Melissa Mathers

I am a first year Master's student in Physics and Astronomy.

Tell us about yourself

I am a graduate physics student from Windsor, Ontario, Canada. I obtained my Bachelor of Science in Physics from the University of Windsor in Spring 2015, and am currently living in Toronto where I am starting my graduate studies at York University. I am a passionate Let's Talk Science Volunteer, and in my spare time I like to cook, make greeting cards, and post on my science blog.

Interior picture of CERN
The Alpha-2 experimental apparatus, located in the Antimatter Factory at CERN.

What is your research about?

I study antimatter and it's interaction with gravity! I work as part of the ALPHA collaboration at CERN. ALPHA stands for Antihydrogen Laser Physics Apparatus, and it's an experiment that hopes to create, trap, and study antihydrogen atoms. Hydrogen is the simplest atom, made only of one proton, and one electron. Antihydrogen has one antiproton, and a positron. Slow-moving (cold) antihydrogen was trapped for the first time by the ALPHA collaboration in 2008, and since then we have been studying it's structure and other important properties.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

My day-to-day research is a lot of work with coding and computing. When I am on shift in the ALPHA control room at CERN, I sometimes get to control the main computer by giving it a sequence of instructions to send to the experiment, which is completely automated - from the magnets to the trap doors. Other times I record the data we collect, or sometimes analyze it using software me and my coworkers have written!

“It's really important to ask questions and not get discouraged! Everyone was a beginner once.”

What have you found most challenging about your research?

For me, one of the hardest things about doing research at CERN is being so far from my family and friends! Traveling is an amazing experience though, and it has allowed me to meet brilliant scientists from all over the world who are passionate about their work, which helps to keep me motivated, too. Another difficult part of doing research is the steep learning curve when you get started - it's really important to ask questions and not get discouraged! Everyone was a beginner once.

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

Although working at ALPHA is exciting, I am most passionate about science outreach, teaching, and policy. Not only does a graduate degree qualify me for the jobs I am interested in, but during my time at ALPHA and as a physics student, I developed skills that will be invaluable to me as I plan to pursue a career as an outreach scientist. I learned practical skills like coding, and drawing my own conclusions from the results of an experiment.

How has your research impacted the world?

There are several groups studying antimatter at CERN, all hoping to solve some of the biggest mysteries of the universe. We are trying to understand why the universe has more matter than antimatter - a result that is not predicted by our current model. This kind of research sparks the imagination, but it also provides the world with really useful technologies. Think of digital imaging, the World Wide Web, and nuclear medicine.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

High energy physics seeks to recreate conditions that were present at the time of the Big Bang. As we get better at building more powerful accelerators, and more accurate detectors, we recreate phenomena that we've never been able to observe before, and we discover new physics that helps us to explain the world around us. The next big breakthrough could be anything - a new kind of particle, a new force - anything that will bring us closer to a Theory of Everything.

“I didn't know it at the time, but choosing to study a STEM subject has offered me virtually unlimited career possibilities, and I would do it again in a heartbeat!”  

What motivates you to do research?

As I was finishing my undergraduate degree in Physics, I realized that there was still a LOT for me to learn. After I finished my third year, I had started to look at job postings that I might be interested in, and several of them were looking for applicants with graduate degrees in STEM fields. That made my decision to further my education simple. The research field I chose, however, is motivated by the work of atomic and particle physicists that I read about when I was in high school. I was inspired by their fearless passion for pushing the limits of human understanding.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

There is a quote from a commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave that holds a lot of meaning for me. He said "You can't connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking backwards." Looking back now, my interest in someone else's research led me to my studies in physics, which brought me to volunteering in science outreach, which is where I discovered my passion. I didn't know it at the time, but choosing to study a STEM subject has offered me virtually unlimited career possibilities, and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

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