The search for the Higgs particle (also known as "The God particle") using the Large Hadron Collider at Europe's particle physics laboratory CERN in Geneva is the largest and most complex experiment ever performed. Finding this particle will resolve one of the most fundamental questions in physics: why do the particles that make up matter have mass? It is also the only remaining elementary particle predicted by theory to be discovered.
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Today, a successful particle hunter has to have an extensive theoretical understanding of particle physics, advanced electronics and complex detector technology, automatic systems, and the use and even design of complex software tools for data storage, processing and analysis. And, above all, the researcher has to collaborate with a large number of colleagues working together on the same detector experiment. These are the skills the ARTEMIS Research Training Network developed in a small group of physicists who now all play key roles in the search for the Higgs particle. Launched in October 2006 with 7 partners, the project was funded by the European Union (EU) as part of Marie Curie Actions (MCAs) for the period 2006 to 2010 with €2.7 million.
"We wanted to create a flexible, smaller and close-knit research group," explains Rosy Nikolaidou. As a researcher for France's Nuclear Energy Agency (CEA) in Saclay, Nikolaidou is a member of the ATLAS collaboration and the coordinator of ARTEMIS. She reports that 13 researchers were offered contracts by the project. Six graduate students preparing their PhD's received 3-year contracts, and seven post-docs joined for two years. Now some of them are hired by CERN directly, while others work in several physics departments at universities that participate in the ATLAS experiment.
Besides direct involvement in the ATLAS experiment (where they participated in the testing and calibration of the many components of the detector), the researchers gained theoretical and practical knowledge by taking part in workshops, specialised schools and training sessions. Their work, which earned them a certificate in the understanding of all the components of the ATLAS experiment, gave them an excellent preparation for what they are doing today: the analysis of the data stream emerging from the ATLAS detectors. They also contributed to the fundamental aspects of the experiment: "We had an important impact on the preparation of the analysis and the understanding of the detector," says Nikolaidou.
Interestingly enough the members of the group acquired many other skills now required for a promising career. "We trained them to have an active role in our organisation, so that they could acquire management skills," says Nikolaidou. They also honed their presentation skills, giving them more visibility among the 3000 people in the collaboration.
Although their work seems to have little connection with the preoccupations of the large majority of people, they acquired skills that gave them new mobility, opening doors to many other areas. "The software skills they acquire can be used in banking, data mining, for medical applications, such as imaging, and statistics. One of the participants has been offered a position in the development of medical imaging technology. Depending on the market, they can always switch to a non-academic career," says Nikolaidou.