‘It’s just a matter of taking initiative, and you will get there’
For years, the HiSPARC outreach project has brought cosmic ray research into schools. But the last few months, a school student who had just finished school instead came to Nikhef to participate in cosmic ray research at the institute. Keerthana Umesh (18) took the initiative to gain some experience in the real research world. She recently finished her very successful internship at Nikhef.
HiSPARC stands for High School Project on Astrophysics Research with Cosmics. In this outreach project secondary schools form a large network together with Nikhef and other scientific institutions to measure cosmic radiation with extremely high energy. HiSPARC offers high school students the opportunity to participate in real research. The detectors used for these measurements are built by the students themselves and are installed in ski boxes on the roofs of the participating schools. The results are used to learn more about these mysterious and rare cosmic particles. With her internship at Nikhef, analyzing the data collected by the HiSPARC detectors, Keerthana took part in this project in an unusual but very fruitful way.
Keerthana Umesh came to the Netherlands with her parents and her brother 5 years ago. Born in India, and after having lived in the UK for a couple of years, she attended the International School in Almere and just finished secondary school last summer, in the midst of the coronacrisis. While many of her fellow classmates started (online) university straight away, Keerthana decided to go for a different experience. From August until December she followed an internship at Nikhef with the HiSPARC project, under the supervision of PhD-student Kasper van Dam and Nikhef staff scientist and professor at the University Twente Bob van Eijk.
How did you happen to come across Nikhef?
‘In 2018, I visited the annual Nikhef Open Day. I have always been interested in science, being from a science-oriented family. Both my parents are engineers, and also my grandparents already were into science. But the Nikhef Open Day really sparked my interest in physics, and in particular particle and astroparticle physics. I met Bob van Eijk there, and he really inspired me.
The same year I had to do my ‘profielwerkstuk’ and I ended up doing it at Nikhef. I took part in a one-day workshop for high-school students and wrote my school research project on the measurement of the muon lifetime which we conducted at the workshop. That was the first time I really followed the whole scientific process, completely on my own. And I enjoyed every bit of it. I thought this is something I want to do in the future. Physics at school had until then very much been about reading from a textbook, answering questions, doing a test. Repeat. But this was different.’
After finishing high school, most students go straight to university. You are following a different path.
‘Yes. Once I finished high school, I decided to take a gap year. I want to study physics so I thought that it would be a good idea to see what it actually is like to work in a research institute.
Originally, I wanted to travel first, and then get some experience via internships, but corona changed that. So I postponed the traveling, and tried to find something for now. In May I contacted Bob van Eijk again who was very supportive. But it was in the middle of the first lockdown, and we had to wait a bit until I could really get started at Nikhef.
To make use of my time while waiting for the internship to start, I took some online courses, mostly in programming. To sort of get ready for university. And they turned out to be really useful because a lot of what I learned, I used in my internship later. It’s like it happened for a reason.
In summer, people could at least come to Nikhef again a bit more often. So I started with my internship in August. I used to come three times a week in the beginning but the last couple of months that was of course again limited by the second lockdown.’
What exactly did you do for HiSPARC?
‘Kasper van Dam was my daily supervisor. He is about to finish his PhD on HiSPARC research. My main project was related to his research, namely trying to reconstruct the cosmic ray energy spectrum with HiSPARC data. I got to see the whole research process again, from starting with a research question, going through all the data, to actually writing up the results. It was really exciting to be part of some real research.
I also did a couple of other side investigations. One was looking at the correlations between the weather and cosmic ray detections by the HiSPARC equipment. That was a research piece I did on my own.
I also read about the research which had been done by previous HiSPARC students. For example someone had used AI algorithms to reconstruct the directions of cosmic rays. So I had one big main project, and then on the side anything I found interesting I had the freedom to explore as well. I handed in my report in December, summarizing my results.’
What was it like to do an internship in times of corona?
‘My original intention when I came here was to experience the day-to-day work, which obviously was disrupted because of corona. But at the same time, it benefitted my experience here because the few interactions I did have with people were so much more meaningful.
The first couple of weeks Kasper showed me around in the labs, the data center, the workshops. Because life was so slowed down I could approach people. Everybody took the time to explain to me what they were doing. In a way that was better than just observing the day-to-day work because I got to see the whole scope of the field, and the possible paths I could take in the future. There are technicians, experimental physicists, theoretical physicists. And I got to talk to all of them, of course while observing social distancing. All of that was really useful as an insight into the field of physics. I am especially grateful for that.
All in all, my experience at Nikhef is more than I ever expected I would get in such weird times.’
And what are your plans for future?
‘In terms of short-term plans, kind of limited at the moment. Corona has taught me that you can only take it a month or two at a time. Maybe I will follow more online courses. This year I hope I can travel to India. Maybe I can do another internship there, possibly in a more corporate setting, to see the difference in the different career paths I can take.
And then after that, I am planning to study physics at the University of Groningen. My interests are quite broad at the moment but they do tend to lean towards the research side of things. Maybe I am biased in this respect because I had a great time at Nikhef.
In terms of truly long-term I don’t know yet. I think I would also quite enjoy teaching because I think a good teacher can really make the difference. It is good to have a nice role model.’
If you look back at the last half year, are you appy with what your gap year has brought you so far?
‘A lot of my friends started university this year and their first year is very different from the usual experience. Everything is online. It’s hard to make friends.
I am glad I ended up taking a gap year. In the beginning I was disappointed because I couldn’t travel. But at the same time I am glad I got the chance to experience all this during my internship. I have become more certain that physics is what I want to study. I am more confident that I can do it. And I did gain a lot of useful skills, like programming.
Friends of mine think it might get hard for me to get back into studying after a gap year. But I think if anything I am more excited to start now.’
Do you have any advice for other high school students who want to go for a new experience like you did?
‘I just emailed people I knew, or institutions I knew, in the hope that something might happen.
It’s just a matter of taking initiative, and you will get there.’
(Interview by Vanessa Mexner)