Particle Physics Nirvana
February 25, 2016
Through the ASU Honors Program, Wimpee was selected for the University of Michigan Research Semester at CERN program in Geneva and spent the 2015 fall semester at the European Laboratory of Particle Physics (CERN), which is home to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator.
“The experiment I worked on dealt with the compact muon solenoid, or CMS,” Wimpee said. “I was working on the CMS electro-magnetic calorimeter, which measures the energy and momentum of photons and electrons. My job was to make sure the calorimeter stayed calibrated over time so that the measurements they took from that part of the CMS stayed accurate with respect to time and with respect to the machine as a whole.”
“When I first got there, it was just awesome to be at CERN,” he added. “But after a few weeks, it began to feel more like just a college for researchers. It was an extremely relaxed atmosphere, which I didn’t expect. It really is awesome and is the mecca for particle physics, but it was not as overwhelming as I thought it would be.”
While at CERN, Wimpee stayed in an apartment just across the border in France with two male roommates, one from Dartmouth University and one from Georgetown University. Their other two fellow interns were female students from the University of North Carolina and University of Michigan.
“The thought I had in my head was that I wouldn’t be as smart as these kids from the big schools,” Wimpee said. “But the biggest takeaway for me was that it wasn’t true at all. Their top students are just like our top students. We just happen to be going to a smaller school.”
“The whole experience reaffirmed that ASU is the right choice for me, and I probably couldn’t have done this trip if I hadn’t come to ASU.”
Outside the lab, Wimpee and the other interns also played tourist, taking bus trips to random destinations, hiking in the Alps and touring Geneva on foot. Though French is the predominant language in that area, most people also spoke English. That was lucky for Wimpee, who wanted to meet as many people as possible, but didn’t have time for French lessons.
“Reading it was not as difficult,” Wimpee said, “but speaking it, I tried but gave up after a while. I learned enough to order food and ask where the bathroom was, stuff like that. The program hired a French teacher for us, so there were French lessons every week. But I had scheduling conflicts and couldn’t go, so I was the worst in our group at speaking French.”
Wimpee also did not count on being in Europe during and after the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist bombings in Paris. Borders were closed and security tightened as authorities searched for the bombers’ suspected collaborators in Geneva.
“The last month I was there was pretty scary,” Wimpee said. “Except for work, I pretty much didn’t leave my apartment.”
Despite that, Wimpee’s time at CERN reaffirmed his educational and career goals to continue in particle physics research—and his time spent outside the lab may have had an even greater impact.
“The main thing I learned is that there is no substitute for travel to help you grow as a person,” Wimpee said. “You just can’t get the sort of experiences any other way that seeing other parts of the world provides. I also learned how important it was to meet and get input from people who have a different perspective on the world and its diversity. And I know I want to live in Europe.”
“This experience was absolutely life-changing,” he added. “It started as me trying to get internship and research experience for my résumé, and that is still a big part of it. But most importantly for me, it’s the memories I made, the friends I met, learning to live more independently and learning to take more personal responsibility. Those are things I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise.”
For now, though, he is glad to be back at ASU.
“There are many of the same types of opportunities at ASU as there are at the larger schools my CERN roommates go to,” Wimpee said. “The whole experience reaffirmed that ASU is the right choice for me, and I probably couldn’t have done this trip if I hadn’t come to ASU.”