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Physics Students Spend Summers at CERN as Part of New Collaboration
Nov 20, 2023

IRVING, Texas (Nov. 20, 2023) — Most University of Dallas students trade the mesquite trees of Dallas, TX, for the vineyards of Marino for a summer experience of licking gelato and discussing architecture under the warm European sun.

Still others trade the prairie lands in summer months for the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge research in particle physics, thanks to a collaboration between the n_TOF experiment at CERN and the Department of Physics at UD.

Genevieve Alpar ’25 and Thomas O’Donnell ’24 spent their summer at the historic laboratory, primarily working to improve one of the machines used to run experiments. In their spare time, Alpar and O’Donnell mingled with an international community of scholars, experimenting with new foods and a uniquely global parish.

“Our goal for the summer was to figure out if this new type of gamma detector was sufficient to meet their expectations to replace old equipment at the n_TOF collaboration,” O’Donnell explained. 

Alpar and O’Donnell tuned the device for efficiency and precision, supporting some of the world’s most advanced investigations into the secrets of the universe.

The two students aren’t the first Crusaders to work at CERN.

When in Rome

“I think one of the neatest things about this is that it’s been developing since 2018,” says Associate Professor of Physics Jacob Moldenhauer, PhD, department chair and leader of the project. 

UD’s collaboration began in earnest when UD physics professor Will Flanagan, PhD, now an affiliated research assistant professor, was working as a research physicist at CERN in Geneva. Other Crusaders had worked at CERN previously; Will Spearman, BS ’08, studied edgeless silicon detectors during his junior year, and Monica (Lacy) Bennett, BS ’10, completed a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at a different CERN experiment. In the spring of 2018, Flanagan invited a group of physics majors who were studying abroad in Rome at the time to tour the labs and attend a regular collaboration meeting. Flanagan later brought another group of students in January of 2019.

In May of 2022, a group of interested students were invited to meet with a small experimental research group at CERN known as the Neutron Time of Flight team, or n_TOF. Alpar and O’Donnell were the latest students to be selected for the summer program.

“I believe CERN did end up buying the detectors that we were using,” said Alpar, now considering pursuing a PhD in physics. “This project creates the groundwork for others to write.”

When asked if the students might develop their research into an article, Moldenhauer said their work is actually prior to the publication process. Other scientists will benefit from the improvements that Alpar and O’Donnell made at the n_TOF facility.

“A lot of people will build publications based on the instrument that they’ve helped fine-tune,” Moldenhauer said.

Participants in the CERN summer program enjoy a unique experience for the culture as much as the science. The collaboration is international: Some of the 800 other students at CERN hail from Spain, Greece, Italy, Scotland and Austria, to name a few countries. Moldenhauer said the collaboration will lead to new relationships between UD and scientists at universities around the world.

Students lived on campus at CERN hostels. Interns participating in the program enjoy seminars offered throughout the summer, as well as sailing, rugby, cycling and hiking clubs for students on the CERN campus. There are also music events and food festivals aplenty, and Alpar and O’Donnell even discovered a nearby English-speaking church with a Latin Mass.

All of these adventures, along with the research, are possible thanks to generous alumni donations and the Cowan Physics Fund, which helps pay for room and board for summer research students.

As a result of the collaboration with n_TOF, UD students and faculty have more opportunities to conduct research and publish their work, opening up the possibility of new grants.

“We’d really like to thank alumni,” Moldenhauer said.

“The donations that we have received in the past few years help foster this collaboration and will in turn bring in more grant money from these publications.”

Uniquely UD

“UD students are some of the most hardworking students I’ve ever come across,” Moldenhauer added. “They’re very curious and very respectful; I think it’s the small classroom environment. That builds a nice relationship between the students and the professors.”

The CERN experience created a unique trifecta for the UD undergrads, combining scientific research, European discovery and international friendship all in one.

“CERN reflects Geneva,” O’Donnell said. “You go to Mass in Geneva at the English parish, and there’s people from all over the world there. It’s such a vivacious parish: people from China, Asia, Africa, South America. CERN is kind of the same way, where you meet people from all over the world and eat dinner with them and try the food that they're making for themselves at the hostel. They see you’re making tacos over there, and they kind of chuckle at it, and they’re making their fancy Indian food or something. That was a cool part of the experience for me.”

“We would go to Mass in the morning sometimes, and it was wonderful,” Alpar added. “Everyone was so nice. They had this international food festival with finger food from all over the world, and everyone was super fun — it was a great time,” she said. “Some people would walk into the office and say, ‘Hey we’re having a barbeque right now! Let’s stop working and do something fun.’” 

Doesn’t sound like a bad way to spend the summer to me.

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