but it gave Stuart a greater appreciation for all the safety training she had endured. “I had all my gear on, including an emergency breathing system oxygen pack and mask,” she said. “Incidents do happen, but they’re not very common.”
When she wasn’t ten stories underground making repairs, Stuart began designing an operating system and processor to handle huge masses of data in communication with ALICE’s larger network.
She also collaborated with three other scientists on a research paper detailing a more accurate method of removing unwanted data from a particle collision. “High-momentum particles provide useful data, but 99 percent of a collision is low-energy particles. This is why we are figuring out a new way to subtract them off,” Stuart explained.
Without question, these are some extraordinary accomplishments for an undergraduate. But what’s even more unusual is that Stuart found her original major, art, was too difficult.
“Art is something where you put all of your time, all of your effort, every bit of your passion into it, and in the end you still aren’t satisfied with yourself. You still don’t have it right,” she explained. “But when you finish a problem and you have solved everything, it’s just pretty.”
Stuart is a Chancellor’s Honors student who recently received Chancellor’s Citation Awards for Extraordinary Academic Achievement and Extraordinary Professional Promise. She won best presentation at the American Physical Society Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.
As a volunteer with the Society for Physics Students, Stuart enjoys teaching science to elementary school students on Saturdays, encouraging them to develop innovative ways to solve problems. “They just blow me away with their creativity,” she admitted. “They get to experience what it’s really like to be an engineer or scientist and to try things that might fail.”
Whatever the future holds in store for Stuart, it will undoubtedly involve finding solutions. “I am in love with physics. Art was my first love, but physics is my true love,” she revealed. Sounds like a beautiful and fruitful relationship.