Jannicke Pearkes, BASc '17, Engineering Physics

Jannicke Pearkes
It has been incredibly exciting to have been able to see deep learning for particle physics develop and make my own contribution in the last couple of years.

My name is Jannicke Pearkes and I am graduating from Engineering Physics this year. While at UBC I have primarily pursued research in particle and nuclear physics. My research has taken me from the very hands on — quite literally assembling nuclear physics experiments, to the slightly more abstract — working on high speed electronics for various experiments, to the even more abstract — developing algorithms to better identify particles. Recently my main focus has been on the use of deep learning algorithms for identifying boosted top quarks on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. During my time at UBC I have also been involved in the Engineering Physics Student Association, and led UBC Snowbots — an autonomous robotics team. 

Why did you choose engineering?

Unlike a lot of my peers, I never considered engineering or even science as a career until a couple years after finishing high school. Growing up, I was a lot more interested in the arts. In fact, at age 15, I moved away from home to train at a ballet academy and spent two years after high school pursuing a professional ballet career with the Goh Ballet. When I stopped dancing and enrolled at UBC, I started out in arts, thinking that I would pursue a dual degree in cognitive systems (out of interest) and some type of engineering (for practical reasons). However, I quickly realized that I liked my computer science and physics classes a lot more than psychology and applied to transfer into engineering.

What advice would you give a student considering engineering?

Take some time to explore what engineering is like. Before I went to university I had a very stereotypical idea of what an engineer was like and the type of work they did. I definitely didn’t fit in to that stereotype, and that was probably one of the reasons I never considered engineering as a career growing up. In my first couple of years at university I went to a lot of different workshops, conferences and open houses, often in areas that I knew absolutely nothing about. This experience really opened my eyes to the type of work I could do and the many different types of problems that people work on. I found out that there are a lot of interesting people in engineering and science, doing amazing and exciting work. My advice to students considering going into engineering is be proactive, go to the open houses and talk to as many engineers, professors and students as you can — figure out what is right for you.

What has made your time at UBC the most memorable?

My research experiences. I have spent 18 months of my degree working at various national labs and universities in particle and nuclear physics. 

My first research experience was at TRIUMF through the UBC Co-op program. Before working at TRIUMF I had a very vague idea of what a physicist actually did. My first term at TRIUMF really solidified for me what being a physicist meant, and gave me an idea of what I wanted to do in the future. The following year I got a summer position at a national lab in Germany (DESY), and then I did another term working at TRIUMF again. 

Working in a national lab is an amazing experience. There are many different scientists and engineers working in different research areas, who are often incredibly open and happy to talk about their research. I was also lucky to encounter many fantastic mentors who have shaped how I think about science to this day.

In addition to the people, there is also this incredible feeling that you get when you walk into a facility like TRIUMF. The machines are so big, complicated and beautiful that it is amazing they even exist at all. Most national labs have tours that are open to the public and I highly recommend going to one. 

In the two years that followed I won two NSERC Undergraduate Summer Research Awards to work on projects related to applying deep learning to particle physics at UVic and UBC. This work has been really exciting as it combined my interests in object identification from my robotics projects with my interest in physics. Instead of trying to develop algorithms to identify traffic cones etc. for autonomous robots, I was now developing algorithms to identify particles. My research has been especially exciting as deep learning is a field that is relatively new, especially in the context of particle physics. It has been incredibly exciting to have been able to see the field develop and make my own contribution in the last couple of years. 

I think the main reason I point to my research experiences as being one of the most memorable things about my time at UBC is that I have consistently been able to trace the things I have learnt in class to my research and vice versa. My work means that I find myself using a lot of my coursework on a daily basis. I have always been the type of person who likes to know that the things that I am learning are well motivated, and in that sense my experience in research has really enriched my studies.

What has been your most memorable or valuable non-academic experience studying engineering at UBC?

