The RHIC program constitutes a technical, scientific wellspring that feeds many fields. Maintaining such facilities keeps an ever-more-sophisticated, highly specialized workforce growing.
In addition to helping scientists peer into the very heart of matter, large-scale physics facilities like the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) play a significant role in training the next generation of world-class physicists. These scientists often make important contributions that fuel the economy, provide for security, and pave the way to a healthier, brighter future. Indeed, more than half the students who earn doctoral degrees in nuclear physics in the U.S. go on to work in fields as diverse as national security, medicine, energy generation, space exploration, finance, and more.
As of 2012, more than 350 students have earned Ph.D.’s based in part on their research at RHIC; hundreds of more are in the pipeline. Here are some of their stories.
Lokesh Kumar recently joined the National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER) in India. He is an active participant in the STAR experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) and the ALICE experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Both experiments study the subatomic particle “debris” emerging from light-speed collisions of heavy ions to get clues about what matter was like at the dawn of time. Kumar’s training for this work began right here at Brookhaven, as a graduate student and then a postdoctoral fellow from Kent State University working at STAR.
“I was stationed at Brookhaven to work on the RHIC beam energy scan program, which looks at how conditions created in heavy ion collisions change by varying the energy of the colliding beams over the broad range accessible at RHIC,” he said. This versatility allows scientists to explore the transition of matter from ordinary atomic nuclei made of protons and neutrons to the 4-trillion-degree “soup” of their constituent particles—quarks and gluons—as they last existed at the beginning of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago. The goal is to better understand how this “quark-gluon plasma” evolved as the real universe cooled and condensed to form 99 percent of the visible matter that exists today—including all stars, planets, people and so on—and to search for a so-called “critical point” at which the transition between these different forms of matter moves from continuous to sudden.
“I stayed at Brookhaven for three years, from January 2010 to June 2013, which gave me the chance to discuss this research with experienced scientists and experts, greatly expanding my understanding about this field,” Kumar said.
Collisions at the LHC’s ALICE experiment occur at much higher energies than RHIC—consistently creating the quark-gluon plasma of the early universe—while RHIC can explore the energy “region” closer to and on either side of the transition.
“The two experiments are complementary, helping us explore the full range of the ‘nuclear phase diagram’—a map of what happens over a range of collision temperatures and densities,” Kumar said. “At NISER, I am one of the core members of the beam energy scan program searching for the critical point and the phase boundary to better understand the phase diagram.”
“Here in India, we are very optimistic about the success of the RHIC beam energy scan program. Already, it has provided valuable information about particle production in heavy-ion collisions and also shown different behavior for some observables when the beam energy is lowered. Possibly we will find the signatures for the critical point and the phase boundary.”
With such information, he said, our understanding of the phases of nuclear matter might be brought to the level at which we understand the phases of more familiar substances like water, where the underlying interactions are electromagnetic rather than at the level of quarks and gluons. That understanding would make the mysteries of the early universe a bit less mysterious to us all—and who knows where else it could lead?
As both a graduate student at Yale and a postdoctoral fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mike Miller was immersed in analyzing data from the STAR detector at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), where thousands of particles stream out of ion collisions occurring thousands of times each second. Now, instead of gazing at data from STAR, he has his head in “the cloud”—or, more precisely, a company called Cloudant, which he founded with fellow RHIC Ph.D. students Alan Hoffman and Adam Kocoloski of MIT, to provide “cloud” database systems that software developers use over the internet.
The trio also worked together analyzing data from the Large Hadron Collider, which generates even more data than RHIC. The technology they developed for Cloudant builds on and improves the types of tools they used for dealing with vast amounts of physics data.
“Scientists spend a lot of time building the technology needed to do science,” only getting the chance to use those tools to analyze data later, Miller said.
But that experience can have benefits, Kocoloski explained. “Because physicists and other scientists are natural problem solvers, they’re really good at thinking through what kinds of tools will work for particular data challenges,” he said. “That’s one reason we look to hire scientists to work at Cloudant.”
Cloudant has grown to 60 people now, but the company began while its founders were still working at RHIC in 2008.
“We were all leading dual lives: the life of science, and the life of a tech startup, which I wouldn’t encourage anyone to do,” said Hoffman. “But the skills we built conducting research at Brookhaven have been invaluable to what we're doing today at Cloudant.”
