by Virginia Greco. Published: 07 July 2017

The ALICE collaboration has recently endorsed Kristjan Gulbrandsen, associate professor at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen (Denmark), as Deputy Run Coordinator of the experiment for 2017 and – if things proceed as expected – Run Coordinator for 2018.


Born and raised in US, he has Scandinavian origins and now lives in Denmark. Kris – as everybody calls him – studied Physics and Engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then moved to Boston to enroll in a graduate programme in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

During his undergraduate studies he had already analysed high-energy physics data and had the opportunity to do physical hands-on work on a detector at Fermilab (near Chicago), but when he landed at MIT he wasn’t sure about what he wanted to do next.

The first weeks on campus were dedicated to events and lectures in which students had the occasion to meet researchers from different groups, discuss research topics, and thus pick the branch of physics to study in depth. It was then that Kris decided to go for heavy-ion physics.

He started to work on the Phobos experiment and graduated with a thesis on anti-particle to particle ratios measured in the new energy regime of Au-Au collisions at RHIC on Long Island, New York. “Work at MIT was very intense,” comments Kris, “but was also very rewarding. I felt really involved, important to the group, so I enjoyed it a lot!

When he had concluded his Ph.D., he spent one extra year at MIT as a postdoc, while he was trying to figure out what to do afterwards. The LHC was under construction at CERN and represented a strong call for young researchers; in addition, Kris wanted to travel. Thus, with the help of one of his professors and collaborators at MIT, he came in contact with the heavy-ion physics group at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and moved there to work as a postdoc in ALICE. “Denmark was also somehow appealing to me because my heritage is Scandinavian; more precisely: Norwegian”, Kris admits. “So I thought that it could be interesting to live in that part of the world. I was willing to discover more about Scandinavians and their culture.

By now, Kris has been living in Copenhagen for more than 10 years and working at NBI, where he found a very stimulating and open environment: “I have some commitments, of course,” he explains, “but in general I am quite free to choose what to do. I like it.

Soon he will move again to be able to spend most of his time in the ALICE control room, which means that he will have to relocate to Saint Genis or another of the villages close to the experiment facility. “I will try to find an apartment as close to the ALICE experiment as possible,” he says smiling, “if I get called several times a day, I don’t want to spend each time half an hour or more travelling to point 2.

When Grazia Luparello, the actual Run Coordinator, wrote him an email to ask if he was willing to become her deputy, at first Kris thought that it wouldn’t work: he not only has duties at his University, but he also has a family, including his wife and a three-year old son. Moving for two years to CERN was not an obvious choice.

He was very attracted by this perspective though, and he felt it was a very good opportunity that might not have happened again soon. Besides, his kid was very young and was not attending school yet, thus moving was still an option. So he evaluated this offer carefully with his wife and his boss at work, and finally accepted the assignment. Now he is still living in Denmark and travelling often to Geneva, but he plans to be here full time by around September.

Kris has already experience of data taking in a control room, since he has been responsible for the Control System of the ALICE FMD detector for many years. He also spent time at point 2 during the installation and commissioning of the detector. Consequently, he got familiar with many aspects of data taking and met many of the reference people in the experiment. “Nevertheless, I still have a lot to learn,” he explains. “There are many things you have to follow and understand; in addition, I need to become more organized: surely it will be a growing experience for me. In order to learn all of the aspects of the run coordination, at the moment I am working in overlap with Grazia, who is doing a fantastic job!

There are two aspects of this job that he finds very challenging. The main one is dealing with many things and being able to follow up with all of the errors and problems that come up from time to time. “You need to check how often these problems occur and how important they are,” Kris comments, “Normally you call the experts of the involved sub-detector or system to solve the specific issue, but you have to keep track of everything and sometimes help investigate the cause of the error or problem. The goal is to keep the efficiency of the detector as high as possible at all times.

The other challenge is making sure that all the shifts are covered. “Sometimes you discover shortly before a shift that somebody cannot make it, because they got sick or have a problem with their flight, etc. I haven’t directly dealt with this problem yet, but Grazia did and I can see that finding somebody to replace the missing shifter in such a short time might give you a serious headache.