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Hunting for elusive particles at the Large Hadron Collider

Particle physicist Flavia de Almeida Dias has had a fascination for fundamental scientific questions ever since she was a child growing up in Brazil. ‘I was a highly curious kid. It wasn’t always possible for me to play outside, so I was home a lot, reading books’, she recalls. ‘My grandfather likes science and gave me a book about the universe. After reading that book, I wanted to become a scientist, and nothing could change my mind.’

De Almeida Dias went on to study physics at the University of São Paulo. As a student there, she worked on a project that involved using a proton beam as a non-destructive method to determine the chemical composition of paintings and archaeological artefacts.

She also took part in applied research at the Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory, studying the electroactivity of cellulose.  For her PhD she switched to a less applied field of study that also involves proton beams: she joined the hunt for elusive fundamental particles at the European particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, in Switzerland.  

Flavia de Almeida Dias
Flavia de Almeida Dias

Building blocks

‘The most mundane objects in our daily lives and the distant galaxies are made from the same building blocks,’ De Almeida Dias explains her fascination. ‘However, there are still aspects of these building blocks we don’t fully understand. That is what we study at the LHC.

We do this by accelerating protons to a very high speed and then making them collide. This high energy collision causes the protons to fall apart, and creates new particles. Those are the ones we are interested in. We work with a theory called the Standard Model of particle physics, that tries to explain all known fundamental particles and how they interact with each other.

The Higgs particle, discovered in 2012, was the last missing piece predicted by this model. All these pieces together work very well, but they still only represent about five percent of what the universe is made of. The rest of the universe consists of what we call dark matter and dark energy. So there are still many things that we cannot explain with the Standard Model. At the LHC we try to find what else is missing.’

De Almeida Dias has worked at CERN throughout her career, but as is common for physicists working there, she was always affiliated with another institution. She obtained her PhD at the State University of São Paulo in association with the California Institute of Technology, followed by two postdocs at the University of Edinburgh and the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.

De Almeida Dias: ‘Over the years I spent a lot of time at CERN to look for new phenomena, which could either be new particles or deviations that the Standard Model cannot explain. I worked on analyses searching for new particles in the dark matter sector, new force carriers, gravitons from extra dimensional models, and extra Higgs particles predicted by theories that say there is not one Higgs boson, but five.’

Highly international

In addition to the research at CERN being at the forefront of physics, De Almeida Dias also enjoys the unifying nature of conducting research in such a highly international environment.

‘You work with people with different backgrounds from all over the world. You meet people with different ideas and different ways of working. This exchange fosters creativity, for example when encountering scientific problems. It is beautiful that science can be so unifying when you work towards the same goal, no matter where you’re from or what you believe.’

Since the beginning of 2020, she divides her time between Switzerland and Amsterdam, where she obtained a MacGillavry Fellowship. She is now associate professor at the UvA’s Institute of Physics. ‘I am very happy that I got this fellowship, it allows me to continue my work at the LHC and join a wonderful group. The UvA’s Institute of Physics and Nikhef colleagues are very reputable within the CERN community, and the Netherlands has an interesting scientific landscape with different kinds of funding you can apply for.’  


De Almeida Dias believes it is a good thing that programmes like the MacGillavry Fellowship, that are specifically for women, exist. ‘It is a pro-active way to change the gender gap, instead of solely educating people that they have unconscious gender biases when they hire people. And this was not an easy position to get,’ she says.

‘The MacGillavry Fellowship is open for all topics in science instead of just my own field. I had to compete with over 400 other highly talented applicants from every field of science. Being a woman in the scientific world is an extra burden to carry, being the non-standard.

As a woman in this profession you have to prove yourself all the time. You continuously have to prove that you are good, and that you belong. Of course it is different in every country. Compared to Brazil - which is a sexist country - Denmark was equal-ish. I hope to find a good balance in the Netherlands as well.’ 

When asked to give examples of how women are treated differently in science, De Almeida Dias shares some of her experiences: ‘It happens from a young age on. If you are a girl who is interested in science, everybody always asks you “Why?”. But if you’re a boy, no one asks you that question. And even now, when I tell people I am a physicist, people are surprised. They say that I don’t look like one.’

She also mentions men being taken more seriously: ‘This has happened so many times. I or my female colleagues are ignored when we say something during a meeting, but when a man says the same thing five minutes later, people say he is brilliant.’ Worse still, she has encountered harassment at work too. ‘Especially when I was a student, there have been incidents which made me feel unsafe and I wondered if it was worth dealing with it all for the love of science.’ 

How can things change for women, according to her? De Almeida Dias: ‘I am very thankful that female pioneers made it possible for me to be here. I had a couple of female professors that I could look up to. I always thought: “How can I become that person?” Role models are very important. I am part of an outreach programme in Brazil for women only. We organise events with all-female scientists for lectures and discussion panels. This is how we show girls from high schools that there are possibilities for them.’ 

Double the amount of data

What will the next couple of years look like for De Almeida Dias? ‘At the moment the LHC is undergoing maintenance. The restart is scheduled to happen next year. We will run the accelerator for a few more years, resulting in double the amount of data compared to what we have now by 2025.

With more data, it is possible to uncover more subtle deviations from the behaviour predicted by the Standard Model. You could compare it with taking a picture of the night sky in a split second or using a camera with a very long exposure time. The first picture will look black, but on the second one you might see many stars, the Milky Way, and far away galaxies. So in the next five years we can expect more precision in what we see, and maybe new physics will shine a light in our experiment.’ 


2005-2008: BSc in Physics, University of São Paulo
2007: Summer scholarship at Brazilian Synchrotron Light Laboratory
2008: Summer scholarship at CERN
2009-2012: PhD in particle physics from the São Paulo State University’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, in association with the California Institute of Technology and CERN
2010: Marie Curie short-term researcher at University College London, United Kingdom
2013-2016: Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom
2017-2020: Postdoctoral Research fellow at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
2020-present: Assistant Professor at the University of Amsterdam, researcher at the National Institute for Subatomic Physics (Nikhef), and member of the ATLAS Collaboration at the LHC, CERN