Saints Head to World-Famous CERN

Saints Head to World-Famous CERN

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Click here to see more photos from the trip.

It’s called CERN, it straddles the border of Switzerland and France, and for anyone who researches or teaches particle physics, it is THE place to be.

CERN is the largest particle physics lab in the world, and it’s home to the world-famous Large Hadron Collider. Siena students Jamie Bedard ’18 and Madeline Hagen ’19 traveled to the super-lab in June with Dr. Matt Bellis, assistant professor of physics, for a series of meetings related to their analysis of data from a general purpose detector called the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS).

The best and brightest physicists and their students from all over the globe converge CERN for wide variety of research – although this research is conducted in English, the hallways and cafeteria echo with the home languages of dozens of nations.

In their lab at Siena, Jamie and Maddy peer into what looks like a lighted microscope, tracking what appear to be minute jet trails. This project is a part of what led them to the Swiss-French border for an amazing undergraduate opportunity.



Jamie Bedard '18 and Madeline (Maddy) Hagen '19

Arriving at CERN!

Fresh off the plane, we arrived at CERN for Day One and received our passes that allowed us access to the CERN campus. We were able to enter with all the other people who work there every day. This gave us a sense of inclusion, like we were their colleagues. Having that feeling right off the bat set a great tone for the trip; we felt that we were visiting physicists there to do a job.

The opportunity to interact with other CERN collaborators was inspiring. During our day at the teacher outreach center called S’Cool Lab, we taught professional engineers and graduate students, including the S’Cool Lab manager, how to build a device we designed. They treated us like professionals, offering advice and expertise to improve our design and instructional skills.

During analysis meetings, we had the opportunity to talk one-on-one about our research. Louise Skinnari, a post-doctoral researcher working for Cornell University, and Jim Hirschauer, a research scientist who works at Fermilab, were two of these incredible individuals. They were both encouraging and offered support to our existing knowledge while also expanding on it.

Interacting with professionals from other countries gave us a broader perspective of the science industry. It also gave us motivation to move forward into our own careers, knowing we have the skills to thrive in that environment.

Getting the Lay of the Land

We were lucky enough to have two Cornell graduate students give us private tours. Shao Min Tan gave us a tour of CERN campus, bringing us to the Proton Synchrocyclotron, the Low Energy Ion Ring and the linear accelerator. This tour gave us the history of CERN and showed us how past experiments have been repurposed for today’s use. It even included an incredible light show projected onto the Proton Synchrocyclotron that showed the construction and use of the machine. It left us speechless.

The second tour was with Kevin McDermott at P5, the CMS Detector and control room. We went underground at the detector site to see the behind the scenes operations, including data acquisition and electronics. Unfortunately, we were unable to see the detector because the Large Hadron Collider is running and becomes highly radioactive. It was amazing to see the site and we appreciate their donated time.

Getting to Work

With two years of cloud chamber research between us, we headed to the S’Cool Lab, the teacher outreach center at CERN, to educate teachers on how they could build their own cloud chambers.

A cloud chamber is a detector that allows you to see particles in alcohol vapor. This project was started in 2013 by Dr. Bellis as part of his outreach work related to his National Science Foundation grant and was later supported by a dedicated CMS Outreach grant.

The idea behind the cloud chamber is to create an inexpensive piece of lab equipment that gets people excited about particle physics by allowing them to “see” subatomic particles. The classic cloud chamber design uses dry ice to cool the vapor enough so that it will condense around the particles when ionized. However, dry ice is not available to many teachers and it will eventually sublime away, lasting only about a day. Our design uses computer parts and Peltier thermoelectric coolers to replace the dry ice. This makes the device accessible to a wider audience. As an additional benefit, once you plug it in and turn the switch, you see tracks in under 60 seconds!

The past two summers we ran workshops for local teachers and taught them how to build our cloud chamber. At the end of the week, they got to take the cloud chambers they made to their classrooms at no cost. During this time, we released a set of instructions online that was featured on the Instructables website. A few months ago, the coordinators of the S’Cool Lab reached out to Dr. Bellis with questions about our design. Dr. Bellis responded by offering to bring a few students and cloud chamber parts to their lab to show them how to build their own.

When we found out we were going, we had to prepare the materials. This included 3D printing the mounting pieces, milling insulation, and assembling wooden boards. We knew our design wasn’t perfect so we redesigned several mounting parts to make it easier to assemble and disassemble. We learned how to use a CNC mill in order to accurately cut the insulation for the chambers. We created a new set of instructions from our previous ones and made diagrams for use and for troubleshooting. At the lab, we spent half a day leading them through the build process and learning to build the classic dry ice cloud chamber.  

Separate from the cloud chamber work, last September we began working on a particle physics analysis of top quark decays. We are looking for baryon-number violating decays that are a signal of a fractionally charged boson. These decays are a possible explanation for the asymmetry of matter and anti-matter in our modern universe, which was not present after the Big Bang.

We conduct this analysis using CMS data, and coincidentally our trip to CERN overlapped with CMS Week. About 500 of the world’s 3,000 CMS collaborators convened there. This opportunity allowed us to meet with several other particle physicists to ask questions and receive guidance on our analysis. We made invaluable progress in several days.


While overseas, we saw much more than the CERN campus. We explored Geneva and even went swimming in Lac Leman. In Annecy, France, we went paddle boating on Lake Annecy and attended a workshop on high energy computing at Laboratoire d'Annecy-le-Vieux de physique des particules (or LAPP).

Siena Made It Happen

The trips we take as undergraduates at Siena are not just about the work we go to do. They are about enriching our lives and learning about different areas of the world. We truly appreciate Dr. Bellis and Siena College for making this trip possible.

Undergraduate research is a large part of our education. Working on the projects that we are involved in supplements what we learn in the classroom while also expanding on our skills. Without our research, we would not have the opportunity to visit these labs and see the world. This trip and our work is an integral part of our experience as undergraduates and is due to Siena College’s dedication to hiring innovative professors, like Dr. Bellis, who are dedicated to their students' education.