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Dr Claire Lee, probing the structure of the universe

By Helen Grange

Dr Claire Lee is a nuclear physicist at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland, where physicists and engineers are probing the fundamental structure of the universe.

Her extraordinary career was launched during her PhD in Elementary Particle Physics at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in 2015, having accumulated a vast bank of knowledge over many years of study and research in her field at various institutions, locally and abroad. That year, Claire was also listed as one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 South Africans.

At CERN she is based at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, where she is part of ATLAS, a particle physics experiment that is searching for new discoveries in the head-on collisions of protons of extraordinarily high energy. She is also currently a postdoctoral research associate at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), a US Department of Energy national laboratory located in New York.

“I love the fact that we are trying to understand the most fundamental pieces of the universe, and all that that entails. We have to build these enormous, complex machines in order to probe smaller and smaller, and it’s like a never-ending treasure hunt with many little and big rewards all along the way,” says Claire.

Born and raised in Florida on Johannesburg’s West Rand, Claire started school at Auckland Park Preparatory, then did high school at St Mary’s in Waverley. She always did well academically, especially in maths and science (physics and biology), and matriculated with four distinctions (English included). Keen on sport, she practiced karate and got her black belt. “When I was 13, I represented South Africa in a karate tournament in Japan, and in Grade 11, I represented South Africa in rowing here in Europe,” she recalls.

As a child, she wanted to be either an astronaut or an archaeologist. “I loved space and dinosaurs! Then I never thought much about it until when I was in grade 10 and I read the book Sphere, by Michael Crichton. In it, there is an astrophysicist, and I thought that was the coolest job title ever, so that’s what I decided I wanted to be,” she says.

Claire enrolled for a BSc (Physics, Applied Maths, Maths, Chemistry) at Wits university from 2001 to 2003, going on to do Honours in 2004 and MSc High Energy Nuclear Physics from 2005 to 2009, when she started her PhD at UJ.

“I’ve always known I wanted to go to university – my parents both have degrees, so it was sort of a given. My initial idea was to go to the US straight after school, but it was way too expensive, and my new boyfriend (now husband for 11 years) encouraged me to register here in South Africa. I am glad that I stayed in South Africa – the cost of university in the US is extremely high. Also, I think that what we cover in our four years of BSc plus Honours in South Africa leaves us at a better place than what you get with an equivalent four year degree in most of the colleges in the US, not counting the ‘specialty’ places like MIT, of course,” says Claire.

At UJ, her thesis was on the development and performance of an algorithm used to calculate the amount of missing transverse energy (ETmiss) in collisions. “I was really lucky to have a wonderful supervisor, Prof Simon Connell, with whom I worked for both my MSc and PhD, and who gave me the opportunities to travel overseas and work on different experiments worldwide,” says Claire.

One of these trips was to Jefferson Lab, a world-leading nuclear physics research facility in the US, at the end of 2004 to kick off her MSc the following year. “Prof Connell literally called me from the US and asked me if I wanted to take part in the experiment they were conducting, and within a week I was over there. This trip was all part of the journey that has brought me over here to CERN,” she says.

Claire’s first visit to CERN was in 2008, following a visit to South Africa by Dr Ketevi Assamagan from Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) encouraging her and her supervisor to go. “There, we met with people from ATLAS to discuss South Africa getting involved in the experiment,” recalls Claire.

She worked in conjunction with BNL for two years, after which South Africa (UJ and Wits) became official members of ATLAS. Claire then started a joint position with UJ and Academia Sinica (leading academic institution in Taipei), which allowed her to be stationed at CERN and work directly on the experiment.

“I haven’t exactly done things the ‘normal’ way. I got married while doing my MSc, and had my son while doing my PhD. I also lectured first year physics at UJ for two years during my PhD. All of these things took up a lot of extra time, but have given me some very important experiences. For example, I work in a 3500 person collaboration, and being able to negotiate and work together under stressful situations is a very important skill,” she says.

Claire is especially grateful for her parents. “They were always supportive of me, and raised me to believe that I could do anything I wanted to. The concept of ‘I can’t because I’m a woman’ never ever existed for me. My husband has also been totally supportive, especially when he gave up his job and house in South Africa when we moved over to Geneva in the middle of my PhD so I could be based at CERN. He also spent the first six months of our time in Geneva looking after our son, who was one year old at the time.”

It has not always been smooth sailing, however, and it is well known that the uncertainties and pressures surrounding a career in research take their toll on young scientists. Claire says she has suffered from depression many times over the course of her life, which although caused difficulties for her and her family, “brings a certain depth of perspective and resilience that I believe I wouldn’t otherwise have”. “Mental health issues are something that affect so many people, especially in academia, but there is a stigma attached to it and people don’t like to talk about it,” she says.

After her current job ends, Claire hopes to take another doctorate position at CERN. “It really is fantastic, being right here where the action is happening. The LHC and the ATLAS experiment have long lives ahead, where we will be refining out understanding of the universe and perhaps making new discoveries as we go along,” she says.

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