East Bay

Cal State East Bay Students Head to Geneva to Study, Participate in Research at CERN




​Deep underground in an accelerator spanning the border of two countries, protons race toward each other at lightning speed. As the particles collide (nearly 1,000 million times per second), these collisions trigger detectors that measure the momentum of each charged particle and record data about the energy carried by each. The data are then sent back to the lab, where data scientists pore over the numbers, searching for a sign of the invisible forces that have shaped our universe since the beginning of time. 

​This is CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research. 

Located in Geneva, Switzerland, it is the largest particle physics lab in the world. 

And in the summer of 2019, it was home to three Cal State East Bay (CSUEB) students who spent 10 weeks alongside physicists analyzing data and helping to build the next generation of detectors. 

CERN began in the 1950s as a small lab for scientists from Europe and North America. Its vision was to stop the “brain drain” to the United States and Canada that was occurring during and after World War II and to “provide a force for unity in postwar Europe.” 

These days, it serves as a world-class research facility focused on fundamental physics. 

​“The primary focus is on particle physics … and fundamental research removed from most practical applications,” said Dr. Kathryn Grimm, CSUEB assistant physics professor, who selected the East Bay students. 

“It’s one of those collaborations that in this particular field is a really cool thing to be a part of, it’s kind of like saying you work for NASA, it’s kind of the particle physics equivalent,” said Alex Penaflor, one of the students. 

Dr. Grimm, who did postdoc work at CERN, said the California State University has joined 45 other U.S. universities in becoming a member of the ATLAS collaboration. 

​Each participant must have taken and done well in a particle physics class at Cal State East Bay, and be enrolled in a computer programming class, to learn the data skills needed to work at CERN. 

And while the Cal State East Bay students are used to having access to hands-on experiments from virtually day one, at CERN they instead were a small part of a much, much larger research effort. 

“It’s really cutting edge the work they’ll be doing, but the fact is that because it’s so big, the part they are doing can feel really small,” Grimm said. “They have what we call tabletop experiments at East Bay where they do a large chunk of an experiment or research project, but there they’ll be doing just one tiny part.” 

​That cross-disciplinary work is key, she said, for students who may or may not end up working within the particle physics fields. 

“A lot of the same tools used for big data are involved in this work, so there’s a lot of people who have left particle physics and [gone] to Silicon Valley. So these are really good skills that can take students different directions.” 

​​And that’s exactly what Penaflor is hoping happens. 

“Recently I’ve been looking into engineering positions, but the experience I gain from the coding may be enough to get into the data science field,” he said​.