Scientist in the Spotlight. Helena P.

What are you passionate about? I am really passionate about breaking down the barriers between scientists and the public and inspiring everyone to always be curious and embrace their inner scientist. This year I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone a little – no, A LOT! – and getting involved in some science outreach events including one this weekend. This weekend I will be stood on a box along Brighton seafront talking about how amazing stem cells are. But I won’t be doing it alone. I will be joined by 11 other female scientists who will be sharing their science too, and one of those is my next Scientist in the Spotlight, Helena P.

Helena is a first year PhD student at Royal Hollaway, University of London working in accelerator physics. Helena is originally from the Czech Republic and now studying in the UK but she has also studied or done research around the globe in the US, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and Japan. It’s safe to say I am pretty jealous. Helena was a competitive swimmer for a big part of her life and also enjoys travelling, hiking, pole dancing and watching TV shows. She also has a younger sister that is following in her footsteps and just received her degree in physics and will be starting to study astrophysics in the autumn, which makes Helena a very proud big sister. So, let’s get to know Helena a little bit more.


Tell us a little bit more about your PhD research.

Helena: I started my PhD in September of 2017. As I said before, my research is in accelerator physics, but when I started my master’s degree two years before, I had no idea the field of accelerator physics even existed. Since I started studying physics, my main focus has been on particle physics. I spent almost every summer doing an internship in particle physics. The spark starting my accelerator physics career happened during my master studies. I was developing a set of detectors used to measure background radiation close to the accelerator in particle physics experiments. The background radiation originates from undesired processes in the accelerator beam pipe rather than from interesting processes occurring where particles collide. However, accelerator physics isn’t just about making particles go very fast. It includes development of some of the strongest magnets on Earth, vacuum systems that make the inside of an accelerator as empty as outer space or making special particle beams for radiation therapy used to treat cancer. I find it exciting that accelerator research is shaping our world.

My current project looks at the beams losses at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). In particular, I investigate the losses that happen near the large particle detectors such as the ATLAS experiment. Each bunch of protons at the LHC contains about one hundred billion protons. Some of these protons unfortunately get lost on their way. Beam losses are due to processes inside the beam, small mechanical imperfections or misalignments of elements in the accelerator or vacuum pressure in the beam pipe where the beam travels.

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I know it hasn’t been long but what’s the most valuable lesson you have learnt so far?

Helena: The world is full of opportunities, but it takes work to find them. Do you want to go to a conference, but your supervisor never mentions it? Research it and ask about it. You don’t have any money to go? Apply for a travel/conference funding. I know it isn’t always so easy, but in my opinion, if you are very proactive, it pays off.


What have you been up to in the lab most recently?

Helena: Just a couple weeks ago, I started working on the High Energy LHC project, a possible successor of the LHC. If this project gets approved by leading scientists in the field and funding agencies, it will double the collision energy of the LHC.

As this project isn’t completed yet, I get to witness the early stages of designing an accelerator and the importance of linking together all the necessary technologies needed to achieve the best results. I joined the team that is designing loss protection system. It involves simulating where the particles will be lost and putting shielding in these places. My project consists of finding the appropriate locations for shielding to protect against particles escaping the beam.

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How do you balance lab life with social life?

Helena: It is a constant work. Luckily, I have an amazing boyfriend that helps enjoy my life outside of work and distracts me in times of stress. I try to keep one day of the week for just relaxing and limit the guilty feelings that I am not so productive. Scicomm also encouraged my work life balance lately. It lets me put my mind into something that is different from my daily research but still puts my brain to work and stimulates me.


Talking about scicomm, why is it so important to you?

Helena: Quite often I get questioned about my research by people with little scientific background. Sometimes I give either a too simplified or too complicated answer that wouldn’t satisfy either of us. I want to be successful in explaining my work in a simple way, share my passion to people and demonstrate how amazing my field of research is. I want to get more experience in science communication to improve my impact on people. There is also a chance that I might inspire someone to undertake a scientific career, and that would be just awesome.


Are you ready for Soapbox Science?

Helena: I don’t think I will ever be 100% prepared as there is no way to predict the number of people coming, age or knowledge of the audience and their expectations. But I am definitely excited to tackle this challenging situation. I have prepared a wide range of items in anticipation for the event, hoping my presentation reaches everybody. Also, I have assembled a LEGO accelerator that will be running to demonstrate and point out interesting features of real accelerators. I am just so excited to show it to everyone.

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And finally, where in the world should I visit next?

Helena: My hometown of Prague, Czech Republic is definitely a place to visit if you haven’t been yet. And actually, even if you have been there before, come again! Prague is so beautiful in any season. Even if Prague gets more tourists every year, it is still enjoyable and affordable. I really like that Prague downtown is quite small and walkable. Public transportation is also very simple to use and reliable.

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Massive thank you to my fellow Soapbox-er Helena for answering my questions. If you are in the Brighton area then head down to the seafront on 2nd June between 11am-2pm and you can learn more about accelerator physics with Helena, stem cells with yours truly and much more from the other inspiring women who will be speaking. Otherwise if you have any questions for Helena then ask them in the comments and I will pass them on 🙂

I will also be sharing the event on my Instagram story and will try to vlog the event too! So stay tuned for that too!

Science love.


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