Hard Science: Stories about journeys into physics

This week, we present two stories of "hard science," from a college student who gets more than she bargained for when she finds a work-study job working on a particle detector to a woman searching for her place after being discouraged from pursuing science.

Part 1: When Sarah Demers gets a work-study job working on a particle detector, she has no idea what she's in for.

Jump to Sarah’s story >>

Sarah Demers is the Horace D. Taft Associate Professor of Physics at Yale University.  She is a particle physicist and a member of the ATLAS and Mu2e Collaborations, studying fundamental particles and the forces with which they interact. Sarah graduated from Harvard University with an A.B. in physics in 1999.  She received her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester as a member of the CDF Collaboration in 2005. She was a postdoc with Stanford's Linear Accelerator Center, based at CERN as a member of the ATLAS experiment before beginning her faculty position at Yale in 2009.  She has been recognized for her research with an Early Career Award from the Department of Energy and has won awards for teaching and service at Yale. When she isn't doing physics she can be found spending time with her husband and two kids exploring in the woods behind their house, baking, reading and, recently, shoveling snow. 

Part 2: After being discouraged from pursuing science, Katy Rodriguez Wimberly searches for her place in the military and as an actor.

Jump to Katy’s story >>

M. Katy Rodriguez Wimberly is a first year graduate student at University of California, Irvine (UCI) in their Physics Department. She is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and the first Junior Board Fellow of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. She earned her Bachelor’s of Science degree, with a math minor, from California State University, Long Beach in May 2015. At UCI she is working with Dr. Michael Cooper on galaxy evolution research, which studies the coming together of satellite galaxies onto massive clusters of galaxies by comparing large cosmological simulations to observational data. Katy’s research interests lie in galaxy evolution and observational cosmology. Additionally, she loves and conducts astronomy outreach with underrepresented minorities, focusing primarily on K-12 Special Needs students (including children on the Autism Spectrum and those with Down’s Syndrome).


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Sarah Demers

I became a particle physicist because I needed a job. I was a work study student and had to work ten hours a week and needed it to pay tuition—a piece of my tuition—pay for books, phone bills. In those days—back in those days—for four college students, we had one phone. It was plugged in the wall and you had to hover over it if you wanted to talk into it—they made us pay for this indignity. There were a number of things that I had to pay for so I needed a job. When I started back at school, I wen t to work at the library. They’re always hiring at the library. But in my sophomore year it occurred to me, I could do something that’s tied to maybe a future career. Maybe I could try physics research. And I have to confess, I wasn’t too excited about the idea of it. I didn’t know what research was. When I pictured it, I pictured basements and white lab coats and safety glasses and people measuring with a paranoia and an amazing attention to detail. Everything that I do I must write down perfectly and catalog. And it just sounded kind of terrible. But I loved my physics classes and I wanted to give it a try.

So there was one physics professor who was hiring. Her name was Melissa Franklin. She was the first particle physicist—or the first woman to get tenure in the Harvard physics department doing particle physics. She had two openings in her lab, zero prerequisites, to upgrade a particle physics detector. She was looking for undergraduate grunt labor. So I contacted her and got an interview and I was very nervous. I remember walking into her office and she was over on the couch changing her infant son’s diaper. And she only briefly looked up at me and looked right back at her son and said, “She’s not wearing any socks. That’s weird.” I remember thinking, This is not going well. And then she asked me two questions. And the first question she asked me was, “Do you drop things?” And I thought, How does this non-sock-wearing person answer this? “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t drop things more than most people, but I can’t claim to drop things less than the average person so I think I’m an average dropper.” And then the second, and last, question she asked me was, “Are you nice?” And this one I hit out of the park. I’m a pastor’s daughter—I’m capable of great warmth and generosity. Yes! I am nice, and I may even be nicer than the average person.” And so I got the job.

I have to say that the basement—cavernous basement—of the Harvard high energy physics building was as I’d feared in terms of how it looked. It was full of electronics equipment. There were machines everywhere, cables everywhere, lots of epoxy and lead bricks. There was a clean room, and in this clean room you not only had to wear the white lab coat, but you had to wear booties and a hairnet. It was just incredibly intimidating.

But Melissa had a plan. She wanted us to make ten thousand gold Mylar field sheets to update a tracking detector. So this tracking detector you can think of like a big can on its side, ten feet long, six feet high, six feet in diameter, full of gas. It would surround the collisions that she wanted to study and when charged particles came plowing out of the collisions, they would knock free electrons as they went. The job of the tracking chamber was to just catch these electrons, in clumps, and follow where they went so you could figure out where the tracks in the detector went. And our gold Mylar field sheets, ten feet long, six inches wide, so thin you could see through them, they were supposed to basically mark the places and provide an electric field, a little push to the electrons, so we could grab them on our wires and see little blips as it went though. I loved it. Little engineering challenges—how are we going to glue this? How are we going to make this so it’s repeatable? It was amazing, and an incredible amount of fun.

