From Symmetry: “Transitions into medical physics”

Symmetry Mag
From Symmetry<

Catherine N. Steffel

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Scientists who moved from particle physics or astrophysics to medical physics sit down with Symmetry to talk about life, science and career changes.

“I wasn’t one of those people who grew up knowing that they wanted to be a scientist,” says Jennifer Pursley.

Pursley found her way to physics through enthusiastic and supportive instructors. She conducted research in experimental atomic, nuclear and particle physics before finally discovering medical physics.

Medical physicists use their knowledge of physics to develop and improve medical diagnoses and treatments. Some medical physicists create better and safer radiation therapies for cancer patients, others more accurate imaging technologies. Some work exclusively in radiation protection as health physicists, a profession often (but not always) distinguished from medical physics.

Many particle physicists and astrophysicists like Pursley have transitioned into medical physics, taking a variety of paths to get there. To learn more, Symmetry writer Catherine Steffel spoke with five individuals, ranging from those still in training to established professionals, who entered medical physics at different stages in their careers.

Hunter Stephens

Current position: Medical physics PhD student at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, United States

Education: BS in mathematics from Tennessee Technological University; MS in theoretical particle astrophysics from North Carolina State University, both in the United States

Year he entered medical physics: 2018

How he came to medical physics: I finished my coursework and written PhD qualifying exams and was only doing research when I thought, is research something I want to do long-term? I started looking into other options. I had heard of medical physics, but I didn’t know what it was. I started talking to people and meeting with people.

My main love is still research. I considered just doing a certificate program and looking for a residency, but it wasn’t going to cost me much time to make the switch [to a medical physics PhD].

Current area of research: Optimization and fast photon dose calculations.

Most surprising part of the job: Seeing the broad reach of a field that’s almost unrecognized. I’m surprised that I didn’t hear about it before.

Whether he misses astrophysics: Sure, but it’s one of those things where I know I’m going to love either one, and I’d miss the other.

Future plans: I plan to do a clinical residency and become board-certified.

Advice for future medical physicists: Know yourself well. In physics, it’s like everything and everybody outside is less than. If you really enjoy something and you see yourself fitting in better somewhere else, don’t let that stigma or what people think change that.

Laza Rakotondravohitra

Current position: Radiation therapy resident at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, United States

Education: MS in nuclear physics from University of Antananarivo in Madagascar; PhD in experimental particle physics at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the United States; post-doctoral certificate in medical physics from Wayne State University in the United States

Year he entered medical physics: 2016

How he came to medical physics: Every two years, scientists from the US, Europe and Africa hold the African School of Physics, where selected students from underdeveloped countries, such as Madagascar, meet for a month of training. That’s how I discovered experimental particle physics and medical physics.

Two years later, I got an offer for the Fermilab International Fellow Scholarship. I thought that I could switch to medical physics while doing experimental particle physics research, but it didn’t happen that way. After I was accepted to the medical physics certificate program at Wayne State University, I did research at Henry Ford Health System on the MRLinac while taking classes. Doing those simultaneously made the transition relatively easy.

Most challenging part of going into medical physics: As an international student, I had a lot of questions and had to second-guess everything. I worked really hard to come to the US, and now I want to share my experience with my students. Maybe that saves them half a year, you know?

Most rewarding part of the job: I do the same amount of coding as I did in experimental physics, except the input data and output goal are different. It’s very rewarding because I’m doing physics like I’ve done all my life, but now someone benefits immediately.

Future plans: Become an ABR-certified academic clinical physicist. The more time you spend in the clinic, the more you want to improve things, and improvement requires research. I also want to work together with people to bring medical physics to my country, like I did with high-energy physics.

Advice for future medical physicists: Be prepared to humble yourself. When I finished my PhD with my friends, they went into post-doc while I went back to class. Also, be patient. If you want to have a good future, you have to invest in what you have right now.

Jennifer Pursley

Current position: Clinical and academic medical physicist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, Massachusetts, United States

Education: BS in physics from Gonzaga University; MA and PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins University; postdoctoral research position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; post-graduate certificate in medical physics and residency in the Harvard Medical Physics Residency Program, all in the United States

Other careers considered: Science and technology policy

Year she entered medical physics: 2010

How she came to medical physics: Going from particle physics to medical physics is not as common as it used to be. Now that we have medical physics graduate programs, more people will be coming from that pathway. But my progression since residency is pretty typical for an academic clinical physicist in the United States.