The technology they develop may in turn have a payoff for science, by providing better tools so scientists can spend more time doing science and less time fine-tuning software. In designing tools for data management, they’re learning about many fields beyond physics, including genomics.
“Our collective thesis work at RHIC turned out to be the ideal preparation for the big data wave,” said Miller. “We didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that we had to help invent and operate so many custom systems meant that we were at the frontier of data generation, management, and analysis. One of the most exciting things is focusing on making technology that’s broadly applicable across all domains, from consumer internet, to drug discovery and genomics. In many ways, by focusing exclusively on developing the technological tools use by scientists, we have a chance to make a much bigger impact overall.”
As a member of the STAR collaboration at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), Johan Gonzalez became a master juggler—of large data sets, that is. While a graduate student in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, he developed scripting techniques for sorting and making sense of the vast amounts of data generated by collisions of particles in subatomic smashups that recreate the conditions of the early universe. Now, with Ph.D. in hand, he applies his data-juggling expertise and knowledge of distributed computer systems to design algorithms for analyzing data from radar sensors here on Earth—the kind the military use to keep us safe from more threatening "smashups."
"After I completed my Ph.D. in 2006, I got a job at Raytheon Company, a large defense contractor in Los Angeles, California," Gonzalez said. "Most of what I do involves algorithm development and analysis of radar sensor data. The algorithms that I work on essentially help get the most out of existing radar sensor hardware. I have one patent under my belt and have four more in the U.S. Patent Office pending approval."
He says the work at RHIC prepared him well, and not just for crunching the numbers.
"I learned to apply statistical techniques that I currently use in the analysis of sensor data, but some of the most valuable lessons I learned were the 'soft' skills of communicating and presenting results. By working in a large endeavor like STAR, which is comprised of hundreds of scientists and engineers, I also learned to work effectively as part of a team.
"All of these experiences have come in handy in my years of working in the private sector. But most importantly, in the STAR collaboration I was taught how to make effective use of the 'knack' that comes with being a physicist—the ability to tackle any quantifiable problem, regardless of the specific discipline."
Anuj Purwar, who conducted research as a member of RHIC’s PHENIX collaboration to earn his Ph.D. in experimental nuclear physics from Stony Brook University, now applies the knowledge and skills he gained to further R&D in using radiation to treat cancer. He’s a senior staff physicist at Varian Medical Systems, based in Palo Alto, CA.
“I use my knowledge of radiation detectors, linear accelerators, and nuclear physics that I got from RHIC to come up with innovative solutions to the problem of delivering high doses of ionizing radiation to cancerous tumors while minimizing collateral damage to normal tissues,” he said.
Specifically, he works on compact linear accelerators and gaseous ionizing radiation detectors to improve the steering and focusing of cancer-killing beams and ensure that optimized doses of radiation can be delivered precisely to tumors, as well as the design of radiation shielding.
“Although there are differences—e.g., RHIC is about 2.4 miles around, operates at 200 billion electron volts, and uses superconducting magnets for beam steering, while the Varian linacs are about 1 meter long, top out at 22 million electron volts, and use ordinary electromagnets—my experience at PHENIX with accelerator physics applies directly to what I do every day.”
Purwar’s postdoc work on silicon pixel detectors and data acquisition equipment at Los Alamos National Laboratory—still as a member of RHIC’s PHENIX experiment—also has a direct bearing on his current job, as do the types of computational simulations performed for analyzing nuclear physics experimental data.
“My experience at RHIC prepared me very well for R&D in medical physics.”
Christine Nattrass first arrived at Brookhaven as part of Yale University’s relativistic heavy ion group, where she worked on RHIC’s STAR detector.
“It's not always easy working with hundreds of collaborators who are there to critique your work. There is no way to make 500 people happy, but the product of this collaborative process is usually better than the original,” Nattrass said. “Over the course of my Ph.D., I got much better at accepting and giving constructive criticism, and I really enjoyed working with people around the world.”
After earning her doctorate, Nattrass continued her career studying particle collisions at Switzerland’s Large Hadron Collider, but remained within the RHIC community. She is now a collaborating member of ALICE, one of LHC’s detectors that, like RHIC, explores the properties of the quark-gluon plasma thought to have existed shortly after the Big Bang. She also collaborates on RHIC’s PHENIX detector.
