"Working at CERN has been quite an eye-opener to me in many ways!": meet Rasmus, electrical engineer from Denmark

You have ground-breaking physics AND dessert for lunch.

Hello Rasmus! Tell us a little about yourself and what brought you to CERN.

My name is Rasmus Gundorff Saederup and I am a 26-year-old electrical engineer from Aalborg, in the cold north of Denmark. I graduated from Aalborg University in 2018 with a master's degree in signal processing. 
Back when I was in high school, my class had a study trip to Geneva where we visited CERN and saw a lot of fascinating places during our tour: The Globe, SM-18, the Antimatter Factory etc. I remember how much in awe I was of the amount of clever people working there, but oddly enough, I also remember how impressed I was with the fact that you could get desserts for lunch at CERN: the food-loving nerd in me was fascinated by the idea of how great it must be to work in such a fairy-tale-like place where you have ground-breaking physics AND dessert for lunch.

However, I never thought it would be possible for me to join CERN - I assumed you would have to have a PhD in theoretical physics or 20 years of experience building particle accelerators in your backyard. So, I quickly threw the idea out of my mind and started at university. 

After having completed my master's degree I worked for a small company in Denmark for 2 years, making algorithms for pregnancy monitoring. I then started feeling like it was time to seek new challenges: In particular, I wanted to try living and working from another country as I love travelling. 
So, I started looking around at some of my dream places to work at, when suddenly my previous fascination with CERN came to mind. I did a bit of research and found out about the CERN fellowship programme and that the deadline was coming up real soon. CERN seemed like a perfect combination of getting out of Denmark while also trying to work in a completely different field and learn from some of the smartest people in the world. 
    
I thought "why not apply? The worst I can get is a no, but at least I will have given it a go!" 
So, I spent some long nights writing up a good application, getting recommendations and sent it in just before the deadline ended. 
After having waited for what felt like many weeks, I suddenly got a strange phone call from a Swiss phone number: It was my supervisor-to-be, asking me for a phone interview! I passed the interview and now I am sitting here at CERN with a badge proving I actually work here!

What do you do at CERN today?

I work in the electrical quality assurance (ElQA) team, which is responsible for making sure there are no short circuits, bad wirings or other electrical errors in the LHC circuits, which could stop the machine from working. 
Currently, I’m working on an algorithm to extract model parameters based on some of the frequency response measurements we do, in order to be able to compare values of inductance, resistance and capacitance between measurements, instead of comparing the raw measurement curves.

I am however mostly focused on doing ElQA related to the High-luminosity LHC (HL-LHC) upgrade, to be completed in 2025. My colleagues and I do high voltage insulation tests on the new magnet coils to be sure they can withstand the voltages they will be exposed to during operation. I usually say that we try to break the magnets now, so they don't break when we turn on the machine!
For HL-LHC I will be designing a system to keep track of all the tests we are making on these new magnets, so we can compare test results over time and between magnets in an easier way than having to go through tons of spreadsheets and test reports.

  
What is working at CERN like for you?

Working at CERN has been quite an eye-opener to me in many ways!
I have learned how the LHC is WAY more complicated than I ever thought it would be, and that no-one has a complete overview of everything and knows every little detail. Everyone is responsible for their part, and then, by making sure all the parts operate flawlessly, the machine works. This is only possible because everyone at CERN takes their job very seriously, pays great attention to detail and takes great pride in making sure everything is perfect.

Working in a big organization such as CERN is quite a change, coming from a small company in Denmark. There is a lot more coordination and paperwork needed at CERN, simply to document and remember the decisions we make, the tests we do and to simply coordinate the work between several thousand people. 
The project deadlines are much longer at CERN than what I’ve tried before during my studies, because everything is so much more complex when dealing with an experiment which continuously pushes the boundaries of what is technologically possible.  

It is also super cool to work in an international environment, where you talk to people from England, Poland, France, Germany and Italy, all in the same Zoom call! 
Whenever I stumble upon a field of science new to me, be it superconductivity, quench protection or beam optics, I can be sure there are several people with PhDs in just that topic employed at CERN. This should however not be seen as an intimidating thing but rather as a great occasion to learn from the very best in the field. 

I know things are very strange at CERN right now during COVID-19, as all the CERN clubs are closed, and all meetings are virtual. However, CERN is doing a good job of keeping the site open, so it is still possible to come into work when needed and meet a few colleagues. 
I still get the exciting feeling of seeing a building with a sign saying, “authorized personnel only”, and then realizing that I am indeed authorized to enter that building!
My first visit to the LHC tunnel was one of those awe-inspiring moments I will always remember: That’s the point I truly realised I was at CERN and exactly what it was we are working towards.

What have been the main hurdles or challenges you encountered along the way?

Having moved to a new country in the middle of a pandemic has definitely not been easy! 
All the practicalities of getting settled and sorting out a place to live, opening a bank account, getting insurance and other formalities with the authorities takes quite a lot of time and effort, and can seem quite overwhelming when you first arrive. 
The COVID-19-situation also introduced a lot more challenges related to teleworking, getting PCR tests, travel restrictions etc.

It has also been quite challenging and sometimes even lonely with the restrictions posed in France, as they mean there has not been a lot of exploring the local area, meeting new friends or getting visits from friends and family from back home.
However, I am still excited about being in the area and the Jura and Alps still look just as mesmerising as if there was no lockdown.

Getting into the work itself also takes quite some time. My impression is that a Fellowship is associated with a significant amount of responsibility, so it can be quite open in its scope (although this may vary depending on your supervisor), meaning you can greatly influence the work you will have to do. This is great, but it also means the first few months can be quite confusing without a very clear direction as that direction is in part set by yourself once you know a bit more about the section and the work being done there.

Oh, and living in France without speaking French can at times be quite annoying, but luckily you can get quite far with a combination of a few basic words, Google Translate and a friendly smile.

What advice would you give potential applicants?

Just apply! Even though you might not think you have the experience and background needed to work at CERN, your future supervisor might think otherwise! In fact, you might be exactly what is needed in a particular section, as you will be able to put a new perspective on things and bring in new ideas. 

However, you should be thorough in your application and really emphasize what sets you apart from the rest of the applicants and how your particular skills can bring value at CERN.

And finally: Be curious and willing to learn new things! The knowledge needed for working at CERN is so specific to CERN that it can only be learned at CERN - and CERN knows this! 
So, my impression is that the hiring managers are mostly looking for people willing and able to quickly learn new things and then put that knowledge into practice.

Inspired? check out our fellowship opportunities and take part!

Rasmus