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Conor McPartland: Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund Awardee 2024

Particle physicist Conor is investigating the decay of the tau lepton, a particle found in cosmic rays, and his work could help us on our journey to complete the Standard Model. 

Particle physicist Conor McPartland sitting in a wheelchair with a cathedral view behind him

Tell us about your work – and what drives you

The area I’m working in is experimental particle physics. I’m using data collected from the ATLAS experiment with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. The LHC is the largest and highest energy particle accelerator that collides bunches of protons (and occasionally lead ions) together in order to be examined by experiments.

The ATLAS experiment is a large, multi-purpose detector, designed to look for many areas of new physics. The ATLAS collaboration itself is made up of diverse group of more than 5,000 physicists and engineers from across the world.

My own project involves looking for the currently unobserved decay of the tau lepton, a heavier cousin of the electron, into three muons, a particle found in cosmic rays. This decay violates conservation of a quantity known as lepton flavour. While this has been observed in neutral leptons through neutrino oscillations, it has never been observed in charged leptons. This means that any evidence of this decay would be unambiguous evidence of new physics.

Working on the ATLAS experiment has given me a fantastic opportunity to work with and hear the perspectives of many physicists.

What drew you to this area of physics?

I’ve always been interested in how things work and have a curiosity about the world around me. I’ve grown up loving science fiction – watching Star Trek really captured my imagination. It made me wonder what science, and especially physics, can hold for the future.

When studying my undergraduate degree at Liverpool, I was captivated by the particle physics lectures. I find it incredible how such a seemingly small amount of maths can describe so much of what we see around us so well. I especially enjoyed the research projects and this brought on my desire to do a PhD.

What is the potential impact of your work?

The interactions of the smallest building blocks of our universe are described by physicists using the Standard Model (SM). The SM describes much of what we see around us incredibly well, but it fails to explain many areas of physics, such as the existence of dark matter and why so little anti-matter survived in our universe. This means that the SM is currently incomplete. If I’m able to find evidence of the decay, then this would point to a potential route for new physics processes. What would be particularly exciting about finding this decay is that it could provide a portal through which dark matter could interact with the current SM particles.

Even if I don’t find evidence of this decay, it would still set a limit on the rate at which the decay could happen. Together with other experiments, this forms part of a global effort to find and confirm differences from the SM.

“It’s important that everybody has the opportunity to pursue what they’re good at and what they enjoy. Physics has been a real force for good in my own life and I want everyone to have the opportunity to experience it.”

What does winning the scholarship mean to you – and what difference will it make?

I was thrilled to win the scholarship. This is validation, outside of the University of Liverpool, that I’m doing good quality work. I’m pleased with what I’ve produced so far, so having enough time to complete things properly means my previous efforts have been worthwhile.

Receipt of the grant will allow me to complete my PhD. The grant allows me to preserve my health whilst completing my research and writing up my thesis. This will enable me to produce good quality research and for me to write a thesis that I will be proud of.

I’ve really enjoyed my PhD research so far, to the extent that I would love to continue doing further research. Completing my thesis to a high standard may give me more opportunities to pursue post-doctoral research.

What challenges have you faced to get to this point?

I have a physical disability which has caused muscle weakness. I am a powerchair user. The popular perception of physics is physically working in a lab with experimental apparatus. It would have been impossible for me to undertake this sort of physics with any degree of independence.

However, whilst this is a route into physics, it is not the only one. Much of physics involves the analysis of data that has already been collected. This means that, so long as I can access a computer, I can achieve the same outcomes. The use of assistive technology has allowed me to mitigate some of the physical barriers, enabling me to produce good quality research.

I am, by nature, a positive and resourceful person and I’m lucky enough to have been well supported and encouraged by my family, friends and the physics department. Although I’m one of few visibly disabled people in the department, my supervisors and the department have always been very inclusive of my needs.

What would you say to those who have also faced barriers to following their dreams to pursue physics at university and beyond?

Working in physics is fantastic and I would encourage anyone to pursue the study of it. Where a disability creates physical constraints, it’s really important to be resourceful and look for alternative ways to do things and to not be afraid to ask for help. I’ve always focused on the things I can do rather than those that I can’t.

Although physics in general has had, and continues to have, a diversity problem, I’ve found that every individual I’ve worked with has been very welcoming. My experience has been positive, and I’ve always found that diversity is both valued and welcomed. People should believe they can achieve their goals and not be put off by others.

Why do you think diversity in physics is so important?

Diversity in any area should be a given. It’s important that everybody has the opportunity to pursue what they're good at and what they enjoy. Physics has been a real force for good in my own life and so I want everyone to have the opportunity to experience it.

Physicists are made up of largely straight, white, non-disabled men and the only way to get a full range of perspectives is to have as diverse a group as possible. People from different backgrounds have different viewpoints on problems. It’s essential that potential students see people like themselves in physics, to believe that it’s something they can do and where they will be welcome and valued.

What would you say to someone thinking about applying to the fund?

I would absolutely encourage anyone to apply for the fund. It’s not a difficult process so there’s nothing to lose – and the potential benefits are enormous.

Although it can feel difficult and uncomfortable to discuss barriers and limitations, I would encourage applicants to be as open as possible, so that the scheme can support as wide and diverse a group as possible.