December 12, 2018

Physics undergraduate student headed to CERN

Sergio Garcia of UC Riverside will do research during the winter quarter on a particle detector at the Large Hadron Collider

Author: Iqbal Pittalwala
December 12, 2018

An undergraduate student at the University of California, Riverside, has an extraordinary opportunity to do hands-on work in one of the most famous centers for scientific research in the world.

Sergio Garcia, 21, of Perris, Calif., is the first UCR student to participate in the University of Michigan Semester Abroad program, allowing him to spend the 2019 winter quarter in Geneva, Switzerland, specifically at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, that is home to the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator. Garcia will do research with the UCR group that works on the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the particle detectors at the LHC.

Flip Tanedo, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at UCR and Garcia’s American Physical Society National Mentoring Community mentor, first met Garcia in a particle physics course he taught.

Sergio Garcia and Flip Tanedo
Sergio Garcia (left) and Flip Tanedo at the ​APS Bridge Program and National Mentoring Community Conference.

“Sergio was one of the most impressive students in class,” Tanedo said. “A little shy at first, his dry sense of humor soon came through our class discussions. Along with that humor came a deep appreciation for the science we were doing. The course was designed to invite people to explore the topics in more depth, and Sergio stood out as someone who would do the homework assignments and then dig deeper into academic papers about the topics.”

Garcia, a first-generation college student and the child of immigrants, surprised Tanedo one morning when he asked questions about a particularly advanced topic. Tanedo recalled that Garcia opened up his backpack and brought out a graduate-level textbook he had purchased – one that Tanedo did not know existed.

“He opened the book up to Chapter 3, and it was clear from the highlighting and annotations he’d made in the margins that he had carefully read the previous two chapters,” Tanedo said. “He then proceeded to ask me questions about the equations in the book, noting where they appeared to be inconsistent with the formulation in my own lectures. The differences were due to notation, but I was thoroughly impressed at the level of careful thought he’d put into this.”

Impressed, Tanedo encouraged Garcia to apply to University of Michigan Semester Abroad program.

“I've had the pleasure of seeing some students at UCR grow into promising young academics,” he said. “Sergio is one of the top few who continue to impress me every time we chat. I think he will soon become the type of researcher who we will tell people about and say, ‘Yes, and he's a UCR alumnus!’ – like his research advisor, Prof. Anson D’Aloisio.”

With D’Aloisio, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, Garcia learned how to run difficult hydrodynamical simulations of the intergalactic medium in order to study the effects of different dark matter theories – a project that has been especially important in particle physics and astronomy groups.

Sergio Garcia
Sergio Garcia presented a poster at the APS Bridge Program and National Mentoring Community Conference.

“At CERN, Sergio will get to further hone his computer programming abilities,” D’Aloisio said. “He will also learn more about experimental data analysis and statistical inference.  All of this will be very useful for the work that he is doing at Riverside.  Our ultimate goal is to constrain the properties of dark matter by comparing his simulations to observational data.” 

At CERN, Garcia will work on a combination of hardware work for the CMS muon system and analysis work on a search for four top quark production, a rare standard model process. He will thus have a unique opportunity to physically work on part of the largest science experiment in the history of humanity, while also contributing to an actual research analysis on recent data. He will be mentored on‐site by UCR graduate student Nick Manganelli.

“I am interested in becoming a theoretical physicist,” said Garcia, who joined UCR in 2015. “This is a very good opportunity in helping me achieve that goal. I’m excited to work with the other students accepted into the semester abroad program and to be able to explore a different part of the world. I’m immensely grateful to Dr. Tanedo, who forwarded me the application and encouraged me throughout the application process. It’s because of scientists like him and Dr. D’Aloisio that I feel excited to pursue graduate education after I finish my bachelor’s degree. I’m already taking a graduate-level ‘methods in theoretical physics’ course with Dr. Tanedo.”

Earlier this year, Garcia was awarded an American Physical Society, or APS, travel grant to attend the APS Bridge Program and National Mentoring Community Conference, held last month at Google headquarters and Stanford University, which focused on supporting underrepresented minority graduate students in physics. At the conference, Garcia presented his research done with D’Aloisio.

“The conference was empowering,” Garcia said. “It not only was a chance for me to meet other underrepresented minority physicists, but it also provided a structure to talk about common issues that affect our persistence in academia.”

Garcia spent the last evening of the conference going over his graduate school applications with Tanedo and talking about prospective advisors at different universities.

“As a first-generation college student and the child of immigrants myself, I note that Sergio has rapidly become a shining star of a student despite a background – familiar to me – where one’s parents are not equipped to fully understand what one is doing and where one has to figure it all out by one’s self,” Tanedo said. “This background shows in the meticulous and methodical way that Sergio approaches his science. Discussing physics with him is a pleasure. He is meticulous in how he thinks through ideas, appreciating their many nuances. From my vantage point as a lecturer, it is one of the joys seeing him find his scientific passion.” 

Garcia leaves for CERN end of next month.

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