CDT Student Interviews – Spotlight on Tom Williams Harrison

Published on

The new series of 'CDT Spotlight Interviews' gives you a personal insight into work, motivation and challenges of our students. For this interview we have spoken with Tom Williams Harrison who joined the CDT in 2017.

Why are you interested in Physics?

“What makes physics (especially high energy physics) so interesting for me is how fundamental it is. It’s like solving a mystery where the answers are the secrets of the whole universe. The discovery of the Higgs Boson would still be a big deal if it happened a billion years in the future on some planet a million light years away which is why I think it’s so cool to have happened in our lifetimes.”

Why do you think Big Data is important?

“Big data is important because for some problems, the thing you’re trying to model or analyse is so complex or rare that you have no choice but to use huge amounts of data to improve your statistics. I think “Big Data” should be the last resort when solving a problem, but sometimes (like with Monte Carlo physics simulations or state-of-the-art machine-learning models) it’s unavoidable. Having the technologies to manipulate big data means that we can solve the problems that take more storage and processing power than a single computer but less than that of all the computers on Earth put together.”

What were your biggest misconceptions about working as a researcher before starting your PhD?

“I thought I might be spending most of my time reading endless numbers of papers. There are still plenty of papers out there to read but there’s much more focus on the practical side by comparison to just reading than I expected.”

Which of your experiences or achievements would you use to recommend pursuing a PhD?

“I think the biggest factor for whether someone would be suited to a PhD is how much they enjoy almost totally self-directed work. As such there are many experiences from throughout my PhD which I could use but they would serve more to put someone off if a strong focus on independent work did not appeal to them.”

Has your PhD experience so far convinced you to pursue an academic career or are you more interested in applying your skills in industry?

“This one has been tough for me to decide. I like the more open style of academic research but I’m erring on the side of industry for the possibly better chances of being able to land a secure job after the PhD.”

Has Covid-19 impacted your research?

“Some of my work was impacted by COVID due to lack of personnel on-site at CERN which meant that some lab equipment wasn’t online to access remotely via ssh. Other than that there hasn’t been too much disruption other than adjusting to home working.”

At this point in your PhD, what is the achievement you are most proud of?

“Actually, one of the things I’m most proud of was probably the 6-month industrial placement I did that was unrelated to the rest of the PhD. I developed a natural-language processing backend involving business documents for an AI startup, and also built up the devops pipeline and CI/CD (continuous integration/deployment) setup for the application. In terms of things related to my PhD, I wrote a software decoder for the binary data output of the “VELO” subdetector at LHCb.”