by Mohamad Tahawi. Published: 15 August 2014

A couple of years ago, I couldn't imagine that one day I would be at CERN. It all started in the end of 2013. I met a former CERN summer student through an online course we were taking together. During our studying sessions we used to have breaks and talk about different things. At some point she mentioned that she was studying high energy physics and I surprised her with tons of questions. At the end of that conversation she mentioned that I should consider applying to CERN for the summer school.

I honestly didn't think that I had any chance of being accepted. I was feeling that I didn't qualify for an organization like CERN but decided to take the risk and apply. When I received the e-mail with my acceptance, I was overwhelmed with joy. I could never expect it to happen and this is a message to all students in related fields who are thinking of applying but might be hesitating.

The process of getting visa was extremely difficult and complicated given the situation in my home country, Syria; but thanks to the summer student team tremendous efforts and persistence I got my visa, just two days before my scheduled flight.

My background is in computer science and I graduated just few weeks ago, getting my bachelor of engineering in Artificial Intelligence. During my studies I was focusing on algorithms, optimization and competitive programming; because of that I had some expectations about what my project would be like, but I couldn't be more wrong. The project I was assigned is related to networking, and a programming language I have never touched in my life called PERL. In short, ALICE has a computer grid that is responsible for  distributing the data analysis requests over the computing centres spread around the world. That grid is called ALIEN grid, the name sounds really cool but it is not related to anything extraterrestrial, it is just an acronym for ALIce ENvironment.


If you want to communicate with another human you need to know how to get to him/her, some kind of address. Computers are not any different, to be able to communicate with a computer you need to know its address, the jargon would be IP address. Currently we are working with IPv4 which gives us 1012 possible different addresses; as much as this number seems really huge, IPv4 is exhausted and not many addresses are free anymore. The solution to that was introduced in IPv6, where we have a much larger addressing space (beside a lot of other enhancements over the old IPv4 protocol). Actually with IPv6 we can give an address for every grain of sand on this planet. So the project was about making AliEn able to use IPv6; this will require a lot of the old code to be rewritten because it is not compatible with the new standards and that is my main project. But it comes with few extra things on the side. Due to unknown reasons, up to now AliEN is failing to work on a normal laptop, most likely something related to different configuration; so I am also digging after that. Lastly AliEn couldn't process more than 4GB of data each time and currenlty my supervisor and I are so close to finishing implementing a feature to remove that limitation. All in all, the project is great, I learned a lot of new things even though it was not what I expected.

It feels great knowing that my contributions, despite how small they are, will actually be part of accelerating science and that my work here does matter. My experience here as a summer student is also something that I will never forget, I have been blessed with a great supervisor that treated me as an equal to him. He took my opinion, discussed possible scenarios, listened to my ideas and gently showed me where I was going wrong. He is also helping me with a personal problem that is severely affecting my life and if he succeeds he would actually be saving my life and giving me a new start.

There are a lot of things to remember from CERN, but if I had to mention one thing it would be lunch time at the restaurant, and no, it is not because of the food. During lunch time you see people from all around the world. Different cultures, languages, backgrounds and beliefs and despite all this they blend together in such a beautiful way into a small unique community. That view is very dear to my heart, it gives me hope that humans can forget about their differences and live together peacefully; that all the wars happening in different parts of the world will end sooner or later. That view also shows me that indeed science is the answer, because what all these people have in common is just the curiosity and the passion to find answers to yet unanswered questions. They all have that one goal of pushing the limits of human knowledge forward, and it was enough for them to become like one big happy family. For me, the beauty in that scene just can't be described. Currently my life is on a crossroad and I don't know where it is taking me, but without a doubt my stay here was a life changing event and something I will always look back at, remember and smile. CERN is my new happy place and it is really unfortunate that I will have to leave it. I would love to become member of this large family and I hope that one day I will get the opportunity to come back...