I did two summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates programs, one in atomic and the other in nuclear physics. Job prospects pushed me to the thing that seemed most similar to nuclear physics, which was particle physics. By the end of my second year of post-doc, I wanted a job that was more satisfying, in the sense of having an immediate impact.

Most challenging part of the job: Balancing responsibilities. It’s easy to let clinic take all of your time because it’s satisfying and there’s always something to do. I really had to figure out what I wanted and how to balance clinical work and research.

On the job: My clinical responsibilities have shifted. As a resident, I learned how to do treatment planning and machine QA. As a junior physicist, I did that stuff. Now, I’m moving into a leadership, mentoring, and teaching role and spending more time on research.

What she misses about particle physics: I miss having a big, collaborative group. Medical physics research often happens in a vacuum, since every institution has different software environments and commercial products. The field is starting to realize this is an issue, but there’s a long way to go.

On the future of the field: Early on, research was primarily technology development. More recently, it’s software driven. Now, I see research going in two directions. There’s big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, which I think will provide some efficiency savings. There’s also radiation biology, which I’m most interested in. Namely, how do we personalize treatments, rather than just saying, “Because this works for most people, that’s what everyone gets”? Physicists can tease out information from data we already have.

Advice for future medical physicists: Make sure you will enjoy whatever field you go into. Talk to people who are in the field, and if they’re people who have come from your current field, even better.

Ane Appelt

Current position: Academic and part-time clinical medical physicist at Leeds University, Leeds, England

Education & training: BS in physics from University of Southern Denmark; MS in elementary particle physics from University of Durham in England; PhD in medical physics and radiation oncology from University of Southern Denmark; postdoctoral research position at Rigshospitalet in Denmark and MD Anderson Cancer Center in the United States

Other careers considered: Science communication

Year she entered medical physics: 2009

How she came to medical physics: My theoretical [particle physics] research—for long-baseline neutrino experiments—became very demotivating because whatever came out of my project, it would be decades before anybody built the experiments. I applied to a couple of medical physics positions by chance, and I started doing research after I worked at a hospital in Denmark for about three months.

In Denmark, you train for three years and complete modules that combine self-study, on-the-job training, and official courses. A training supervisor signs off on your progress reports, which are then approved by a central board.

In contrast, training in the UK is directly connected to the university with on-the-job training, modules, an MSc [master of science] project, and a final review [exam]. In both Denmark and the UK, we are registered, not board-certified like in the US.

On the job: Clinically, I’m in radiotherapy treatment planning. From a research perspective, I’m interested in reducing and predicting side effects of treatment. I also work on optimizing when we deliver a second course of radiotherapy.

Similarities between particle and medical physics: You have large amounts of messy data that you need to clean and analyze.

Most rewarding part of the job: You get to use your high-level skills, all your intellectual capacity, on something that matters.

Most challenging part of the job: Because I’m not a clinician, I’m always relying on other people, which is amazing but also super frustrating at times. Sometimes I wonder if I can do an MD part time!

Magdalena Bazalova-Carter

Current position: Academic medical physicist at University of Victoria, BC, Canada

Education: MS (or BS, depending on who you talk to) in physics from the Czech Technical University; PhD from McGill University in Canada; postdoctoral research position at Stanford University in the United States

Year she entered medical physics: 2005

How she came to medical physics: I studied dosimetry rather than medical physics in college so that I could work at CERN. When I moved to Canada, they would not recognize my MS degree from the Czech Republic, so I took medical physics courses at McGill University. Then I went to the US, where, when I was applying for the clinical board exam, my MS from the Czech Republic was recognized!

On the job: My ideal job would be a mix of clinical and research, which is why I pursued board certification, but when I moved to Canada, I could only do academic work and research because of my visa. After I got permanent residency, I had my daughter and wanted to spend time with her. So, right now, I do not do clinical work or use my board certification.

I am an assistant professor and a Canada Research Chair, which gives me a decreased teaching load. I supervise four graduate and two undergraduate students in my lab, the X-ray Cancer Imaging and Therapy Experimental (XCITE) lab, and I’m on too many committees. Saying “no” is increasingly important to me.

Differences between particle and medical physics: I had to rely on too many people to make progress on ATLAS, to the point where I wasn’t sure I would finish my PhD. In medical physics, we are the only ones responsible for a project, and it’s on us whether or not we finish.

Most surprising part of the job: The composition of conference attendees. I was used to being the only woman and one of the few young people at conferences. When I went to my first medical physics conference, the energy was very different—there were lots of young people, lots of women, and they were presenting.

