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Dr Helen Heath

 Name: Dr Helen Heath


Age range: 41-50

Research institution: Physics Lab, University of Bristol

Research career length: 30 years

Research Council:
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

Location: Bristol, England

Salary: £50-70k

Brief summary of research: High energy particle physics

School qualifications:
A-levels: Mathematics, Further Mathematics, Higher Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry

Qualifications post-school:
BA Physics, Oxford University
PhD in High Energy Particle Physics, University of Bristol, including a year spent at CERN

Career path:
Postdoctoral research Toronto (University of York) on ZEUS experiment at Hamburg in Germany
Research assistant and temporary Lecturer, University of Bristol
Super Conducting Supercollider
CMS experiment (Compact Muon Solenoid detector)

Some of the most important research that is taking place in physics uses immense energy to collide particles at extremely high speed, to find smaller particles that have been predicted to exist. Helen Heath is part of a worldwide community of physicists and engineers whose work is helping us to understand what everything is made of.

What is exciting about particle physics is that we investigate what everything is made of - the fundamental structure of matter. For example, collisions between protons at extremely high energies in the Large Hadron Collider have allowed us to produce the Higgs boson, which scientists have been trying to find for decades. Another part of my research programme, NA62, is more subtle, and will study very rare decays of particles called kaons and look for differences from the predictions of current theories which could indicate new particles too massive to be observed directly.

After my A-levels I went to Oxford University to study physics. Since my father had been my maths teacher, my act of teenage rebellion was to take physics not maths at university. I'd got interested in particle physics while doing a project at school. I had hoped to become a teacher, but didn’t get a place at my preferred university (Bristol) to train, but I was offered a chance to do a PhD there - so I decided to do that first! During this time I spent a year working on an experiment called NA32 at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, investigating particles containing charm quarks.

Sometimes I forget why the work I do is exciting, but I do quite a lot of public understanding, and other people’s interest is very good for reminding me that we are doing something very challenging and interesting

On completing my PhD, I went to Toronto to work on a large construction project, forming part of an experiment called ZEUS, based in Hamburg, Germany. This was followed by a return to Bristol as a research assistant and temporary lecturer. Over the following five years I managed to have three children and had my appointment made permanent. I also worked briefly on a high profile, but later cancelled project - the Super Conducting Supercollider. I’ve worked on an experiment called CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid detector, since you asked) and other collider projects. Some people may think of an experiment as a small venture but on CMS, there were around 2000 physicists plus about the same number of engineers and technicians - so it was a huge team effort and takes some organising too.

I teach one or two lecture courses, am a personal tutor to about 15 students and supervise a couple of final year undergraduate projects. I also chair the teaching committee, which considers proposals for change from staff and students. I’m involved in reviewing new programmes from other university faculties and have just retired as the Chair of the STFC Women in Science Focus group, and joined the Institute of Physics education board. I am one of the publications committees for CMS which reviews publications before they are sent to journals.

The benefits of some research is much easier to see. I have colleagues using particle physics techniques for medical applications. However research often requires immense ingenuity and can have benefits far beyond the original aims. The techniques being used in medical work might not have been developed if it wasn't for curiosity driven research.


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