Q&A With Toyoko Orimoto

By Gwen Schanker, Journalism and Biology, 2017

Toyoko Orimoto is an assistant professor in Northeastern’s physics department, and is one of four faculty members who contribute to the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, Switzerland. Orimoto spends much of her time conducting research at Northeastern but collaborates daily with her colleagues at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). NUSci contributor Gwen Schanker first spoke to Orimoto in 2013 about her role in the discovery of the Higgs boson, which completed physicists’ understanding of the standard model of particle physics. Two years later, Orimoto discussed what’s been happening since the LHC underwent a two-year shutdown and energy boost, and also shared some personal anecdotes.

How did you become interested in particle physics?

I got interested in particle physics in high school. For me, the idea that all of nature could be explained by a handful of elementary particles — that was really incredible and beautiful, and I’ve been hooked on that idea ever since. I knew when I went to college that I wanted to major in physics and I wanted to study particle physics, and then I got really interested in CERN. CERN is an epicenter for particle physics. I was really excited to go there and made my first trip through the Northeastern REU [Research Experience for Undergraduates] program with the National Science Foundation. Ever since then, I had my eyes set on going back.

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What are the main questions being explored at CERN right now?

The Higgs boson was the last piece of the standard model that had not yet been discovered. However, we know the standard model still has some tensions in it, and we think those tensions are potentially indicative of physics beyond the standard model. There are a lot of outstanding questions that such new physics could address. For instance, we don’t understand why the electromagnetism and the nuclear interactions are so much stronger than the force of gravity. Another big mystery is the fact that we don’t understand what dark matter or dark energy is. In particle physics, there’s this feeling of discovery in the air. Not only is the energy boost potentially helping us to discover something new, but the more and more data we get, the more possibility for discovery that we have.

What is your particular research interest?

What I’m most interested in is using the Higgs boson as a window into new physics. We know that the Higgs boson is how the elementary particles obtain the masses that they have, and so anything that has mass can potentially interact with the Higgs. You can measure the different properties of the Higgs to see if there are any deviations from what you expect. Any such deviations can be an indication of new physics.

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Can you explain what happened during the shutdown period?

Every few years, we have really long shutdown periods to upgrade and maintain the detectors and accelerating complex. Although the detectors are generally built to be radiation-resistant, the LHC is a very high-radiation environment, so there will be parts of the detectors that will have to be replaced with time. Analysis of the data is still ongoing during the shutdown period. There are a lot of places that new physics can possibly be discovered, and we want to make sure that we look everywhere. We don’t want it to be that we accidentally missed some part of the parameter space, so we’re trying really hard to constrain everything and look in as many places as possible.

What’s the benefit of pursuing a co-op opportunity at CERN?

I am currently working with a co-op student named Alexander Coda based at CERN right now. He’s my first co-op student, and I can already see how valuable the co-op program is. He basically spent the first month or so getting his bearings, and from there he’s become very productive to the point that he has more work than he can potentially do before he comes back. He’s an expert at what he’s doing now, and he’s producing important and impactful results. Being at the lab is a very special experience. It’s not only a really interesting and stimulating environment — it also is very efficient to be able to talk to [physicists] one-on-one.

What’s the best part of your job as a professor?

I really enjoy working with younger people. One of the best things about being a professor for me is being able to advise graduate students and co-op students. They always surpass my expectations.

What about your job as a researcher?

I feel very lucky that my work is, first of all, something that I dreamed of doing as a teenager, and also second of all, that my work is pure scientific research, aimed at answering very deep and fundamental questions. I really like that sense of questioning and discovery. That was something that as a high school student I didn’t really get a feeling for as much. One thing I discovered as an undergrad is that science is not set in stone. It’s a constant quest for answers, and when you find one answer, you ask another question.