A Day in the Life: Kaeli Hughes on life as an aspiring particle astrophysicist in the South Pole

Kaeli Hughes

As a graduate student studying particle astrophysics, I search for signals from extremely high energy neutrinos coming from outer space. Neutrinos are fundamental particles, meaning that they are not made up of any smaller units. They are incredibly light and have no charge, and we want to learn more about what in the universe is creating them. Neutrinos are very difficult to detect. The extremely high energy ones leave behind a radio signal when they interact with matter, but normally there is too much noise – from human-made radio signals like the ones we listen to in our cars – to detect them. As a consequence, we have to go to extreme lengths to design experiments sensitive enough to see the radio signals that neutrinos leave behind. For my research group, this means setting up our neutrino detector in one of the most remote, “radio clean” areas in the world: the South Pole.

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I am originally from Columbus, Ohio, and graduated in 2017 from The Ohio State University with a degree in Engineering Physics. Now I’m a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and I was chosen to be part of the South Pole neutrino team this past year, which meant I spent the last six weeks of 2018 stationed at the bottom of the world. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is a U.S. science base able to house 150 people, who work to build and maintain many scientific projects set up in the area. This was my home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. I spent most of my days in the field, either working to fix communication cables, installing new surface antennas, or taking calibration data. My favorite memories are of speeding out to our experiment site on a snowmobile with nothing but snow on the horizon.

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Since I spent so much time outside in the cold Antarctic air, I was thankful that The United States Antarctic Program issues Extreme Cold Weather Gear to anyone going to Antarctica. It kept me quite warm in the sometimes -40 degree cold! In the summer months (November to February for the southern hemisphere), the sun never sets over the South Pole, which is unnerving but also pretty enjoyable. Outside of the summer months, it’s too dangerous to fly to the South Pole, so the station is run by an extremely dedicated group of about 40 people who agree to stay from mid-February until late October – this is called “wintering over.” There are some scientists who do this, but no one for our team so far!

 

While the trip to the South Pole was incredible, it is far from what my normal work day looks like. As a second year doctoral student, I have completed a long list of required classes focused on many aspects of physics, from quantum mechanics to electromagnetism. In general, a majority of my time is spent in front of a computer, as I work to write computer code that will help calibrate our experiments. To me, coding is like solving a puzzle: you know what the final product is supposed to do, but you don’t always know how to design each step. I also spend time working with my hands, too: building and testing antennas, setting up systems that can record data, and designing other hardware for the experiment.

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At both Ohio State and the University of Chicago, I have had incredible female physics professors serving as mentors and advisors. Physics is one of the least diverse fields in science, so it has been especially meaningful for me to learn about particle astrophysics from two women who have excelled in the field. I hope to one day serve as a mentor for the next generation of women and work to improve the experiences of all underrepresented minorities who choose to pursue physics.

I’d recommend my job to anyone who likes math and science and programming, and who is curious about the answers to some of the universe’s biggest unsolved questions. I love going to work every day knowing that my work is contributing to finding the answers, one small step at a time.

 

 

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