I’ve heard people talk about particle detectors like the cathedrals of our day. It takes thousands of people to build them, years to put them together. And the resources, intellectual and financial, are immense. The detector that I work on, it’s six stories high, the length of a football field, hundred of millions of electronic channels, and it weighs as much as the Eiffel Tower. This thing is awesome.

I fell in love with particle physics through the detectors. And it’s a really good thing that I did. Because while I was doing this research, I was simultaneously taking physics classes. And they were getting harder. And they were getting a lot weirder too. A lot more abstract. I don’t know how much physics you’ve had, but it starts with mechanics. You’re pushing boxes around and watching how they move. Then you get to electricity and magnetism and all of the sudden the forces are invisible. And every once in a while, I would play with a refrigerator magnet just to feel magnetism and stay connected.

And then with quantum mechanics, you stop talking about where particles are and start talking about where they might probably be, with some probability. In special relativity, you get going really fast to slow down your clock compared to somebody else. And particle physics takes all the crazy and lumps it in together – just all of the craziest parts of physics all together

I remember calling my parents in college and telling them, “You are not going to believe what these particles are named. There are fermions and bosons. W boson, Z boson – the gluon. They even named the third quark that they discovered “the strange quark.” This is ridiculous. We used to laugh about all these different things.

By the time I got to graduate school, I had hung suspended from the ceiling cleaning detector pieces. I had glued and machined things. The detectors were so real for me. And I was just starting to make that transition to working with the computer code. The problem with these collisions is that you can’t see with your eyes what’s happening. You’re relying on your detector to do that translation for you. So we had to have a way to get these electronic signals into something we could interpret. And I was just starting to play with it.

But I had a concrete project. I was looking for pairs of top quarks that had tau leptons in their decays. I knew enough about taus to know that they were messy. Every time you make a tau, when it decays there’s a neutrino, and our detectors can’t see neutrinos. So you lose information. So any kind of nice description or plot that you try to make is going to be smeared out and it’s going to be messy. Which was why it was really terrible that one day I made a gorgeous plot, and I remember thinking, What have I done? Because every time I made a plot that had any interesting feature in it, it was a bug in my code.

I went back and I looked and I just couldn’t find a mistake. And I thought, What have I done?

So eventually I had to swallow my pride and take my plot to my adviser, say “What have I done?” And he laughed when he saw the plot and said, “Sarah, if you had made that plot twenty years ago, you would have won a Nobel Prize!” And so I laughed too because I thought this is probably a great joke, but I did not leave his office. I just stayed there. And he realized, Oh, she’s still confused. And he told me, “What’s happened is, you’ve discovered the Z boson. That code that you wrote to try to grab taus, it’s been faked by electrons. And so you’ve got a beautiful… it’s a mass peak—that bell-shaped curve is the mass of a z-boson.

And I said, Oh, thank you very much,” and walked out of his office. This is where you might start judging me. What I was thinking was, “Oh my – Z bosons are real?!” And you may wonder, how do you get to a point in your life when you’re starting graduate school in particle physics without confronting the possibility that these particles you’re studying are real? But in my defense, it started as a paycheck, it was a little paycheck. I fell in love with the detectors. And I maybe thought – and I would say that we were studying the universe – but this changed everything for me. These particles were real. And even on a day when I’m making a miniscule contribution to my field, I feel connected to human beings who for thousands of years have been asking this question: What is it that we’re made of? What is the universe? And that connection still brings me joy.


Part 2: Katy Rodriguez Wimberly

Let's do an exercise. But there's no calculators required. Don't worry. Picture a soldier Okay, how many of you saw a big burly marine? Okay, okay, good. Being honest Thank you. All right. Did anyone see an infantry woman? No one. Well, we can do that now so you should start picturing it that way. All right.

Who saw me? Yeah, no one. Look, in high school I didn't see that either. But here's how I got there.

So as far back as even like grade school I just never fit in. I always kind of felt like the alien one. So when I hung out with my cool friends I was way too nerdy for them because math and science and space was fun to me. And then when I went hang out with the nerdy kids I was too girly for them because I paid way more attention to all of the makeup and costumes in Star Trek than like the science or the ships. You know. So whatever, I go along my life, and then in my senior year of high school I'm told that majoring in science or math in college would get me nowhere.

Yeah, it was fun.

