"I enjoy working with, and leading, teams of people, and at CERN this really means multi-cultural and multi-language."
Raymond was part of the panel on our Gradcracker and CERN webinar (originally broadcast on 28.01.2021) to watch the webinar click here.
I joined CERN directly as a staff member in 1992, but on a very limited 3-year contract, linked to the approval of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) project in 1995. Fortunately, the project was approved, so my contract was extended!
I worked for 2 years after my PhD for the UK Atomic Energy Authority on Fusion energy technology. This was very helpful in getting my job at CERN.
I was recruited directly as a staff member in 1992, but on a 3-year fixed-term contract to do R&D for the (as-yet not approved) LHC project. I ran a small team who developed methods for making mechanical (stress and strain) measurements for the superconducting magnets that were just being developed at CERN. That meant finding ways of measuring these things at cryogenic temperatures, so -200 to -270 degrees C. I had no background in that, apart from my general mechanics and research knowledge from my PhD.
There was a lot to learn, including managing a team, some of whom spoke only French (I had scraped a pass in my French GCSC 10 years earlier and had no plans to become a linguist!). I was given some other jobs fairly quickly, including starting the conceptual design discussions on how to get the LHC beams through the future experiments.
Fortunately for me, the LHC was approved in 1995 and so my contract was quickly converted to an ‘indefinite’ one. They also created a new ‘LHC Department’ structure to build the machine, so I was moved there and put in charge of a section of people to design the ‘ultra-high vacuum’ system for the LHC – the particle beams need to travel around in 2x27km long tubes which have a pressure similar to that in outer space. I spent 15 years working on the LHC vacuum, with a huge and varying range of activities and challenges. I was responsible for the vacuum inside all four LHC experiments where the beams collide together, which meant travelling to Kazakhstan and the USA to find exotic materials, working with the experimental physicists who will happily give you ‘impossible’ specifications, and developing all sorts of super-lightweight technology.
I was also responsible for many parts of the rest of the LHC vacuum system, which meant large budgets (~100 MEuros) and managing production all around the world (I spent some months in Siberia, working with Russians). Then all of this equipment had to be assembled, tested, installed and made to work!
When the LHC (as an engineering project) was completed in 2010, I decided to look for a new technical challenge. I moved to where I am now, in ‘Beam Instrumentation Mechanics’, much closer to the newly operating machine and with a whole different set of challenges. I had to learn much more about beam physics and found myself on long training courses with people half my age.
I also needed to learn about the whole CERN accelerator complex (imagine it being like the gearbox of a car – you can’t just dump particles straight into the LHC, which is actually the 5th ‘gear’).
I have run a section here for 10 years and manage a team of currently 17 people.
I am currently ‘Section Leader’ for Beam Instrumentation Mechanics.
Beam Instruments are the ‘eyes and ears’ of a particle accelerator, giving all the sensory information needed to keep the beams going around the accelerators. Our section is responsible for electro-mechanical engineering for these instruments in all of CERN’s accelerators, including the LHC. There are some 5’000 beam instruments at CERN, using a huge range of physical principles.
My job is partly technical, mainly on the strategy of how and where to build new devices, and partly managerial, with 17 people reporting to me and an annual budget in the millions. Our ‘Beam Instrumentation’ (BI) moved to the new ‘Accelerator Systems’ Department as of 1st Jan 2021. With this change I also took on another role as the ‘Deputy Group Leader’ of the whole BI group, which has a total of ~140 people. This means new challenges in learning more about the electronics and software that comes with these systems.
My main technical highlight was that I was heavily involved in the design of one of the LHC experiments (ATLAS), which gained me the right to be on their ‘author list’ for the first years of LHC physics.
This means that I was a co-author of the scientific paper that announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson… so I can say that I discovered the Higgs Boson… along with the 1400 other co-authors on the list! In terms of my career, I have had three rather different (but engineering-related) jobs so-far, moving to different departments each time. CERN is very good for this. As what we do is very ‘project driven’, there are lots of opportunities to move around and follow (what I saw as) the interesting work.
I am lucky enough to have an ‘indefinite contract’ so it (should) only end when I retire. I have always kept an eye outside for other possible jobs, but CERN is large enough that it is generally possible to change job if you start to feel you need a new challenge. There are quite a number of indefinite contracts in the accelerator engineering field at CERN, as you don’t learn most of what we do here at university, so it takes a few years to become really productive. You need to be prepared to be a ‘lifelong learner’ here!
So, I have always looked for positions with a high technical challenge – many things I do have never been tried before. This means being prepared for failure as much as success. I also enjoy working with, and leading, teams of people, and at CERN this really means multi-cultural and multi-language. I have been lucky in being ‘in the right place at the right time’, but equally, I keep my eyes open and am ready to jump when opportunities arise.