PhD in the Spotlight: Priscilla Pani
On 10 September, Priscilla Pani (b. 1986) will be awarded her doctorate at the UvA. As part of her doctoral research at the Institute of Physics (IoP) and the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics (Nikhef), she attempted to find ‘top squarks’ with the help of the particle accelerator in Geneva.
What did you do?
‘I used the Large Hadron Collider, which is the particle accelerator in Geneva, to look at quarks. Quarks are miniscule particles. They’re invisible to the naked eye. There are six different types, and I looked at the top quark. This is a particle that doesn't occur naturally; it can only be produced in a particle accelerator. There’s a theory known as the super symmetry theory, which assumes that every quark has a partner. This is known as the squark. In particle physics there’s a standard model, the theory we currently work with, which describes the forces and interactions within matter. But it’s an incomplete model. Super symmetry theory fills in those gaps. To find out whether the super symmetry theory is actually correct, I attempted to find the partner of the top quark, in other words the top squark.’
How do you identify a squark?
‘The particle accelerator causes protons to collide with each other. Protons are tiny sub-atomic particles. The collision causes the protons to break into even smaller particles, including quarks, and probably squarks too. The squarks are unstable and they too break down into identifiable particles. These can be measured using the ATLAS detector, a component of the particle accelerator. I looked for the top squarks in a particular area with a mass of 200 GeV to 500 GeV. I was unable to find them there. I was really disappointed at first, but later realised that this was a result too. The fact that I didn’t see them, doesn’t mean that top squarks don’t exist. It just means they weren’t in that area. After this, I’ll be doing a postdoc in Stockholm. We’ll be researching whether top squarks are perhaps located in a particle with a higher mass.’
What was it like to work with the particle accelerator?
‘Really fascinating. The particle accelerator in Geneva is the world’s most powerful particle accelerator. The ATLAS detector, the component of the particle accelerator I worked with, is really big: 44 metres long, and 25 metres in diameter. It’s around 100 metres underground. You can’t normally get near it, because the environment around it is highly radioactive. I was fortunate to be able to get close to it a few years ago. The machine was temporarily switched off. I helped clean it and could even touch it. It was an unforgettable experience. I also learned a lot from working as part of a diverse team. My team comprised 15 people from many different countries. It taught me to approach things from different perspectives.’
You’re from Italy. Do you plan to go back?
‘That’s almost impossible if you want to progress in this field of study, as I do. There isn’t much work for trainee research assistants or postdocs in Italy, certainly not in fundamental science. Government cuts have seen those disappear. That’s why I came to Amsterdam. Nikhef has an excellent reputation. I found it a great place to work, and would recommend it to anyone.’