Becoming a Researcher in High Energy Physics

A jet event from the ATLAS experiment at CERN

            The second semester of freshmen year, I decided to take honors physics, electricity and magnetism with Professor Tae Min Hong, which, unbeknownst to me at the time, would eventually lead me to finding my research mentor. The class was challenging to say the least, but one of the most interesting and educational (albeit frustrating at times) aspects of the class was the lab component. This was during the middle of the pandemic before classes were allowed to be in person, so Dr. Hong decided to distribute lab kits with things like a multi-meter, Arduino, and various circuit components for us to use. As an electrical engineering major, I loved the circuit labs, and they exposed me to many important concepts; one of my favorite labs was when we had to build a “Foxhole Radio” out of simple components which was then able to pick up on some radio stations. At the end of the semester and things became a little less rushed in the class, Dr. Hong told us about his research and specifically indicated that he needed electrical or computer engineers since much of his search focused on machine learning and firmware design. As soon as I heard this, I immediately emailed him expressing interesting in a position in his lab. His research sounded very interesting to me, especially since it was an intersection between my interests of physics and electrical engineering. Furthermore, I wanted to work with Dr. Hong since I really enjoyed his class and felt that he would be good mentor. We emailed back and forth for a little bit, and he gave me a small project to work on as a starting point.

            Over the summer, my main goal was to get acclimated with his research and what others were working on at the time, and it was challenging to understand what was going on at first. Dr. Hong works in the field of high-energy particle physics, so at first, I had no clue what they were talking about; it was like they were speaking a totally different language of muons and gluons and jets and quantum chromodynamics color confinement and all these other physics terms which I was not even close to studying in my introductory classes. Research is about pushing the boundaries of what we already know, and in order to do so, you have to know what came before it as well. This can be really difficult especially if you haven’t touched upon these topics in class, and as such, it becomes your responsibility to learn some of these concepts to do effective research. I tried to read up on things like the standard model of physics and machine learning concepts in order to get a better grasp of the research that was going on. At the beginning, it’s possible to feel like you know nothing or that you aren’t making any progress, but if you continue slowly learning and absorbing information, you eventually realize that you have learned more than you realized. Conducting research can almost be empowering, allowing you to realize that you are able to learn advanced concepts on your own and make meaningful contributions. Of course, you are not alone in this endeavor, your mentor is there to guide you through this entire process.

            Professionally, research teaches you so many useful skills, both specific to your field and general life skills. For instance, in the time that I have been working with Dr. Hong, I have learned much more about physics and machine learning that I could then use professionally or in other endeavors in the future. However, much of the skills I’ve learning are also applicable no matter what field you’re in, such as time management, working as a team, or being able to independently learn concepts or solve problems.

            If you are even slightly interested in doing research, I would highly recommend at least trying it out even just for a little bit. To get starting, it really helps to know what general things you are interested in. Find a researcher in your field, or maybe outside your field, who is conducting research that fits your own interests, which is really the most important thing. Don’t do research that you’re not actually interested in just to put it on your resume, find something that genuinely interests you which you would have fun doing. That way, you can be excited about the things that you learn or the work that you do, and that’s really much more important in the long run. If you find someone whose research fits your interests, just send them an email expressing interest, many professors are happy to respond, and even if they cannot offer you a position, they could know someone else who could help you land a research position. In general, just keep an eye out for these opportunities, and you will eventually find the right fit for you.

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