New professor in accelerator physics

22 March 2019

In September 2018, Professor Atoosa Meseck was appointed Professor of Accelerator Physics – Collective Effects and Nonlinear Beam Dynamics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). The professorship was instituted in cooperation with the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB), where Meseck is researching into novel concepts for particle accelerators. One particular class of components, known as undulators, feature prominently in her work.

"The first time I read about MAMI I was still an undergraduate student," recalls Professor Atoosa Meseck. What she discovered about research involving the Mainz Microtron impressed her. "All particle accelerators are unique. Each system is constructed only once worldwide and is highly complex. Operating them requires both a strong sense of teamwork and a focus on achieving goals. And Mainz has these in spades. I really liked that."

In September 2018, JGU and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie (HZB) appointed her to the joint Professorship in Accelerator Physics – Collective Effects and Nonlinear Beam Dynamics. She will continue to conduct research and work in Berlin, but will regularly visit Mainz.

Experiments for MESA

This time she is visiting the Gutenberg campus for three days to exchange ideas with her colleagues at the JGU Institute of Nuclear Physics. She wants to propose additional experiments to be carried out at MESA, the university's new particle accelerator. MESA, the Mainz Energy-Recovering Superconducting Accelerator, will be built with funds from the PRISMA+ Cluster of Excellence and is scheduled to go into operation in 2023. This system will give scientists the opportunity to explore entirely new avenues of research.

"The particle accelerator's parameters have been optimized by the scientists here at the Institute of Nuclear Physics. Things have been really well thought out and I have no intention of interfering," emphasizes Meseck. "But there is one particular feature of MESA that we might be able to exploit for experiments that wouldn't intrude on its routine operations." Meseck wants to develop gamma sources for nuclear physics experiments. "We could generate high-energy gamma radiation," she says. "This would enable us, among other things, to do preparatory work for the kind of Higgs factory that is currently being planned at the CERN particle accelerator where they actually intend to start generating Higgs particles."

Meseck is passionate physicist. It does not bother her that her office at JGU still looks rather bare and cold. She stoops over her notebook to reveal a succession of new images and plans. She is keen to present her plans and her work in the clearest possible way: "I would like you to get a basic feel for my research."

Meseck was born in Tehran in Iran but attended school and university in Hamburg. "At university, I wanted to work in high-energy physics. I only took accelerator physics as a supplementary subject as the courses did fit in my schedule." After several semesters, one of her professors in elementary particle physics enquired: "What are you thinking about specializing in? Hardware or software”? You need to start making up your mind." Meseck was bewildered. She had no idea what to reply.

Good reasons for expensive research

In the end, the right answer came to her while working in accelerator physics. She found herself becoming increasingly fascinated by the field. "On the one hand, our research focused on highly theoretical physics, while, on the other hand, we could adapt and test our predictions using the equipment we were operating. You can do both in accelerator physics." And, thus, she didn't have to choose between hardware and software.

Meseck earned her doctoral degree at DESY, a research center of the Helmholtz Association. One focus of research there is the development, construction, and operation of particle accelerators. Her particular area of expertise became what is known as lattice design, i.e., planning the architecture of the complex network of magnets in accelerators. And as accelerators are unique and not mass-produced, each device presented her with new challenges. She then moved to the HZB and acquired her postdoctoral lecturing qualification by working on free electron lasers.

"Our research consumes a lot of resources, so we need to come up with good arguments for what we are doing and why we are doing it. We try to save money wherever it makes sense to do so. For instance, we try to figure out ways of reusing old components to construct new accelerators." Or the researchers try to explore ways to save energy. MESA, for example, has a novel energy-recovering operating mode. Meseck's proposals for additional experiments aim to be as cost-effective as possible. "The construction of MESA has major potential," she emphasizes. "It will significantly advance our research into dark matter."

At the HZB, Meseck is researching novel concepts for undulators. Undulators are specialized components of accelerators in which dipole magnets with alternating field alignments are lined up in series. They can significantly improve the quality of synchrotron radiation. Few places in the world work so intensively on undulators as the HZB. Such expertise is in high demand – at the HZB itself, where BESSY III, a new photon source, is currently being planned, and in Mainz for MESA. Meseck will take over the management of the undulator division in Berlin later this year. "The team there made it clear they wanted me," she says. "That’s a great feeling."

Sharing enthusiasm for accelerator physics

Meseck has always been interested in cooperating with a wide variety of institutions. Exchanging ideas is something she is keen on. She has, for example, taught accelerator physics at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin since 2012. And her schedule now regularly includes Mainz as well: "I organize block courses for students here," she says. She is also involved in JGU's "Inspiring Physics" Master Academy. "I'm currently also involved in a follow-up application for a Ph.D. position at Mainz University." This represents a further mainstay of her work.

Meseck wants to inspire young scientists to work in accelerator physics: "In the past, we were not very good at explaining what we do. That has changed in recent years. We have learned how to make our field attractive. Accelerator physics is fascinating. We test complex theories with the help of unique systems that we also design, component by component. We create a little window on the world through which we can observe how nature works." For Meseck, Mainz has a special role to play when it comes to accelerators. "It's a place with a long tradition of building accelerators – and hopefully it will stay that way."