At the end of May this year, I was scrambling to find summer clothing. I was headed to the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where a program entitled “ScAmp” had begun. ScAmp was organised to gather all the physicists who work on scattering amplitudes, which refers to how experiments are done in particle physics. Particles are crashed into each other at high energies, and the ensuing pattern of what scatters off to where allows us to work out what their properties are. Theoretical physicists do this by calculating the amplitude, or probability, of certain reactions happening. KITP regularly organises gatherings of this kind in order to encourage collaboration and innovation.
I arrived, hired a glorious gigantic zebra-printed beach cruiser bicycle, and was soon at work in a salmon-coloured cottage-style office on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Pacific. I had thought it would be dry and arid, but there was this amazing smell from countless flowerbeds. The campus bricks were so bright, and the sun’s warmth lifted me instantly. My little office overlooked a courtyard with crazy outsize artwork hanging from the roof. To my delight, the other PhDs in my office included a woman. This may sound silly, but after two years in the field it was the first time I had met a female ScAmp PhD.
Initially, KITP seemed very intimidating. I had seen or briefly met many of the other academics before at conferences, and knew many of them were very senior – it was scary to initiate conversations about physics when I knew so little compared to them. Gradually my confidence built and I practiced talking about science. The most important thing I learnt was that when I had no idea what is being talked about, to ask a question, no matter how scary it seems! There were lots of fascinating talks, covering a massive variety of areas. There were also some researchers there who were able to help with my current project, which hopes to use spinors to explain higher dimensional gravity.
After work, the other junior researchers and I played ping pong and did elaborate barbecues at the fancy KITP residence, then explored downtown Santa Barbara. One weekend, we drove for five blisteringly hot hours in an elderly convertible to camp in King’s Canyon National Park. We saw the Milky Way and the beautiful mountains. I was staying with a wonderful couple who taught me about kombucha. I swam in the ocean and luxuriated in wearing shorts!
While I was at KITP, my supervisor’s encouragement to socialise and form connections was invaluable to remind me about the importance of talking about science. After a while, I even began to enjoy it! After the month, I realised my energy was higher and my mood better than it had been for ages. I have learnt a great deal and hope that my future research will reflect this.