A physicist’s career can be fun also outside physics

CERN Alumna
Maaike Limper
Current Job: Head of aviation surface performance at a satellite company
At CERN initially in 2003 as a Summer Student and then from 2004 to 2011 working in data analysis in the ATLAS Collaboration. CERN Openlab fellow from 2012 to 2014 investigating the use of database technology for LHC physics analysis.



A physicist’s career can be fun also outside physics

Maaike’s current professional challenge is investigating solutions to allow aircraft passengers to have a reliable Internet connection when flying. This implies having a dependable receiver on top of an aircraft, which is able to follow the various satellites as the aircraft moves, in addition to, of course, a satellite system that covers the entire globe. “The tricky thing,” explains Maaike, “is to be able to offer a stable connection on a moving platform. Today, companies are competing to provide a true broadband experience for their clients. One of my tasks right now is to collect data from all systems involved in passenger Internet connectivity, i.e. ground control, satellites, and aircraft. The challenge is to put data from all these complex systems together and understand where we experience outages and why. It’s cool stuff!”

Maaike was not born a data scientist. She moved into the IT field following her PhD in particle physics, which she did in the ATLAS Collaboration. “I made this transition when I decided to do my fellowship with Openlab,” she says. “There, I was able to learn a lot about how to use IT technologies to carry out data analysis. As a data scientist you can't just be a pure analyst, you need to understand how technology actually works: how it stores your data as bytes on the disk or how your computations can optimize the CPU usage. Understanding the limitation of any IT technology allows you to find the solution that works best for the data you're dealing with and the information you want to extract from it.”

Learning, being challenged…this is what Maaike was looking for in her career. At some point, particle physics was no longer giving her such vital ingredients and she went for an IT job that, indeed, was more her cup of tea! “I am very happy with my work!,” she confirms. “When I was working as a particle physicist I was dealing with very specific issues and I no longer felt challenged. In the job I have now, I am the expert and I like the fact that I am constantly kept busy, challenged and, sometimes, very much stressed.”

However, being educated as a particle physicist turned out to have a very useful impact once outside the field. “Looking back at my time in physics, I see now that we do a lot of things that can be useful to a company even if it is often hard for a physicist to sell it when they look for a job,” says Maaike. “At CERN, we are very good at developing our own tools and we do not just expect there to be a ready-made product on the market that we can buy and which will do the job for us. We know how to use open source products and we have a very flexible attitude towards the various options available when we have to solve a problem.”

There are also things that Maaike experienced as a particle physicist that do not conjure-up such fond memories;  “I didn’t particularly like the very hard competition I encountered during my years as a researcher,” explains Maaike. “The scientific environment can be very competitive to the point that taking holidays might be interpreted as proof that you are not as dedicated as you should be. In my case, it was probably due to the fact that I was doing research when the first data were being collected from the LHC and all physicists rushed to have access to them and write the first papers. I must say that I didn’t like this ruthless competition where the collaborative spirit was slightly set aside.”

Although Maaike has not left a piece of her heart in particle physics there is a piece of her expertise in the heart of the ATLAS experiment. “My detector was installed deep inside ATLAS and I could only access it through a very narrow corridor to check all the cables, thousands of cables!” she describes. “I was there, checking that each optical cable was producing the right sound once connected and that everything was working as expected. So actually, yes, a little piece of my heart is there, deep inside ATLAS.

Other news