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CERN Internship Feeds Physics Student’s Love of Research

Early in his summer internship at CERN, the world's largest particle physics laboratory on the French-Swiss border, Mathieu Ehrhart sat down to lunch. Quietly, an elderly gentleman took a seat beside him and wanted to chat.

"He started asking me questions about what I was doing," said Ehrhart, a first-year graduate student in physics at Old Dominion University. "So I talked with him, but I didn't ask him any questions."

At a lecture the next day on subatomic particles called neutrinos, Ehrhart learned the identity of his tablemate.

"They said, 'Please welcome Jack Steinberger,'" Ehrhart said, and out walked the 1988 Nobel Prize winner in physics for co-discovering the muon neutrino. "It was the guy I had lunch with. It was amazing. I really hope I didn't say anything dumb to him."

Bumping into Nobel winners was just part of the thrill Ehrhart experienced in his prestigious 10 weeks at the Super Proton Synchrotron at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Being one of 250 interns from around the world - chosen from 2,500 applicants - was the beginning of it. So was discovering he was prepared and confident enough to work among elite international scientists on CERN's grandest fixed-target particle physics experiment, known as COMPASS.

"It was intimidating at first," said Ehrhart, a French citizen who studied economics and electrical engineering at ODU before deciding physics was his true love. "I think you put a lot of pressure on yourself when you get there, because it's such a tremendous opportunity that you don't want to mess up."

Ehrhart has worked in Newport News at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility - commonly known as J-Lab - with ODU peers and professors over the last few years. And as a senior, he was part of a multi-university team that built a drift chamber/detector, in ODU's state-of-the-art high bay lab, for use at CERN in a COMPASS experiment.

"The neat thing is I got to work with that same detector," Ehrhart said. "I knew what it was and was ready for it. I think that's why they picked me, actually."

Not so, said ODU associate professor Stephen Bueltmann, Ehrhart's advisor. Ehrhart earned his way to CERN through demonstrated scholarly achievement and acumen.

"Mathieu acquired an unusually large set of analytical skills as an undergraduate, mastering software analysis and development tools usually expected from a second-year graduate student," Bueltmann said. "He's very serious about his research."

Ehrhart and his sister Catherine, also an ODU student, moved to Norfolk a few years ago with their parents, who serve in the French military and work with NATO. Their parents have since returned to France, but Ehrhart said he plans a lengthy stay at ODU to obtain his Ph.D. in research.

"After CERN, I am sure now that this is what I want to do, no doubt," Ehrhart said. "I'm not a guy who sits down in classes and enjoys them. I want to be an experimentalist. Classes are one thing, but applying what you know from classes is another. I really like having a problem and solving it."

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