Dr Kate Shaw on experiments, extensive research, and making science a more inclusive space

In-between taking on some of the universe’s biggest mysteriesm as an experimental particle physicist at the University of Sussex, Dr Kate Shaw is also guiding a future generation of scientists. Passionate about outreach and communication, Kate is also driving for diversity and inclusion in physics. She is currently studying data for the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), and the DUNE experiment at Fermilab. She compares the painstaking analysis on her projects to ‘everyday chores’. While contributing to some of the biggest scientific discoveries, this remains her job. Although it does seem an exciting reason to get out of bed every morning.

Firstly, I asked her to give us a brief understanding of what it means to be an experimental particle physicist.

“We are really interested in trying to understand what the fundamental building blocks of the universe are,” she explains, putting all of her very extensive work very briefly for someone who knows very little about science, like myself. Particle physicists look at all the different forces that dictate how particles interact since The Big Bang. What makes Kate experimental however is the fact that she works in a laboratory. Explaining what she does further she says: “I work at CERN on the ATLAS Experiment where we study collisions of protons, billions of collisions, every second. Each time, different particles are created and we are trying to understand all of these basic building blocks.” On the other hand, theorists in science do more of the mathematics. 

The ATLAS Experiment is at the Large Hardron Collider (LHC) on the border of Switzerland and France.

At this experiment, scientists are working together to try and figure out some pretty large things in our universe that no one really understands. Kate elaborates, there is a good understanding of the “particles that make up you and me” but “you may have heard of dark matter. Dark matter makes up so much more of the universe than visible matter does – it is everywhere in the universe but we have no idea what it is made of, so we are trying to find that.” In order to grapple with such questions, ATLAS developed quantum mechanics, which describe really small things, and special relativity, which describes things that go really fast, such as particles.

Another large part of their research at ATLAS is really working out exactly what gravity is. “Other forces like electromagnetism, they propagate through a fundamental particle, so when you feel an electric force or magnetic force, that’s propagated by a photon.” However, “the gravitational force does not have a particle associated with it.” So, scientists don’t actually know, when you zoom into quantum mechanics, how gravity works. 

Understanding gravity and establishing what dark matter is are two of the biggest questions that ATLAS Experiment is trying to answer.

“By colliding billions of particles together at every second we can collect lots and lots of data to almost try to ‘map out’ our vision of what our universe should look like”. 

What is even more exciting about the ATLAS Experiment is that it is one of the largest collaborative efforts ever attempted in science, with over 5500 members and over 3000 scientific authors. Kate especially loves collaborative research because of the collection of ideas and perspectives made available to the study. “It is not about yourself or becoming the next Einstein,” she suggests. “We only make progress working together in teams and bringing our own specialties”. It is an international project – a coming together of intellects all over the world. Kate uses the analogy “someone has to do the washing up and someone else has to do the hoovering” to describe the part everyone has to play. Nobody could do this on their own and no country could have a laboratory big enough.      

Even speaking through Zoom, I could see the passion and joy radiating to confirm that Kate certainly feels this too. “I never feel like an expert.

At all stages you are continuously a student and I like being on that journey, you never quite get to the end.”

What’s more, Kate always knew she wanted to be a physicist. She reminisces growing up in the middle of nowhere in the Norfolk countryside. When she was around ten years old she remembers reading The Brief History of Time and found it incredible to read about the universe beyond her rural home. This memory is described as a lightning bolt to the brain. She thought, “This is amazing. I want to be like Stephen Hawking.” Today, Kate Shaw is living out her young dream. 

Beyond ATLAS, Kate is also working on DUNE (Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment) at Fermilab.

I asked what this experiment entails, and how it differs from ATLAS. “ATLAS is on the large hydron collider which is 17 miles where they smash billions of particles in the centre of our detector,” she begins. This project has been running for 12-14 years now and is due to run for another 10-15. However, DUNE, which is based in the US “is being built now so that is something I am interested in because in ten years when it is built is when we will be collecting data. It is fun to be in an experiment from its beginning.”

The DUNE experiment is all about neutrino physics. It will study neutrinos and will make a beam of them to go 13,000 km under the earth’s crust to detect them and see things such as neutrino oscillation. “As they travel, they change into each other and we don’t understand this at all. Neutrinos have a mass, and in our theory they shouldn’t, so again, every time we have a mismatch between what we see and what the theory says, that could be a door to new physics. I am enjoying learning about it. The DUNE in a few years will start bringing out new results and we might understand a little more about how the universe works.”

This work is groundbreaking and revolutionary, and it is extremely important to Kate Shaw that everyone has access to this science, and that everyone has the same opportunities to become a part of the science too.

In 2010 she founded Physics Without Frontiers at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy. This project is all about inclusivity in developing countries. “Each country needs scientists” she asserts, “for its growth and to solve economical, sustainable problems that we all have.” 2020 alone is a perfect reference for how much we need and rely on scientists and discoveries for our personal health and wellbeing.

Imbalance lies with funding. “Richer countries can afford to do fundamental science but poorer countries struggle because they don’t have the resources to go around.” What Kate is doing to encourage equal opportunities via Physics Without Frontiers is supporting young university students who are from developing countries but working abroad and want to do outreach back to their own countries.

To provide an example, Kate says “if you’re at the University of Malawi, but they don’t have access to funding for research or a PhD, these students will love physics but not be able to further their studies. This is really unfair.” What Physics Without Frontiers works to do is send volunteers to teach at the university. “I do training with some of our open data we have, so students get engaged with physics and also learn some programming skills. Then we help mentor the students who are eager to go for further studies.” 

Physics Without Frontiers exemplifies how Kate is not just curious about her own learning, but keen to support others. She loves working with the volunteer network and watching the growth of the minds within the project: “It is really about people giving to universities and students.”

Dr Shaw is also a lecturer at the University of Sussex

I ask if Kate feels as though she has her own responsibilities to be a role model to the next generation of scientists as she leads them through lectures. “Well, the only role model I really am is that I’m female,” she states truthfully. This, however, is more than what Kate had when she was growing up. “When I was younger, there were less people I could identify with in the field.” Role models have the ability to create “an amplification effect where young people can see people like themselves and that is so important.” 

Inclusivity in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) industries is much more than gender though. It’s about lots of different backgrounds. “In the UK this can be your ethnicity, or it can be your economic background, or even if you’re from a city or rural area can mean it is much more difficult for you to get into a specific field.” Kate reassures us that inclusivity in STEM is improving. But it is: “Just to do with how much effort you put into inclusivity. If you don’t do anything it will just stay the status quo.” 

Kate says that the physics department at the University of Sussex alone is a diverse group of people. “I think it is really great to showcase all of us and really get across all the different personalities.” While inclusivity is great for society, science itself actually is rewarded too. “Science benefits from diverse ideas and different backgrounds. If you just have eight white men, all from the same university and similar background, then you are going to get very similar ideas. It is good to mix up the people to bring different ideas to the table.”

Finally, I asked Dr Kate Shaw if she had any ambitions to accomplish in 2023

At first thought, Kate explained how most are very physics-specific. One big goal they do have at ATLAS is to release data to the public and students so that everyone can access it. While they have released some workbooks and have a great website already. “We want to release a huge amount more,” Kate reveals. She says it would be great for students of all ages and the public to have access to all of their information. “I hope we get some new discoveries in physics too because we are all scratching our heads!” Hopefully the near future will see a whole new understanding of physics and answers to fundamental problems, all with the help of Dr Kate Shaw’s incredible contributions. 

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