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TRIUMF PhD Student Awarded Marie Curie Fellowship

28 October 2016

For many students, being paid to travel and work towards their degree may seem like an entirely fictional narrative. For Alexander Held, this narrative has recently become a reality.

Alexander is a Physics PhD student at the University of British Columbia and member of the ATLAS Group at TRIUMF. He was recently awarded an AMVA4NewPhysics Marie Sklodowska-Curie Early Stage Researcher fellowship; a position hosted by CERN that allows students to pursue their PhD while simultaneously gaining valuable work experience. AMVA4NewPhysics is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 Programme.

Alexander will be working specifically on Higgs physics, analyzing ATLAS data using proton-proton collisions from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). We sat down with Alexander and asked him a few questions about his new fellowship and what this opportunity means for his future research.

TRIUMF: How did you hear about this opportunity?

AH: I was at CERN earlier this summer and was made aware of this opportunity by my colleagues – they pointed it out to me because the organizers of the AMVA4NewPhysics program were looking for someone to work on the exact topic that I have been involved with here at TRIUMF. I am studying something called the Matrix Element Method, which is a way of distinguishing different kinds of collision events that we see in the ATLAS detector. We are investigating a rare process, in which Higgs bosons are produced in association with top quarks. The Matrix Element Method is a powerful way of identifying when this process took place, by calculating Feynman diagrams.

TRIUMF: Why do you think it is important for students to have opportunities like this?

AH: This fellowship gives students the possibility to work and study at CERN in Geneva for two years. The ATLAS collaboration consists of researchers distributed all over the world, but a large fraction of them come to CERN regularly. Being based there is extremely beneficial; the direct contact with people working on similar topics as me is tremendously helpful when I get stuck. There are other features of this program that are very attractive – you move around to various institutes, including one month stays in Portugal and Belgium, and there is also a 3-month internship at a consulting company, so you can extend your professional network and view of what you are working on.

TRIUMF: How do you see this fellowship contributing to your research in the future?

AH: The calculations required for the Matrix Element Method are extremely computationally demanding. We are currently limited by the available hardware to do them with, so lots of approximations have to be made in order for the calculations to finish in a reasonable amount of time. The ideal choice of these approximations is not clear – oftentimes you have to rely on your intuition. I believe that I will be able to benefit a lot from the exchange with other members in the AMVA4NewPhysics program, who are working on similar topics as me. In the long term, the various workshops and visits to other institutes will also help me decide where to continue after my degree. The fellowship allows me to still work towards my PhD thesis, while granting these additional benefits – I am excited to get started!

Congrats on the fellowship, Alexander! We look forward to hearing your stories from CERN.