The Scientist – Phillip Urquijo
Phillip Urquijo (BSc(Hons) 2003, PhD Science 2007) is the Justin Bieber of the physics world. Well, sort of. Like Bieber he’s everywhere. Not in the tabloids, but by the end of March he had already published five academic articles for the year and last year he published an astonishing 67 of them. He’s young too.
At 31 he is the youngest ever co-ordinator of a large-scale physics experiment. He’s not just a star, he’s a “protostar”. Granted, the similarities between one of the most exciting minds in high-energy collider physics to emerge from the University of Melbourne and a Canadian teen who can sing end there – but the point is, Urquijo is big in physics.
Talking to him, though, you’d never know it. The scientist, who completed his PhD in 2007 and spent nine years working in Japan, France and Germany, wouldn’t describe himself as a science whizz at school.
The Healesville High School student arrived at the University in 2000 and four years later moved to Japan to join the Belle experiment, the first of four large experiments – Belle, ATLAS, LHCb and Belle II – that he has worked on.
Particle collider physics experiments are carried out at large facilities, such as KEK in Tokyo or the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva.
These campus-style facilities house machines that accelerate and collide particles so scientists can observe and analyse how they react. “These are huge experiments with hundreds of people working on the main experiment and hundreds more required to put together the greater facility and they cost hundred of millions of dollars to build,” says Urquijo.
While both experiments re-created conditions shortly after the Big Bang, the Belle experiment at the KEK lab described the difference between matter and antimatter, and the ATLAS experiment at the LHC was made famous in 2012 with its discovery of the Higgs Boson – the particle that explained how particles attain mass.
Urquijo moved there in 2007 as the facility was being built, before the experiments started in 2008, and worked at the Geneva facility “with a mixture of PhD students and post-doctoral researchers” for more than three years, regularly working 10 to 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week. It was an intense time.
He had wanted to live in Europe and work in a university environment for a while, so he accepted a junior professorship at Bonn University and continued to work on experiments while teaching a Masters course.
He also joined the SuperKEKB experiment and was later appointed as the Physics Co-ordinator. He is now working on the project as part of an Australian Research Council Fellowship at the University of Melbourne.
His ambition was always to make his way back to Australia, so being able to co-ordinate the experiment while working in Melbourne is a highlight.
– Angela Martinkus