LHC Lunch

Meet Anna Phan

Globe-trotting and experiment-hopping

Every day Anna Phan tends to buy the same brie with fig jam sandwich, “which is weird, but it works,” she said. When we met for lunch, she also had two clementines that she’d gotten last weekend at the market in Lyon, France, a short train ride from Geneva, where she takes part in the LHCb experiment at CERN for Syracuse University.

Her accent is Australian but her heritage is Vietnamese. “Because I’m Australian, but I look Asian, and I work for a U.S. institution, people get all confused,” she said. “I can see their brains just going, ‘What’s going on here?’” she said. Phan has navigated many worlds, both in life and in physics.

Phan did astrophysics research during her undergraduate years at the University of Melbourne. In that field, she said, “your experiment is what the universe gives you.” You can’t control when a supernovae will appear, whether a galaxy you want to study will be in the right plane for viewing, or if your precious telescope time will fall on a cloudy day.

In contrast, Phan found particle physics offered her a more reliable and precise way of exploring the universe, one she finds more interesting. She did her Ph.D. in the ATLAS collaboration, shuttling between the University of Melbourne in Australia and CERN in Switzerland as work dictated. At the same time, Phan was also a Ph.D. exchange student at the University of Geneva. She was searching for a particular signal in the theory of supersymmetry, or SUSY, which relates each subatomic particle to another partner particle.

“I didn’t believe the signal I was looking for actually existed,” she said, “which was nice, because it was something that could be ruled out.”

ATLAS involves thousands of researchers spread across all time zones, making for what Phan calls a “24-hour experiment.” She learned to adapt her schedule, if strangely, to coordinate with everyone. “You end up shifting your workday to match [CERN],” she said.

After she finished her degree, Phan moved to another experiment entirely, LHCb. Phan’s plan was always to change experiments, “just to get a different experience.”

The LHCb collaboration is made of hundreds of scientists, not thousands like ATLAS. “It’s nice -- small meetings, people know who you are,” Phan said.

LHCb studies very detailed Standard Model physics, which she describes as almost the exact opposite of her search for SUSY. She’s glad to try something different, though catching up on all the new details quickly is a challenge.

Phan has turned this learning process into an opportunity for public outreach. Almost the same week she started at LHCb, she began blogging for US LHC blogs on Quantum Diaries.

“It’s forced me to learn things about the detector and the collaboration that I would have learned over time,” she said. “But I have to learn much faster to be able to explain them to other people.”

It helps that she is now so much closer to her experiment. After years of coordinating work from one side of the world to the other, Phan wanted to be based at the LHC, in person. She moved to CERN in April. “You can really tell the difference between working on site and in the same time zone as all your collaborators,” she said. Another bonus: “On a beautiful, sunny summer day, there is no better place to be outside in [than Switzerland].”

But it’s hard to forget how far away she is from home. “For five months of the year it is colder than the coldest temperature in Melbourne, and it is over 20 hours of flight away,” Phan said.

She thinks it’s worth it for the sake of being in the nucleus of particle physics research. Her favorite part of being based at CERN, she said, is “the excitement and the energy you really feel from people, particularly after so many years of building the machine and the experiments.”