That’s an easy one! My time working with, and eventually leading UBC Snowbots was probably the most rewarding non-academic experience. I have a lot of great memories with the team and funny stories from our trips to competition. During my time with Snowbots I learnt a lot of technical skills, such as using Linux, C++ and Python that I use almost every day in my research. I developed an interest in AI and algorithm development and gained first-hand technical experience in these areas.  However, it was also a really amazing experience in terms of learning soft-skills. I found learning about how different people work, how to manage a group of people, and how to train new members really fascinating. Being a part of a student team, and especially running one, gave me insight into why things don’t always work out perfectly on a day to day basis, but it also gave me insight into how rewarding things are when they do work! 

What have you learned that is most valuable?

I think one of the most valuable things I have learned (and am still learning to do well) is how to reason on my feet. In other words, having the confidence to pick up some chalk and talk through a problem or solution with someone in real-time. Being able to have an actual back-and-forth dialogue or even an argument with someone is a great way to generate new ideas and learn quickly. This type of reasoning is a quality we often associate with great scientists and engineers, but that is unfortunate because that often means that we associate this ability as being innate. In truth, as with almost anything, being able to do this requires practice. 

However, it is not a skill that is easy to acquire! It is not often taught in lectures and it takes a certain amount of confidence as well as willingness to be wrong in practice. No one wants to be told that they are stupid. When I first started out in engineering I think that often my insecurities held me back; I wouldn’t speak out if I didn’t understand something and I wouldn’t hold my ground if knew that what I was saying was right.

It takes confidence to ask questions, to ask for help or to explain something to someone on the fly. It takes even more confidence to dig your heels in and carefully prove to someone who doesn’t agree with you that what you are saying is correct. And it takes confidence to be persistent when the person you are talking with isn’t explaining things well and you need to interrupt because you don’t understand. You don’t get this type of confidence from working on homework problems alone in your room! This type of confidence in your reasoning comes from practice. 

Throughout my university experience I have worked hard to develop this skill by working on problem sets with friends, going to professors’ and TA’s office hours, and arguing with colleagues who will listen to me and value my opinions. It takes a bit of practice to find that confidence where you can argue about a proof or a solution, but I think that the benefit of talking things through is usually far greater than the embarrassment of making a mistake. If you are wrong, you fail hard and fast, and that is a good thing because you can learn from it!

How do you feel a degree in engineering has benefitted you compared to a different field of study?

As I am now going on to do a PhD in physics I often directly compare how my path would have been different had I just gone directly into physics instead of engineering physics… my degree would certainly have been shorter! I think engineering physics is well-suited for students who want to go into experimental physics. Engineering physics gives you the same physics background as a physics degree, but in addition it also gives you the practical skills that are often really useful in a lab. Having an academic background in engineering skills such as circuit analysis, FPGA design, CAD, programming, etc. has meant that I have often been able to make meaningful contributions to the experiments I have worked on — even as a lowly undergrad. In addition, another benefit of studying engineering is that it is a professional degree. In my case, if the academic route does not work out, I will always have my engineering background to fall back on.

Where do you find your inspiration?

The majority of my inspiration comes from the people around me. I am lucky to have a large number of people, current and former colleagues, classmates, family, friends and acquaintances who inspire me with the things they do. I think that having this type of network of people in different stages of their lives is incredibly important in terms of giving you new things to aspire to both professionally and personally. Many of the people who inspire me are also people to whom I routinely turn to for advice. In fact, whenever I have a tricky decision to make I try to talk to a number of people and ask them for their thoughts. Often my support network inspires me to do things that I would never have done before. For example, when I was applying to graduate schools I asked my supervisors, academic advisors, classmates, and students a few years above me for advice. They nudged me to apply to a lot more programs and a lot more prestigious programs than I initially set out to do. In the end I was accepted to almost every single program that I applied to. It was quite surreal to me, a year ago getting accepted to any of the programs I applied to would have been absolutely amazing, but I ended up having to make a decision between almost all of them. 

What are your plans for the future?

I am planning on heading to Switzerland for the summer to work at the Large Hadron Collider. There I plan to continue doing research on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. In the fall I will be starting a PhD in experimental particle physics at Stanford University. Long-term I would like to stay in academia and run my own research group, either at a university or a national lab.