And then I said, “All right, well, I'll just be a bad-ass lady sci-fi star.” And I was looked at like I was a fool. So my parents, as any parents do, they say you should just join the army. Okay – caveat. They joined the Marines when they were eighteen and they told me that the army would provide financial security while I figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. Yeah. So okay, after months of like contemplating life, I thought, Well, it is honorable and it's secure not going anywhere. And there is an Army Reserve band nearby. And I do play the saxophone. So that's exactly what I did. And I joined the Los Angeles Army Reserves band and then, being in the reserves, I could still try to become a sci-fi actor. So just a few months after boot camp I had found myself in this routine where on one day I would be playing “America the Beautiful” as I marched down Main Street USA at Disneyland in my dress blues for the Army and the very next day I would be on that same street welcoming Disneyland guests as uh, I was friends with Pooh Bear. So I just I was in this routine. But this really familiar feeling kind of crept in like I was still the alien one. And even though everything seemed like it was just sunshine and patriotic songs and honeypots, it wasn't that way. I realized that even though I love being super dramatic and playing dress-up, the pure creativity of acting is just… it's too, like, grayscale for me. I really need a little more like black and white structure in my life.

So I quit Disneyland. But I realized that being jobless wasn't quite an option for me. So luckily I was still in the Army Reserves and they offered me a full-time position. Now this was as like a paper pusher, not as a saxophonist. But that was okay because I thought, Well maybe I'm contributing to the cause more because playing the saxophone not quite dangerous. So I took this job. Okay, fine. This is going to be the structure that I need. Right. All right. So cut to an industrial complex in East L.A. I have been trapped -- literally trapped -- inside this dimly lit windowless office for twelve hours and there's no end in sight. I am exhausted and I'm angry, like really angry. Just because the general needs to know immediately that all of the soldiers in my unit got their flu shots. Yeah. It might as well have been a matter of national security. So here I am, I’m making phone calls and checking e-mails. I'm constantly refreshing this incredibly slow online health records system just to make sure that these last few knuckleheads got their f-ing flu shots. Okay, so after literally a couple more hours of, like, knucklehead chasing I finally completed my task, I successfully reported back, and I go home. And that night in the car, I realized something huge. I don't belong in the army. I'm just it's too much structure. And then I realized I have this new problem.

I had been forgetting the advice that my mom and my five older sisters had been giving me my entire life. And look, when I say older, literally all five of them are at least eighteen years older than I am. Yeah. It's fun. Fun childhood. But I remembered this advice and I felt kind of bad because I realized that even though my mom had been telling me this countlessly, it always just went in one ear and out the other. You know -- you don't listen to your mom. But when my five older sisters told me that I needed to follow my dreams and that I shouldn't make the same choices that they did, I finally said, “You know what? I'm going to act on it.” I don't quite know how. But that night I realized I was going to do something about it.

So at home that night my then boyfriend and I are just bingeing on Star Trek Voyager as we do, because it's my favorite. And I'm just gushing. Totally fan girling about Captain Kathryn Janeway because she's a bad-ass. Uh-huh. And you know she is the only female captain that has her own Star Trek series and Voyager is the only research vessel in the entire Star Fleet. So that made me realize, Holy cow, she's the only commanding research scientist. And so I'm just telling my BF, like, “I just want to be her. Can I be her? I just wanted to do science, like all day. And he goes, “Uh, you can.” And I went, “Whatever, scientist isn't a job.” Okay. Yeah.

So you know one of those moments where like the second the words fall out of your mouth you're like, Oh that was, that was real dumb. Whoops. I know scientist is a thing. Science is a thing -- it is. But see, I had never like allowed myself to pursue it, to, like, internalize it. So over the next few days I just keep remembering that I want to be Captain Janeway and thinking of all of the science and the astronomy that I just, I've never explored. So I explore it.

And guess what? Astronomer is a job.

And it's a freakin kick-ass job at that.

So I decide I know how I'm going to act on the advice. Instead of being a bad-ass lady sci-fi star, I would be a bad-ass lady scientist. Yeah.

So I quit both my army jobs.

But then I realized, Oh boy I'm twenty-six and I just quit my job. I have no job and I'm an… I'm an actor and I'm going to go do science. Okay. Okay. So I had to think, like, Am I literally changing my entire life for science? Yeah, I am. I'm doing it. If Captain Janeway can be brave, so can I, damn it.

So I apply twice to Cal State Long Beach. But each time I got denied, I just said, “You know what? I'm going to keep going.” And I took more math classes and science classes and I got better. And on my third try, I was finally admitted. Now this program, the physics program at Long Beach, it's amazing. And the professors are so nurturing. And I finally fit in. All of the nerds are the cool kids, and those nerds like that I love sci-fi makeup and costumes. Yes, it was so perfect. So perfect. Okay, but there is one thing missing: I haven't done any astronomy yet. So I spend like literally a couple months and I'm looking for like the perfect opportunity and I'm preparing myself academically. And finally I earn an internship at the Seti Institute. Yes, so Seti, if you don't know, is the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Yeah. That's right. I literally spent an entire summer looking for intelligent aliens. Yeah, I know! I had the same reaction. This like formerly lost and dramatic woman who always felt like the alien had found her habitable zone while looking for actual aliens. That's right. And now I'm continuing my astronomical quest as a PhD astrophysicist student at UC Irvine.

All right. So now picture a scientist. Oh, but wait. You don't have to. Because it's me. Thank you.