Amanda Steinhebel wants you to share the joy of particle physics

| 31 January 2021

Amanda Steinhebel stands near the ATLAS detector at CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

Amanda Steinhebel stands near the ATLAS detector at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

The lure of particle physics was strong with Amanda Steinhebel in 2016, when she was just starting as a doctoral student at the University of Oregon in the United States. It was halfway through her first year of grad school, and she was trying to convince herself that it was better to pursue research in something other than particle physics — perhaps in a field that was seen as less esoteric, more down-to-earth.

“I knew I wanted to get into high-energy physics, but I was trying to be ‘responsible,’” Steinhebel said. “I thought, ‘I should do something where the work is more tangible.’ I spent the first half of my year at school trying to talk myself out of particle physics, and I couldn’t do it. I ended up studying HEP anyway.”

Since then, Steinhebel has conducted research on both the International Linear Collider and the ATLAS experiment at CERN, a path that’s enabled her to find physics connections between the two efforts and to create human connections in the community.

It happened one summer

Led by curiosity and a childhood fan of Bill Nye the Science Guy, Steinhebel always knew she wanted a career in science. She majored in math and physics at the College of Wooster in Ohio, a small school with a student population of 2,000. To broaden her studies, she spent every summer of her undergraduate career in physics research internships.

“I went out of my way to learn about modern physics research,” Steinhebel said.

In the summer of 2013, she studied neutrinos as part of a University of Colorado internship focused on the international, Fermilab-hosted Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, known then as the Long-Baseline Neutrino Experiment. The experience hooked her on particles.

“That was my first taste of a high-energy physics experiment,” she said. “It was the hands-on research experience that I had that I enjoyed the most.”

In 2015, she began her graduate studies at the University of Oregon, eventually joining the laboratory of Professor Jim Brau, Linear Collider Collaboration associate director, to continue plumbing the particle world. She expects to earn her PhD in 2021.

Collisions and connection

During her first two years at the University of Oregon, Steinhebel threw herself into R&D on particle detection at the ILC. She studied the physics consequences of the design of SiD, one of two particle detector concepts under consideration for the collider. Her specific focus was on a component called the electromagnetic calorimeter, which uses fine-grained silicon detectors to record the energies of electrically charged particles that emerge from particle collisions inside the detector.. For example, she simulated how changes in the detector’s geometry might affect the development of particle showers that appeared in the calorimeter.

Then, in her third year, Steinhebel turned her attention to the ATLAS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, focusing on an aspect with a tie-in to the ILC: the Higgs boson, the particle that confers mass to matter. The Higgs boson is one of a number of particles that are produced by collisions at the Large Hadron Collider, albeit rarely, and it transforms into — or decays into — other particles. Steinhebel focused on the decay of Higgs bosons into particles that escape detection, a process called Higgs-to-invisible-particles decay. At ATLAS, scientists can narrow the range of parameters that describe these invisible particles, but only to a point. And that’s where the ILC will come in handy.

“At ATLAS, we won’t necessarily be able to measure this process precisely, but if we could build the ILC, we could basically turn it on and immediately approach the limit of the invisible particles we want to measure,” Steinhebel said. “So we’re considering the same general physics processes in these two different environments, looking into the intricacies that go into both measurements.”

Her ATLAS work took her to CERN, located near Geneva, Switzerland, for almost three years. While there, she visited the German laboratory DESY to further her earlier work on the ILC’s SiD detector design. Researchers were testing a high-granularity silicon detector that uses a readout chip developed for SiD (so-called KPiX for its thousand pixels), and Steinhebel got to study the response of the chip using a test particle beam at DESY.

“That was a really fulfilling sort of full-circle moment,” she said.

Amanda Steinhebel takes a seat in Einstein's lap in Washington, DC.

Amanda Steinhebel takes a seat in Einstein’s lap in Washington, DC.

Taking particles to the people

Steinhebel connects more than developments in particle physics experiments and science facilities. She’s also eager to connect the people who make it possible to each other and to science fans.

At a recent ILC workshop hosted by SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, for example, she served as a voice of the community of young scientists who had worked or wanted to work on ILC research. Her role was to make sure early-career scientists felt welcome by established members of the ILC collaboration, to facilitate discussions between senior scientists and junior researchers, and to ensure the younger contingent’s questions about the project were heard and addressed.

“There were young scientists who are maybe on the outside looking in. The ILC physics case has been made pretty clear, but, I think for a lot of people, there are still questions of pragmatism,” Steinhebel said.  “‘Can we at this early stage in our career divert it to this path the ILC is on? Are there postdoc opportunities to pursue?’. It said a lot about the conference that we were having these discussions and that people were willing to listen.”

It was also a testament to the tight-knit nature of the ILC collaboration, which, for Steinhebel, is one of the most enjoyable aspects of working for the ILC. Even when the focus of her research shifted a few years ago from the International Linear Collider to ATLAS, she continued following ILC developments.

“I was able to stay within the community and keep tabs on what was going on. The collaboration is tight-knit, and everyone has a good handle on what’s going on,” Steinhebel said. “Even as a newer student, I was able to absorb the big picture in the ILC environment in a way that you can’t really replicate in a large experiment.”

That kind of good communication should extend to those outside the circle of scientists working on the collider, Steinhebel says, and even into the general public.

“We need to present the science in a way that makes sense to everyone, not only to show the value of the ILC as a project we want to push forward, but also because, being scientists who live in the world, we should want to share our work broadly,” she said. “This is important to the first degree within our community, especially the ILC community. I think there’s some degree of responsibility — that we’re able to bring down our pretension, bring down the level of detail, and communicate our work to anyone.”

Engaging with the public not only brings people around to the ILC as a valuable tool for discovery, but it can enhance the scientists’ own experience by creating a connection that breaks down the us-them mindset.

Steinhebel herself has done science outreach in physics classes at high schools and at her alma mater.

“I find a lot of value in the casual conversation with the person at the bus stop,” she added. “Scientists are real, approachable people, and we have crazy ideas, but we can tell you our crazy ideas, too. You can be in on the crazy.”

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