A while ago (Nov 2010) I wrote a short article about my new job at CERN for Anticipations, the magazine of the Young Fabians. Mostly it’s full of left/centre left politics/social issues related articles, but they also have a ‘My Day Job’ column for people to write in with ‘genuinely’ interesting jobs. Hopefully mine fits the bill!
Last month I started a new job. By almost all measures, it’s rather unusual – It involves a massive high voltage electrical network, but this isn’t the National Grid, over 27km of underground tunnel system, but it’s not the London Underground, international co-operation on a huge scale, though this isn’t (quite!) the United Nations. I’m lucky enough to work on a small part of what is arguably the most complicated and technically advanced machine ever created by the human race, so far… I work at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider.
CERN is an international collaboration in the field of particle physics which was founded by a number of European nations in 1954. The UK was one of the twelve founder members and continues to benefit from access to the unique research facilities which CERN offers. On a typical day here there may be up to ten thousand people on site (which spans the French-Swiss border near Geneva), the majority of whom are research physicists. They are the ‘users’ of the huge underground machines. The remainder of those on site are permanent staff responsible for running CERN (everything from catering contracts to particle accelerator design and engineering) number only about two thousand, which makes for a demanding working environment. The collaboration exists to provide facilities which are far beyond the scale and scope of what individual member could achieve on their own. At CERN active research takes place in fundamental physics across the board, rather than the specific quest for the next ‘new’ particle such as the Higgs Boson. Although of course everyone here is hoping that the discovery of the Higgs will be made possible by the LHC.
As an electrical engineer, my particular work involves the provision of power supplies for the particle accelerators and physics experiments. At the moment I’m working on some new supplies for the safety system which protects the particle beams circulating within the LHC and the new experimental ground control room for the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which is scheduled to be attached to the International Space Station next year and will be searching for dark matter and anti-matter in space.
The languages that I’ve heard spoken so far since my arrival include English, French, German, Portuguese and Japanese as well as many others that I can’t yet recognise! The electrical team I work in is predominantly French speaking, although as part of the procurement procedure all major items of work must be tendered in a process, open exclusively to companies from member states (which now include 20 European nations) with all documentation provided in English. Most of my colleagues have a good degree of fluency in two languages, with a few being fully tri- or even quad-lingual! The majority of my meetings take place in French and when projects come to the implementation stage most of the workers actually doing the construction and installation work are also French speakers. I studied French at A-level and throughout university, though at the moment working in a foreign language every day is proving to be a real (and enjoyable) challenge!
Of course, it isn’t just about the job. I’ve had to move countries to come here, which like all major changes in life brings both advantages and inconveniences. The best thing about being here so far is definitely the food. The range of wines and cheeses available in local shops is superb, with competitive prices. The countryside here is breath-taking, I can see snow covered mountains from my office window, and on clear day even Mt Blanc! The biggest downside is that I’ve left my friends and family behind in the UK. Fortunately flights from Geneva to London are frequent and not too expensive, so I can at least visit regularly. The ski season is also rapidly approaching so I’m expecting an influx of welcome visitors to take advantage of cheap (free!) accommodation on the floor of my flat and the proximity of many nearby ski slopes.
It’s probably a fair question to ask how I ended up in my current position, so here’s a little explanation: I first visited CERN back in 1999, as part of an international school trip I persuaded my parents to send me on (thanks Mum & Dad!). During that first visit I was inspired by the possibilities of the groundbreaking physics research and the incredible machines being constructed here. After graduating with a degree in Electrical Engineering, I was able to obtain a CERN ‘Summer Student’ internship in 2005. During my internship I worked directly on a tiny (just 10 square centimetres across) part of the particle detection system for one of the gigantic physics experiment called LHCb, which is part of the LHC complex. I highly recommend applying for the CERN programme to anyone currently studying a Physics, Engineering or Computing related course at the moment!
After finishing my internship, I spent 5 years working in the UK construction sector, designing buildings. At the same time I was making progress towards obtaining my registration as a Chartered Engineer, which can only be gained through a period of working as an engineer. Demonstrating good progress towards registration was an integral part of the application for my current position at CERN. I was able to achieve Chartered Engineer status just before taking up my new role here.