Curiosity is the key to research: Meet Helena Pikhartova

Helena is part of the John Adams Institute for accelerator science within the particle physics group and the ATLAS collaboration at CERN, and has experienced scientific research around the world, training in McGill University (Canada) and before that at the University of Cincinnati (USA). Helena is speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “Discover the world of high energy particle accelerators – the massive, powerful and fascinating machines driving discoveries in many fields”. Thanks to the Institute of Physics and Royal Holloway for supporting Helena’s talk.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

HP: I am looking forward to the fact that there will be people coming that might have not known about this event in advance. They might just walk around but by the time they leave, they will hopefully discover something new. The diversity of the speakers and the topics makes me excited to attend as well. I can’t wait to hear everyone speak about their research.


SS: Tell us about your career pathway

HP: Growing up in the Czech Republic, my two passions were science and swimming. By the end of high school, I wasn’t ready to give up on swimming, so I decided to try and go to the United States where sport is a natural part of the university life. As a student athlete, I had the opportunity to push myself like never before while preparing for my future. I was lucky to obtain an athletic scholarship which made my journey to the USA possible. I chose to study physics and I am very happy with that decision. It was definitely a great fit for me, and four years later, I got a bachelor’s in physics and mathematics.

I then moved to Canada, to do a Master of Science at McGill University. My research was in particle physics and I got to spend a couple of months in Japan at the site of the experiment I was working on, Belle 2 (a very new particle physics detector looking into what comes out of collisions of electrons and positrons). During my master’s studies, I discovered the field of accelerator physics and I knew I wanted to get into this field for my PhD. And that’s how I ended up being a PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. My research here consists of studying the Large Hadron Collider and maximising its potential to make new scientific discoveries.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

HP: In high school, I was not the best student. I was not a good fit in history or geography because I had to memorize so hard to get good grades. But in all my science classes – chemistry, math, physics – we got to solve problems and often do cool experiments! For example, I still remember distilling our own perfume in chemistry (my lab partner and I made a very nicely smelling orange fragrance). These experiments really sparked my passion for science.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

HP: The field of accelerator physics is very wide. Accelerators are used in physics research, medicine, industry, national security and many others. The thought that my research might be used one day in a modern high-energy accelerator or have an application in everyday life is what keeps me going every day.


SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

HP: Programming is definitely something I get to use every day. Research in physics is not done with pen and paper anymore and I actually do all my work on a computer. I believe that one of the most important non-scientific skills is communication. Sharing the progress and results with collaborators during meetings or conferences, writing emails or doing presentations is necessary. I make at least one presentation per week. Team and collaborative work is one of the foundations of modern scientific work.


SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

HP: Teamwork and simple communicating with colleagues is key because if we were to work on our own, there would be no progress. Usually when you are facing some problems, you will find that a number of people around you have shared the same struggles and might have helpful pointers. Simply asking questions has saved me so much time already.

There are times during which nothing seems to work. This difficult situation might go on for weeks or even months. Which is why I think persistence is also a very important attribute.

Lastly, curiosity is the key to research. Doing everything as planned gets lots of work done, but it is not what ultimately leads to discoveries. Often it is the “I wonder what will happen if I do this” that might bring the most exciting results.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

HP: In my opinion, the scientific culture right now puts a lot of pressure on performance. Overworking and struggles with funding are very common which leads to anxiety and stress. I really wish employers would create a better workspace that would act towards creating a healthy lifestyle and better conditions for family life.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female student considering pursuing a career in academia?

HP: As a female student considering pursuing a career in academia myself, I would really appreciate some recommendations too :D. However, one tip from my experience is to get involved in many activities outside of the research itself. That will build networks of people and possibly create future collaborations or give a boost to your future career.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

HP: Do you have many different interests? Try them all! Even if you end up not liking them all, you will not regret having tried something new. If you are passionate about something, that is what matters, you will go far.

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