Recently she’s expanded her expertise to teaching, as an assistant professor of physics at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. The skills of collaboration, constructive criticism, and communication are an essential part of the job.
“What I really want to do is make science accessible to everyone—and get my students as excited about science as I am,” she said. “I think the world would be a better place if more journalists, politicians, lawyers, businessmen—everyone—had a better understanding of science.”
RHIC’s STAR detector was an early home to particle physicist Monika Sharma, where she first became acquainted with the massive amounts of data produced by modern-day accelerators. She worked on the state of the art RHIC computing facility (RCF) that supports computing needs of the STAR experiment and others.
“This was the first time I was working on an experiment that involved such large amounts of data,” she said. “Working on RCF was a fantastic learning curve which eventually gave me a strong foundation of analyzing data and publishing research papers in peer-reviewed journals.”
With this experience, Sharma moved on to a research associate position at physics department in Vanderbilt University, jointly working with the Advanced Computing Center for Research & Education, or ACCRE, which collects, stores, and disseminates data from the Large Hadron Collider’s CMS detector to researchers all over the world.
At ACCRE, Sharma and a team of other scientists receive shipments of terabytes of data from Geneva, where they reconstruct and store it at Vanderbilt’s Tier-2 facility. The group also stays on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, when CMS is active, to troubleshoot any potential data loss crises and keep systems running with minimal interruption.
“The CMS experiment at the LHC generates mountains of data in 3-4 weeks of heavy-ion running. The hands-on experience I gained working with a large-scale computing facility at RCF gave me the tools and skills I needed to approach the ever-increasing data needs at ACCRE.”
M. Munir Muniruzzaman transferred his skill at analyzing RHIC’s particle collisions to developing algorithms for a small company using fast neutrons to detect explosives and illicit materials such as drugs. He has worked on detectors for the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, U.S. Customs, and a number of commercial companies.
“Then, after three years helping save lives from terrorists, I learned that a physicist can also save lives in danger of being cut short by cancer,” said Muniruzzaman. Joining a company working on a robotic radiosurgery system that directs x-rays with pinpoint precision, Muniruzzaman is now in charge of using physics-based computer simulations to calculate doses for this innovative cancer radiation treatment.
Computer simulations and an understanding of radiation play a role in the work of RHIC alumnus Andrew Hoover at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he’s helped design arrays of sensors for analyzing the composition of nuclear materials as part of an effort to track their origins and keep them out of terrorists’ hands. “My skills here are applied across several projects involving radiation detection — even a space-based gamma-ray burst experiment on a NASA mission.”
The space environment, filled with cosmic rays and energetic particle bursts, seems particularly well suited to the application of skills learned at RHIC. Jane M. Burward-Hoy, who now also works at Los Alamos, measures particle distributions in the outer edge of Earth’s radiation belts to more accurately predict the space “weather” environment. The ultimate goal: Help protect Earth-orbiting satellites from damage to their electronic monitoring systems — which help protect us on Earth.
Burward-Hoy attributes her career path to the terrorist events of September 11, 2001 — the day she was scheduled to defend her Ph.D. thesis. “I decided I really wanted to contribute to national security and make a difference,” she said.
RHIC alum Felix Matathias hopes to have his impact in the world of finance — using data-analysis and computing skills to pin down pricing information for rarely traded bonds in a less-than-transparent market. “Because of my work analyzing very limited early RHIC data, I was no stranger to working with sparse and rare data trying to extract a statistically significant signal. My physics training also provided me within valuable technical skills in computer programming, which I now apply every day.”
Being an outsider in a new field can be a real asset, says Robert Welsh, who transferred skills gained through 10 years of experimental particle and nuclear physics to the field of neuroscience. “My training in physics has greatly contributed to my ability to think outside the box and to learn new experimental and theoretical concepts.”
Welsh is involved in a number of studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging and other brain-scanning techniques. He specializes in tweaking experimental designs to maximize the detector’s sensitivity to the “signal” he wants to measure — for example, a change in brain activity in response to different facial expressions or cognitive tasks — for studies of psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”) and cancer.
Young Researchers at RHIC
Brief stories of what some students and postdocs are doing at RHIC right now, and what drew them to research in this field.