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A Role for Everything

Introducing Tova Holmes, Assistant Professor

tova holmes

Any new job requires a certain element of adjustment. For Tova Holmes, that’s meant working an ocean away from her colleagues at UT and meeting her students over Zoom. Yet she views this less as a challenge than an opportunity. Holmes, who joined the faculty this fall as an assistant professor, has always been interested in finding the role every piece plays to fill out the larger picture.

In that vein, she sees her current situation as the best of both worlds for a new faculty member. Living in Switzerland this fall kept her close to research at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) while teaching and attending meetings, albeit virtually, in Knoxville.

Seeking connections is hardly new for Holmes. Growing up on a small mountain on the outskirts of a New York City suburb, she said she loved to learn how natural systems and creatures evolved to coexist. She had nurturing influences at home and at school who encouraged that curiosity.

"There were great public schools in my town, with excellent science and math teachers, who got me interested in science from an early age," she said.

Her parents shared this enthusiasm for the natural world. Holmes described how her father could walk through a forest and explain each organism’s role, inspiring her to follow his example. Her mother lobbied the local Audubon Society to sponsor Holmes’ trips to nature camps in the summer. Programs at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory and a "particularly excellent teacher," as she explained it, drew her to Earth science and astronomy.

"I loved seeing the translation of simple math to the physical phenomena around me—the tides, the seasons, the weather," she said.

Those interests became more pronounced during her undergraduate studies at Harvard University, where she majored in both physics and astronomy/astrophysics and won a fellowship through the Harvard College Research Program.

"By that point I had decided that I liked thinking outside of the human scale—really large or really small—because both help us access the most fundamental parameters of the universe," she said.

Supersymmetry Searching

After exploring a few research avenues, Holmes found that particle physics was her primary interest after joining the ATLAS experiment. ATLAS is one of two detectors at the LHC and has been part of the search for the Higgs boson, as well as dark matter.

"I loved working in a huge experiment where my successes impacted many people, and where communicating and collaborating was a big part of my job. I liked coding, and figuring out how best to visualize problems with data. And of course, I liked that my job was searching for new fundamental physics," she explained.

She stayed with ATLAS through her doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley, and on to a prestigious Robert R. McCormick Postdoctoral Fellowship with the University of Chicago. With her new faculty position, Holmes is moving from ATLAS to another LHC detector: the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment. The CMS program has the same scientific goals as ATLAS but pursues them with different tools and designs. For Holmes, the intrigue of working with these experiments lies in searching for new particles—specifically long-lived particles.

Holmes’ expertise lies in searching for supersymmetry, a framework that describes the subatomic landscape more completely by predicting a partner for each particle in the Standard Model. She uses hardware systems to recognize patterns and track the footprints of possible candidates, an undertaking she describes as a “computationally intensive operation,” with the added challenge of collecting data in real time.

"Normally, LHC searches assume that if we produce a new particle, it will immediately decay into familiar particles, like electrons and quarks, and that if we measure these familiar particles, we can reconstruct that short-lived new particle," she explained. "I’m interested in cases where the new particles have macroscopic lifetimes, and leave unconventional signatures in our detectors. Right now I’m working with theorists and people across both ATLAS and CMS to figure out how we can better search for these scenarios."

Holmes led the commissioning team for a hardware tracker at ATLAS and is now transferring her skills to the CMS. That experience coincides with CERN’s scientific needs, as upgrades to the High-Luminosity Large Hardon Collider project require a good deal of research and development, as well as commissioning work. She would love to have interested students join the endeavor, despite the hurdles COVID-19 has presented for the research program.

"At CERN, operations are slowly ramping back up, with lots of safety precautions," Holmes said. "Face shields and N95 masks are required for anyone working in close contact, and CERN has even started producing its own hand sanitizer and distributing it to us. It’s an unusual and stressful time to be doing just about anything right now, but for my particular situation there is an upside: I can work both with my experiment here in Switzerland and join in all the UT activities remotely."

Mentorship and OScope Music

Holmes taught Physics 221 for the fall semester and will teach it again in the spring. She has an obvious appreciation for the importance of teaching and mentorship, drawing on her own experience.

"I had a lot of really excellent mentors as I went through my physics education, and I don’t think I would be a professor now without them," she said. "Mentoring is one of the most effective tools we have at the individual level to improve equity in physics, and in particular, to support students who have already decided that physics is where they want to be."

She is also a big proponent of outreach, having previously hosted a podcast on what life is like for a particle physicist to give listeners a way to imagine themselves in the role. And then there’s her involvement with ColliderScope, a program that turns oscilloscopes into musical instruments to showcase the sounds of the Large Hadron Collider. Her partner, Lawrence Lee, leads the program and stars as the performer, while Holmes is the project producer, working on show design and image creation.

"We’ve had shows at clubs and music festivals, where people who would never attend a science fair get to enjoy a show, and if they like, think a bit more deeply about the physics of sound," she said. "The goal of ColliderScope is to increase the number of people in the world who find physics interesting—and of course to put on a good show."

Music is one of Holmes’ many avocations. She and Lee roam the Swiss mountains with their rescue dog, hunt for mushrooms in season, and spent their free time this summer swimming in Lake Geneva. She’s also part owner of a Massachusetts-based brewery called Aeronaut. Interestingly enough, another of her passions might have kept this young faculty member—who was chosen for a Rising Stars in Physics Workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—out of physics. As a kid she loved painting and at one point considered going to art school.

"Ultimately," she said, "I decided I’d rather be a scientist with a painting hobby than a painter with a science hobby."

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