Physics & Astronomy, School of Science

Some of the world’s best and brightest physicists and their students converge at CERN, the world’s largest particle physics lab. This summer, those best and brightest included a team from Siena.

Matt Bellis, Ph.D., associate professor of physics, and students Sarah Markham ’24 and Josie Swann ’25 recently traveled to the superlab near Geneva, Switzerland. Their two-week experience included facilitating a workshop on analysis of data from a general purpose detector called the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS).

“CMS has led the way in releasing research-quality data to the general public – a first of its kind,” said Bellis. “This has resulted in new publications and scientific results from non-CMS members. However, it's still hard to access and analyze these data, even with the documentation. This workshop was the third of its kind in a series that began in 2020 that teaches people how to work with these datasets.” 

Their travel was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that Bellis received in 2019. 

Markham and Swann have been actively involved in research with Bellis for several semesters, and this collaboration led to a team trip to CERN. Markham has written and tested the documentation used in the CMS workshop. She learned the computing environment and tested the material both on her Windows laptop and a Linux computer in the lab at Siena, to prepare to assist workshop participants. She also presented her work at the April meeting of the American Physical Society. 

“During our time at CERN, when I and my colleagues were still writing documentation, she was able to test it out and find problems and offer suggestions, greatly improving the experience for the participants,” said Bellis. 

Markham said exploring the CERN campus and taking part in the workshops was “an absolutely amazing opportunity.”

“I’m really grateful to Siena and Dr. Bellis,” she said “To be in a space with all physicists, including Nobel Prize winners, to just exist in that space and see them and learn from them, was incredible.”

She said the workshops were “a little beyond” their undergraduate level but offered a major life lesson. 

“Although some of the stuff went over our heads, it was amazing to see where we might end up some day.”

Swann has worked with Bellis on a very speculative search for dark matter using the CMS detector. This past spring, she did an independent study to quantify the backgrounds for this search. 

“Backgrounds are physics processes that we know about that could ‘fake’ a dark matter signal. It's very important to study these backgrounds in any scientific analysis,” explained Bellis. “Josie continued her work during this summer’s research period and met with me and other scientists at CERN to discuss it.” 

Swann will continue her work through an independent study this fall. In September, she and Bellis will make a formal presentation via Zoom to their CERN colleagues about how to approach this search. 

“I really love the project I’m working on right now,” she said. “It’s a lot of concepts that I don’t understand yet but as I progress everything makes more and more sense. Other students should definitely take on projects that will challenge them; it led to an incredible experience and learning opportunity for me.” 

Bellis’ own primary research focuses on rare decays of the top quark, the most massive fundamental particle discovered to date. While at CERN, he was able to have some very productive meetings with colleagues about the details of this analysis.

“It is going to greatly help push the work along,” he said. “I also met with the CMS communications contact, who has organized discussions about outreach, where I’ve presented. I brought her a copy of the Siena-designed Quantum Party board game and she plans on showing it to teachers who visit CERN.”

Time at the workshop was also spent brainstorming with attendees about how the entire process of accessing and analyzing the data could be made more useful for the broader High Energy Physics (HEP) community.

Bellis, who has been to CERN several times before, said he is repeatedly struck by the international nature of the collaboration. Physics research is conducted in English, but the hallways and cafeteria at CERN echo with the home languages of many nations.

At the end of 2021, the CMS Collaboration released the first batch of its Run 2 data, which the workshop explored. Bellis noted that the Large Hadron Collider recently started Run 3 after a three-year shutdown to upgrade components of the detectors. 

“The machine will run until 2025, giving us three to four times more data than we already have! Everyone here has been very excited because it has been a lot of work these last few years to get to this point.” 

Looking to learn more about the CERN open data workshops? Click here