Hey, everyone. My name’s Alec Josaitis; I’m a junior (third-year student) at the University of Michigan studying physics. However, I have taken this semester off from my University studies in order to conduct research in the ATLAS collaboration at CERN.

My time here truly has been a blessing, for as a first-generation college student, I feel particularly compelled to get the most out of my collegiate experience, as I am the first in my family to have the privilege of receiving this level of education.

Thus, I am grateful to participate in the University of Michigan’s Research Semester at CERN Program, which has allowed me to grow professionally and culturally more-so than any other program in which I have participated. I am convinced both types of growth have been accelerated by the region’s seemingly endless supply of good espresso, cheap French wine, and mountain-landscape views.

I had never had the opportunity to travel outside of North America before beginning my research at CERN, and most of my previous physics research experience lay in the field of cosmology.

Since the summer of 2013, I have developed methods to assemble, ultimately designed, and will soon fabricate key components for a novel detector for B mode polarization signals, an essential step towards the detection of primordial gravitational waves. This detector may be installed in the new, low-frequency array of the Advanced ACTPol (AdvACT) telescope in Chile.

Coming to CERN, I hoped to use experimental cosmology research-skills to help solve problems in astroparticle physics, in the division of particle physics which studies the relation of elementary, extraterrestrially-produced particles in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology. Instead, and with no less excitement, I find myself exploring a new discipline of high-energy physics which I have not yet had the opportunity to explore.

Since arriving at CERN, I have had the privilege to work with ATLAS Research Physicist and AMVA4NewPhysics member Tancredi Carli, developing an algorithm which applies the Matrix Element Method to the kinematic reconstruction of particle physics events which produce top-quark pairs.

In a nutshell, what this means is that our algorithm creates a theoretical “matrix element” for a decay process; in our case we study certain decay processes of top-quark pairs. We then compute a probability that this decay was observed for a given set of parameters, these parameters being provided by a Monte Carlo simulation of a top quark pair decay-process. Perhaps someday we will apply our algorithm to actual data from the LHC.

As Tancredi knows far too-well, I had to overcome quite a learning curve before contributing to our research. What limited knowledge I had of particle physics before arriving on CERN’s flagship campus came largely from my undergraduate coursework at the University of Michigan.

As valuable as this classroom experience is, there’s often a gap in the knowledge one has, and the knowledge one wishes they had, upon entering the trial-by-fire, highly-specialized world of research. In research, one no longer finds solutions to his or her problems in the back of a textbook. It is open-ended and challenging, but this difficulty is precisely what makes the work attractive!

I am continually grateful to Tancredi for his patience, and the time he has taken to provide me scientific context for our research, which has helped make the research surmountable. Not only does Tancredi supply me with relevant academic literature, or invite me to insightful workshops and lectures, but he took the time to create an introductory project which helped me teach myself certain fundamental aspects of his research.

Tancredi realizes that my time at CERN is limited, and he has tried his hardest to facilitate my growth as a physicist. I am sincerely grateful for his active pedagogy, as it has facilitated my personal growth as a physicist, and has given me confidence to pursue a career in experimental physics.

Aside from the unrivaled professional experience offered to me by my time at CERN, I am grateful for the cultural immersion offered to me by the surrounding francophone area at large. I have studied French since I was first given the opportunity to study a foreign language, at the age of fourteen.

Indeed, even during the University semester’s where I could not formally continue my studies in a classroom, I tried diligently to keep up my foreign language skills by reading literature in French, listening to francophone radio stations, or speaking with French who shared my infatuation with the language.

Living in Geneva has granted me plenty of time to make embarrassing verbal mistakes – incorrectly using slang with new-found friends, mistranslating a false cognate, etc. Thankfully, the Michigan – CERN program has my back, as the program provides me private French lessons once per week. These lessons have granted me a valuable time to reflect on the conversational mistakes I’ve made in French during the previous week, while also gaining new knowledge of Francophone culture.

I then look forward to the weekends, where I often have the chance to use these new language skills with new-found friends, as we explore Geneva or more distant lands.

Professionally and culturally, my first opportunity to visit Europe has been quite a blessing, and I will try diligently to make the most of the remaining time I have here.