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Aalia Ahmed

University of York

Physics with astrophysics BSc
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The Big Picture

Aalia completed a year in industry at CERN in Switzerland as a ‘technical student’ supporting the project work of her supervisor and wider team. The team has been developing a high-speed optical link module which is now in the production phase. They receive the modules in bulk from the manufacturer for testing, analysis and further improvement. 

“It’s kind of crazy what this tiny module can do. Eventually, when it’s in the detectors it will be transmitting out a lot of data from the experiments for analysis.” Scientists from around the world come to CERN to use its unique machines to answer fundamental questions, pushing the limits of technology for the benefit of society. 

“I actually came here during A levels on a school trip and I was like, this is so cool, imagine working here! So, when I decided I wanted to do the year in industry, I thought I’ll apply to CERN just to see? And then I got it! It’s such a forefront of science and an amazing collaboration between people from all over the world. Then when you get here, you’re working on a part to contribute to this and it’s amazing!”

My Experience at CERN

Aalia carried out a quality assurance program to check the modules under various conditions. “We need to make sure that these devices can actually work and function and be stable because they need to be in the detector for a long time and still work if they get bombarded by ions and are subjected to extreme temperatures.”

“When I initially got the offer for this role I knew that it would be electrical engineering more than physics but even so it’s not exactly what I was imagining. But what I’ve ended up with is not worse, it’s perhaps even better, I would say, than I originally thought!”

In Aalia’s building the offices are on one side and labs on the other so staff can move between the two. “There are days when I’m doing the analysis and maybe even writing a report on the results and you’re in front of a screen. But when I’m doing the testing on other days, I arrive, look at emails, and then start testing the modules in the lab. So it’s been a nice mix in that sense.

Aalia found a flatmate and apartment via CERN’s online ‘marketplace’ “So I actually had accommodation secured before I got here. But a lot of people I know arrive and stay in the CERN hostel and then they find somewhere to live.” CERN also offers lots of social opportunities such as sports clubs, on site facilities and welcome events. Aalia was a little disappointed to miss out on the skiing though! “It’s so popular because they provide all the transport and lessons and everything, places go so quickly I was just too slow filling out my details and they were gone! Socialising wise a lot of people go to the main restaurant after work, have a drink, or get some food so it’s nice.”

Aalia’s Impact…

“Right at the beginning, and even for quite a while I was like, am I actually even helping? But I think I have helped at least a little bit! So, things like the test setup is working now, so you just press start and then it takes data at 10 minute intervals and I did contribute to that!” And of course, there are all the countless modules Aalia tested and the resulting data she’s analysed! Towards the end of her placement: “A colleague came by to talk about putting the modules into a detector they are developing! It was so nice to see how it’s going to be applied in the greater scheme of things.”

The Physics Connection

The problem-solving skills Aalia developed during her degree have been invaluable during her placement “For example, in your experimental setup, if there’s something that’s not working, you have to pinpoint why, looking at all the possible problems step by step and then find solutions.” Due to COVID Aalia’s lab experience at uni was somewhat limited “but I think even then, the lab experience I did get, getting that hands-on experience, definitely helped”. 

Skills Learned

Not to mention all the electrical engineering skills Aalia’s picked up, she’s also discovered that there are so many things that can go wrong with experimental set ups! “I’m so glad that I’ve met that challenge here. I know how to deal with it, and I’ve had my supervisor and my team members to help me understand, and how to go about fixing it. I know I will come across this in the future and I am prepared!”

People skills are essential in most jobs and in particular Aalia found taking into account what other people are saying is really important “It’s very wholesome to be able to, discuss things with other people and to get their ideas and stuff when you’re completely stuck on something. At the beginning I didn’t want to disturb them, I know they’re all so busy. But they are more than happy to help. They’ve all in their own way helped me learn and develop. It’s been really, really good.”

The Application Process

“Compared to other placements I applied for, it was a bit more extensive” Aalia submitted a CV, cover letter, academic transcript as well as an application looking at her areas of interest and experience. Then came an automated online interview “After that there was a bit of a wait and I was like, ‘it’s fine, nothing’s gonna happen’ and put it to the back of my mind. And then I got an email from the team leader here, asking if I’d be available for an interview. And then after that they sent a ‘congratulations’!”

“CERN is an international organization, and they have scientists from all over. They have so many PhD students, technical students and people coming in and out. It’s very much a research place, but it’s also a place of learning and so I think they do really care about you as a person, and what you can bring.”

What about Nerves?

“I think a lot of it was definitely imposter syndrome, and even now sometimes it’s still a case of ‘I shouldn’t be here’. So that was quite a big thing but my team really helped and they were all very nice. I guess I was mostly nervous about, honestly, just being a burden and not being able to contribute, but that sort of starts wearing off as you start contributing and you start feeling that yes, I’m actually helping with the work.”

“Technical challenge wise it was a case of when I got here I literally knew nothing! It’s electrical engineering and my physics knowledge only helped to a certain extent. You read the past papers and reports of the team members and it wasn’t until after the first 3 months, I was like, yes, I can read this report and understand what they’ve written.” 

“Being in another country was challenging. I had to sort out all my bills and I had to call up a French electrical company! But it was fine, I ended up speaking to someone who spoke English and that really helped, because at the beginning, it was a case of ‘there’s going to be so many barriers, because everyone speaks French, and I know no French at all’ but because Geneva is a very international city most places you go people speak English. I also took a French beginner’s course so now when I go into a restaurant or whatever sometimes it’s just easier to speak French and it’s nice, you know, it’s their language why shouldn’t I speak it. So, I guess there was a bit of a language barrier, but not as much as I thought there would be.” 

The Final Word

“It’s been such a valuable experience and I’ve met so many great people and worked with so many incredibly intelligent people.  And just to see this sort of environment, where people come together and collaborate was amazing. Also, it helps you learn a lot about yourself and what you’re capable of, and how fast you can adapt to certain places and learn new things. It’s helped me realise that I would really love to go work in another country for a couple of years, and that I wouldn’t be scared or apprehensive about doing that, because I’ve sort of already done it and it wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought it would be.”

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