Warwick’s mathematics alumni are having a huge influence on their local, national, and international communities, all the time. On a regular basis we will feature an alumna or alumnus who is doing interesting and exciting things, and using their education to make an impact on their communities.
BSc Mathematics and Physics, 1989-1992
Scientific Information Officer, CERN
"The most likely career after going to university to study a degree in maths was in teaching or banking, according to my schools careers advisors. I think it might have been easier to explain to people what I did for a living if that had been the case – in fact I’m a librarian at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Geneva, Switzerland. Thanks to the novelist Dan Brown a lot more people have heard of CERN now and at least know that exciting research goes on here – even if the details aren’t quite accurate. What’s less well understood by people is how a maths degree leads to becoming a librarian.
But first, CERN – it’s the largest particle physics research centre in the world. The physicists who work here are trying to understand the fundamental particles and forces from which our universe is built. Developing the next generation particle accelerator, the LHC, has pushed the boundaries of research in many fields including areas as diverse as cryogenics, precisions mechanics, vacuums, geodesy, optics, and superconductors. It will be, after all, the biggest machine in the world when it is completed in 2007. It will sit in a tunnel of 27km circumference, drilled 100m underground, and will be cooled to about 300 degrees below room temperature so that the superconducting magnets can keep in line the beam of particles accelerated to near the speed of light and direct them into the detectors where they can collide 800 million times a second. The detectors themselves are huge and beautifully intricate pieces of equipment, each built by thousands of scientists, and designed to detect in myriad ways the different properties of the new particles produced in each collision. The amount of data collected each year will be in the range of 15 million gigabytes. To put this into context, it would take a stack of CDs more than 20 km high to store this amount of data. The challenge of processing it all at the speed required is driving the development of Grid computing.
To complete this work and prepare for the experiments, there are up to 10,000 physicists, engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians at CERN at any one time and many more working around the world. My job is to support these people with the information they need, provided in a way that makes it easy for them to locate and use it. It’s not essential to have a scientific background to work in the library but it certainly helps and you need to have at least some background knowledge and a genuine love of the subject. When I started at Warwick I was studying maths but by the end of the first year I realised I’d taken more physics options than anything else and so I changed to a joint degree in maths and physics. My three years as a student at Warwick were the best of my life. In the 3rd year I lived in a Hurst flat with friends I’m still in contact with and I spent a large proportion of my time seeing bands and helping to run the Floorshow club for ‘indie’ music in the year that Nirvana broke through. They were fantastic times! I’d already read about CERN as a teenager and dreamt of working there but by the time I graduated in 1992, and as my physics tutor pointed out, I’d spent a little too much time developing my social network at the expense of my studies so a CERN summer student position was out of the question. But more than expertise in maths and in physics, what being at Warwick taught me in terms of confidence, and communication and social skills, has left me with just the kind of profile I now need in my job. I’ve even used my music interests to connect with students and liven up potentially boring library classes so, as it turns out, I have no regrets!
I had no idea that I wanted to be a librarian until I started in a job at the Library at Warwick. As a maths student, I’m ashamed to say I never even walked through the library door, but once I started working there I learnt how much I’d missed and how much knowledge and skill the staff possess. I vowed to tell as many students as possible how great their library was and to get them to use it. It was the Warwick Library staff who inspired me and encouraged me whilst I studied part-time for the Masters degree in Library and Information Studies. From Warwick I moved to Leeds University as a subject librarian for the Maths and Physical Sciences Faculty. It was there that my degree really began to be useful. Not only did having a similar background make it easier to understand the needs of the staff and students, but I found that having a science background meant I more easily gained the trust and respect of the academic staff. There’s a shortage of science librarians and it’s a career I would definitely recommend where you have the flexibility to use a wide range of skills.
Whilst at Leeds I found out about an opportunity for a year’s secondment to CERN Library and, by chance, a more permanent job opening appeared whilst I was there. My work now is in a small team of twenty library staff. The day-to-day work varies enormously. CERN Library is one of the world leaders in preprint repository management and we have also recently started an attempt to transform the current publishing model in particle physics into an Open Access one where institutes like CERN support the cost of the journals and everyone in the world can read the articles for free.
As this project and CERN’s preprint repository management are both novel we are frequently asked to speak at library conferences around the world and as a mother-tongue English speaker the job often falls to me. In addition to all this travel and project work we also have to run the library itself so among other things I also buy and classify books and work on the enquiry desk. There’s not much time to read many of the books but we enjoy showing off Tim Berners-Lee’s original paper in which the ‘World-Wide Web’ was first proposed. The office where he set up the first Web server is just below the library which can feel quite inspiring.
Lunch in Switzerland is a social affair and every day I join my friends who are from Portugal, Austria, Poland and Italy for a cooked meal in the self-service restaurant. There you can hear languages from nearly every part of the world although most people speak English or French. We also rub shoulders with several Nobel Prize winners – but the restaurant is an egalitarian place and nearly everyone wears jeans and fights for a table on the terrace in summer. The bonus for me in working here is the countryside. The pictures of CERN don’t really do it justice – we’re encircled by mountains and vineyards and Lake Geneva is just a short bus ride away in town. In summer I windsurf at the weekends and in winter I snowboard. And whether it’s the sunny climate here or the frequent espressos and chocolate consumed in the restaurant, CERN staff seem to have plenty of energy. And it’s them who make working here so exciting – living and mixing among the different cultures and languages and knowing that together, both in physics research and in the library, we’re achieving ground-breaking results."