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Compact Muon Solenoid Research at Fermilab

Written By: Shreya Mahesh

It’s not common for high school students to have the opportunity to do work at the level of college students. Dr. Dong’s IMSA-CMS SIR allows students to perform particle physics data analysis with CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) at CERN in Fermilab. Here is an interview with Dr. Dong himself. The following interview has been edited for clarity, but everything printed has been approved by Dr. Dong.

What is the name of the SIR?

“IMSA-CMS.  This is based on a common way of naming institutional groups at large particle physics experiments; my group in grad school was called UCLA-CDF.”

What space do you and the students use to research?

“We do our research with conjunction with the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) collaboration at CERN, and more directly with the LHC Physics Center at Fermilab.  Since our work is all data analysis, we don’t need any particular space, but we do much of our work on the 11th floor crossover in Wilson Hall at Fermilab (the CMS area), and at IMSA we usually use B116 or my office.”

What are the students researching in this SIR (provide basic background)?

“Students are performing particle physics analysis for the CMS experiment.  There are hundreds of different analyses going on at the experiment; we are working with Lenny Spiegel at Fermilab and groups from Wayne State and Purdue on a search to verify two particular theories:  compositeness, which is a theory that quarks and leptons, which we now treat as fundamental, are actually made of smaller particles; and large extra dimensions, a theory that there could be unseen dimensions beyond the four that we observe that account for the observed weakness of gravity.”

Are there multiple options or tracks for students to take on this SIR? If so, what are they?

“Students have to take this SIR for two years.  The first year is about learning how things work and getting ready for the experiment, while the second year is actually conducting the research.  While doing research, students each have a project to work on, so there are plenty of individual options in that sense.  On the other hand, they don’t really get to choose what they want to work on, so it’s not that personalized.  They all work on different areas of particle physics analysis.”

What are your experiences in this field of study?

“I did my Ph.D. work at Fermilab in high-energy experimental particle physics, specializing in top quark and Higgs physics.  This SIR is more or less what I would have been doing if I had stayed in research instead of teaching.  It’s nice to be back in the field again—and also nice to be reminded that I’m happy with the decision I made.”

Before leaving for break, at what point in their research were the students in?

“The students are finishing up their analyses for IMSAloquium.  Due to some graduations and budget restrictions, the research group has shrunk substantially, and they now lean substantially on IMSA’s contributions, and it is difficult to run an analysis on only high school students working one day a week.  So we were relieved when a major physics conference was canceled due to virus concerns—it gave us time to finish our work!  Our research group is pushing toward a complete result with a paper soon.”

Is there a specific concept or material you enjoy teaching your SIR students about the most? If yes, what is it?

“I love getting to teach statistics in detail, and for the students who work with it. Understanding Bayesian versus frequentist methods, the effect of priors, and the million different ways you can do your statistics wrong can be very interesting.”

In your experience, what is the most difficult aspect of this SIR, for you and the students?

“By far the most difficult aspect for me is keeping up with the analysis.  One day a week is not enough to really contribute to an ongoing analysis by professional scientists working five days a week. I spend all my time managing students (and teaching, and caring for my family) so I can’t do the research directly myself except in summers.  We have accomplished quite a bit more this year than last year, but I still have not figured out how to make the students useful enough that we can contribute meaningfully to an analysis on a longer timescale.

For the students, I think it can be hard that I have to split my attention among twenty students, limiting that amount of work that each one can do when they get stuck.  Independent work is difficult to stay focused on, especially when you are swamped with classwork, worried about college, and no one is standing over your shoulder breathing down your neck.  I am working on trying to improve that aspect of things as well, but I don’t have a ton of time either.”

Have you and the students come across any hurdles in this SIR?

“Have we ever! That’s every day in SIR—trying to conquer one more hurdle.  To use one particularly memorable example, I’ve worked on one project with six different students for nearly two years, and every week we say, “Okay, we should have this ready now,” only to have another bug come up.  We’ve tracked down some mistakes we made, some lack of clarity in naming conventions, and some particularly annoying features in other people’s code.  But that’s what physics research is like.

On the other hand, both IMSA and Fermilab have been extremely supportive, and we really have everything we need financially and practically.  It’s just the work itself that’s hard, and that never goes away.”

What do you and the students hope to learn from this SIR?

“I hope the students learn what science research is really like, especially in particle physics.  They should pick up a lot of programming, problem solving, and critical thinking skills which should apply easily to other areas of study, even ones outside of science or computers.

I hope to be able to validate my belief that a group of intelligent high school students who are properly instructed and properly motivated are able to perform the work of a graduate student, and I’d  like to be able to prove that to Fermilab scientists.  We’re certainly not there yet, but we’re making progress!”

Who would you recommend for this SIR?

“Everyone!  Well, anyone interested in particle physics, in physics in general, in scientific computing, in data analysis, in statistics, or in what Big Data looks like.  Students need to be willing to put in a lot of time above and beyond their classes and other commitments, and to stick to a project until it’s done, even if it takes all year.  The demands are not trivial, but the rewards are great, and I encourage any interested student to give the application a try.  The application is designed to give a small taste of what the research is like, so it can help students decide if they’d like to continue with it.”


Looking at a student’s perspective, here is an interview with a current junior who is currently in their first year of participating in Dr. Dong’s SIR. The following interview has been edited for clarity, but everything printed has been approved by the student.

What do you enjoy most about this SIR?

“I really like my SIR for multiple reasons. First, I think that the two-year structure in which we just learn background material for most of the first year and then do research primarily in the second year is very useful. I know a lot of people who feel like they don’t get a lot done in their SIRs, and I’ve found the opposite to be true in my SIR. This is because we aren’t just thrown into the middle of research with no knowledge on how to do anything – we spend almost a full year learning what we need to know.  Secondly, I prefer the way that Dr. Dong runs it. He’s always there to answer questions if we have them, but he generally encourages us to work together to figure things out for ourselves. I am working on my project with a partner of my choice, and it’s made it an experience that has been interesting, informative, and fun. Third, I really like that IMSA-CMS is the only on-campus SIR that also goes to Fermilab (mostly the second year). I’m able to have all of the benefits of the on-campus SIR (easy to find, having an advisor on campus, etc.) but I will still be able to go and work in a professional environment like Fermilab. This makes it feel like a more true-to-life experience with research than some of the other on-campus SIRs may be.”

What do you hope to gain from this SIR?

“I’m mostly hoping to gain programming skills with C++ and Python. I’m planning to be a computer science major, so this SIR will be helpful both for succeeding in college and for applying to colleges. I also find the physics part very interesting.”


Although difficult at times, the IMSA-CMS SIR seems to be an incredibly rewarding research opportunity for students interested in physics and programming. It is similar to “real” research that would occur at the graduate level, and Dr. Dong’s detailed background and experience in the same topics elevate the learning experience.

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