Androula’s Code: Physicist at CERN — How to make a difference in Academia

ResearcHers Code
Sep 1 · 7 min read
Androula at CERN, in front of the Globe of Science and Innovation

Androula’s can-do attitude makes her stand out, she sees every moment as an opportunity to kick some ass as she walks into her office in the morning. Contrary to stereotypes, she redefines her lifestyle and is known as the physicist who teaches Kung Fu.

(Source: Twitter)

Currently, a Research Associate at the University of Manchester, based at CERN (European Organisation For Nuclear Research). She is also part of the committee of Women in Physics.

Here’s her story in her own words.

Why did you become a physicist?

Fermilab changed my life — Thrills of the first international scientific experience

In high school, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a Physicist or study Classics. Thankfully my dad pushed me towards STEM!

When studying Physics at the University of Cyprus, I was the first Cypriot student to be sent to work at Fermilab, a Particle Physics Laboratory just outside Chicago, in the USA.

(Source: Fermilab)

I saw for the first time how an accelerator works, and how Particle Physicists take data and analyze them. I was thrilled!

That was my first experience with research, and that was what definitely played a role in me pursuing a Ph.D. and getting several offers with full financial scholarships from the USA and UK. I consider that to be one of my life’s best experiences.

Life in the lab and on the desk

What to expect everyday?

There is always a new problem that needs to be solved for which I write some code, then analyze the data that comes out. There is also a lot of team-work and motivation coming from it, without which nothing would be as easy!

Current Research — Increasing the number of Proton-Proton Collision in the Large Hadron Collider

I’m working on the upgrade of the largest particle accelerator in the world, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.

It smashes particles together that travel with the speed of light. By analyzing the data that comes out we come a step closer to answering unresolved physics questions, for example, how our Universe was created, why there is matter but no anti-matter, etc.

(Source: LHCb ( Large Hadron Collider Beauty))

I am working on a novel accelerator component that will help increase the number of protons colliding at the interaction points.

Her work on “Beam Dynamic Simulations With Crab Cavities In The SPS Machine” was shown in IPAC 2019(International Particle Accelerator Conference) this year.

Challenge Accepted: Self-Motivation

Self-Motivation. Definitely. Being able to keep going to work even if you’re stuck on the same problem for days, weeks, months.

To be able to push yourself to try yet another way to approach the problem until you solve it, or until you conclude that with these approaches, it cannot be solved. I learned that sometimes things may appear easier than they look when the problem is assigned to you. If you’re on a specific timeline, maybe the right approach is to stop and focus on something else.

One more thing that I learned during my Ph.D. is to take the weekends off. Many Mondays I solved Friday’s problems. You need to rest! ☺

Computational Resources and Languages

For data analysis I’m using Python, I learned it mostly alone, on the go, but I also took a class when I was at my Ph.D.

In the past, I was using C++ and ROOT. Coding is fundamental. This is how I run all my particle simulations and analyze results.

Everyone needs inspiration — Role Models Across the World

Outside Physics, I admire Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old who’s leading a global climate movement.

She started alone a “school strike for the climate” when she was 15 and less than a year later, 1.4 million students in 112 countries around the world joined her call in striking and protesting.

Your role models help refine you by inspiring you to do better. There’s always something new to learn. (Source (L-R) : Imperial College London, The Guardian, Clara Nellist, Wikipedia)

Within Physics I admire my friend Suzie Sheehy, Jess Wade and Clara Nellist, for their Physics work but also for their activism, outreach and inclusion activities!

What is the one thing that makes you feel proud of yourself?

Whatever happens, I keep going. If someone tells me I can’t, I roll up my sleeves and say, “Just watch (and learn ;) ).”

What do you do when you’ve put in all the hard work, but you don’t get expected results?

What’s the best way to deal with this?

This can easily happen in research. I describe that my Ph.D. was like a Dirac function: bad-results, bad-results, bad-results, and then a day with good results. Bad-results, bad-results… etc. You have to know this is normal.

  1. Break the problem in small pieces.
    Any piece you manage to solve is a success.
(Source: How can I break this down to something more manageable? by Sarah Jane Vickery)

2. Talk to your peers. The majority of them have similar feelings to yours — you’re not alone in this. This will give you the motivation to move on.

(Source: Pinterest, Twitter)

3. Eat well, don’t skip meals, sleep well, and exercise. You have to remember to be kind to yourself.

If you’re tired, even easy things will be difficult. Try again later.

The mental and physical strength it takes to be a physicist and master in Kung Fu.

4. Brainstorm with people, even with those that don’t necessarily work on your topic.

Explaining the problem to them, getting any kind of unexpected question from their side might help you get closer to the solution of the problem.

Share your knowledge with like-minded and diverse people. (Source: STEMettes)

5. Talk to your supervisor for guidance or a person you consider your mentor

6. Whatever happens, remember not to allow bad results to put you down. Spend time on things that do not involve work to get a better perspective.

Senior Master, 2nd Degree Black Belt

7. Also, learn about imposter syndrome!

You need to know if you are avoiding opportunities because you don’t think you are worthy or being overly self critical and blocking your own success. (Source: TED Ed)
If you find yourself somewhere in this cycle, it is time to finally deal with it. (Source : The Hustle)
(Source : Discovery in Action)

What advice would you like to give away to other women in STEM?

Have a mentor. Or 2, or 3.

Find people you look up to and drive you and keep in touch with them.
Work hard and be the best!

Help your peers, and ask for help too!

“ Know when to ask for help, who to ask for help, clearly state how they can help you. Ask for help in person and follow up on how their advice was effective. “

If you are inspired by her journey and would like to watch more serious discussions, you can watch her here :)

You could also email her for advice if you are interested. Details are at the end of the post.
She’s a mentor to a lot of girls and often participates in outreach activities, one of them being CUWiP (Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics). She fully supports equality among all and finds ways to help them.

What is the one thing you would like to say to your 16-year-old self?

You can go out once in a while. You don’t know it yet, but you’ll make it. Keep working hard but have a quick break now and then. ☺

If you’d like other collaborators or young students to reach out to you, could you please share your details?

Twitter: androulaalekou or LinkedIn

A fascinating and remarkable woman who taught me one of the biggest lessons of my life on how to ask for what you want and go get it. Reach out if you’d like to share your story or volunteer to be a part of ResearcHers Code.

Credits: Androula Akelou, Akanksha Ahuja

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