PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In speaking with Farrah Simpson, the excitement in her voice when the conversation turns to physics — and mentoring young students who might pursue the science she loves — is unmistakable.
“I love being able to have a positive impact on other people’s lives,” said Simpson, a Ph.D. student at Brown University. “I was always curious growing up. I remember I would always ask random questions that my physics teacher wasn’t able to answer, and I’d go off and try to figure it out myself.”
Simpson, who is from Jamaica, enrolled at Brown in 2018 after earning a bachelor’s degree at Columbia University. Last fall, Fermilab — the U.S. Department of Energy’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory — named her as one of two students in the nation appointed as 2022 Graduate Scholars to work at the lab’s Large Hadron Collider Physics Center.
Simpson was overjoyed at the honor: “I honestly didn’t really believe it,” she said.
The award is related to the globally prominent Large Hadron Collider (LHC) program — the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, headquartered in Geneva. The LHC pushes protons or ions to near the speed of light in an effort to search for particles beyond the Standard Model, including a potential candidate particle for dark matter, the mysterious stuff thought to account for a majority of matter in the universe. Simpson will spend a year at Fermilab, the U.S. region lab, under the mentorship of Dr. Anadi Canepa, head of Fermilab’s Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Department, pursuing thesis research focusing on the search for long-lived particles.
As part of her research at Brown, Simpson has been conducting searches for new particles predicted in Beyond Standard Model physics theories under the mentorship of Professor of Physics Meenakshi Narain — who chairs the collaboration board of U.S. institutions in the CMS experiment, one of two large-scale experiments happening at the LHC in Geneva — and in collaboration with current and former members of Brown’s High Energy Theory research group.
“The Standard Model describes what we currently know about particle physics,” Simpson said. “But there are some discrepancies. Beyond Standard Model physics, which predicts the existence of these new particles, attempts to address these discrepancies.”
Simpson said Narain played a crucial role in her decision to enroll at Brown.
“My main focus when deciding on a graduate program was to go somewhere I felt supported, where I could do the research I wanted to do,” she said. “Brown has a very strong high-energy physics department with professors who are not just excellent at what they do, but who also take the time out to teach and mentor their students.”
Simpson’s other research at Brown, under the leadership of Professor of Physics Ulrich Heintz, involves upgrades to the Compact Muon Solenoid particle detector, which is at the LHC, to prepare for more frequent particle collisions that could lead to new physics and physics processes discoveries, she said.
“I think that’s why I fell in love with physics,” Simpson said. “The learning never stops, and it will never stop. There’s so much more to learn and discover. You can never know everything or learn everything about the universe. Particle physics: it’s not really about us humans. It’s about something so much more.”
In addition to her own research, Simpson is active in mentoring young physicists and promoting the role of women in physics.
“I have loved teaching since a pretty young age, but as I've gotten older and as I've entered spaces where women and people of color and Black people are underrepresented, I've realized the importance of mentorship,” she said. “Mentorship is the reason I am where I am today.”
A member of the Sigma Xi scientific research honor society, Simpson co-leads the Women in Physics group at Brown and sits on the organizational planning committee for the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics.
“Dr. Narain is the faculty advisor of the Women in Physics group and chair of the organizing committee for CuWiP, so we work closely in creating initiatives and programming for a more diverse and inclusive environment for women here at Brown,” Simpson said. “One of the main reasons I chose Brown was community. Brown is very community-driven.”
Last summer, Simpson worked with another mentor, physics professor Stephon Alexander, and the Harlem Gallery of Science to launch Dream+Inspire: Mentoring Future Leaders to recruit professors and graduate students from the ranks of the National Society of Black Physicists to serve as mentors for middle- and high-school students, many of whom are from groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields, from Harlem and the South Bronx. Simpson serves as executive student representative on NSBP’s board.
From 2017 to 2018 while a middle school teacher at Success Academy Charter Schools in New York, Simpson served as an advisor to students, helping them through challenges they faced as they worked to succeed in school. Locally, she has served on the planning committee for a Big Bang Science Fair hosted by the physics department at WaterFire Providence, organizing and guiding hands-on workshops for kids and demonstrating the intersection of science and art.
As she looks toward her time at Fermilab and the final stages of her Ph.D. pursuit, Simpson said she expects mentoring and teaching to remain a significant part of her life. Giving back is a way of paying it forward after having mentors like Narain, Alexander and National Medal of Science winner S. James Gates Jr., a Brown professor and another mentor.
“Professor Gates has motivated me to continue because the truth is that this Ph.D. isn’t really just for me,” Simpson said “It’s also for many other Black girls who feel like they want to be physicists, and they’re not sure they can.”