Most rewarding part of the job: Supervising students. I graduated my first two students this year.

Another rewarding part of the job: Every new idea we have is beneficial. It would be great if more people were coming to medical physics from high-energy physics and fields like engineering. In Czech, we have a saying that “the bread will not be cheaper.” A discovery or new treatment modality won’t make the bread cheaper, but you will be saving patients’ lives or improving their quality of life.

Future plans: The minimum goal I have is to get my students good positions. I have a proposal on FLASH radiotherapy with TRIUMF. We don’t know whether our work will be clinically translatable, but we’ll see if we can make a difference.

See the full article here .


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From Symmetry: “How to share the data from LSST”

Symmetry Mag

Evelyn Lamb

The Large Synoptic Sky Survey will collect so much data that data scientists needed to figure out new ways for astronomers to access it.

M. Park/Inigo Films/LSST/AURA/NSF

The most detailed three-dimensional maps of the universe so far came from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

SDSS Telescope at Apache Point Observatory, near Sunspot NM, USA, Altitude 2,788 meters (9,147 ft)

Between 2000 and 2010, SDSS collected 20 terabytes of data, photographing one-third of the night sky.

When the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope high in the Chilean Andes becomes fully operational in 2022, its 3.2-gigapixel camera will collect the same amount of data—every night. And it will do so over and over again for ten years.

The LSST Vera Rubin Survey Telescope

LSST Camera, built at SLAC

LSST telescope, currently under construction on the El Peñón peak at Cerro Pachón Chile, a 2,682-meter-high mountain in Coquimbo Region, in northern Chile, alongside the existing Gemini South and Southern Astrophysical Research Telescopes.

LSST Data Journey, Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova

Back in the days of SDSS, scientists often downloaded data to their own institutions’ computers and ran analyses on their own equipment. That won’t be possible with LSST. “At half an exabyte, people are not going to be able to put this on their laptops,” Yusra AlSayyad, technical manager for the Princeton branch of the data management team, says of the LSST data.

Instead of bringing the data to scientists, LSST will need to bring scientists to the data.

The LSST data management team, consisting of approximately 80 people spread over six sites in the United States, is responsible for turning this deluge into something scientists can access and analyze.

LSST is under construction in Chile. W O’Mullane/LSST Project/NSF/AURA

These small motors, called actuators, will be installed to allow scientists to make small adjustments to the position of LSST’s combined primary/tertiary mirror. W O’Mullane/LSST Project/NSF/AURA.

This small version of the LSST camera called ComCam will test the observatory while the real camera is being constructed. LSST Project/NSF/AURA.

Once construction is complete, LSST will study the stars from the top of Cerro Pachón. M. Park/Inigo Films/LSST/AURA/NSF.

Keeping the instructions clear

LSST has two main objectives: immediate data processing and long-term data aggregation.

In the very short term—in the first 60 seconds after the LSST captures an image, to be precise—the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois will process the image.


It will send alerts to scientists who study supernovas, asteroids and other quickly-changing phenomena if there have been any changes to that portion of the sky when compared to a reference image. [See Data Journey above.]

In the long term, LSST will create comprehensive catalogs of the telescope’s observations—both the photographs themselves and tables of data extracted from them—to be published yearly.

LSST’s data management team has people working on both of these objectives.

The sheer magnitude of the data collected, the size of the team, and the number of different people and organizations who will want to access the data all pose challenges to the group. Making sure they have good documentation—human-readable information about what each piece of code is doing and how to use it—is one of them.

“The most popular projects out there have been popular not because their code is implemented the best way—they’re popular because their documentation is the best and easiest,” AlSayyad says.

Documentation is important for both scientists who will use LSST data and for the data management team working on code for use within the LSST project.

The team has a developer guide and regular code reviews to help keep coding practices consistent. Any team member can initiate requests for comments and modifications of policies.

With members of the team spread out geographically, the developer guide helps keep everyone on the same page from a distance. “I don’t get to go down the hall to help them with something,” says Jonathan Sick, a member of the Science Quality and Reliability Engineering team, which is based at NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory in Tucson. “I have to spend a lot of time literally documenting how to document.”

A common challenge

Another challenge facing the LSST data management team is deciding what technologies to use. “Whatever you choose, it needs to be supported in the future, and it needs to be widely used in the future,” AlSayyad says.

That is not only to address the needs of scientists wanting to study LSST data when it is collected, but also to address the long-term needs of the profession, she says.

AlSayyad and the other project managers want to make sure early-career members find their time at LSST valuable whether they eventually wind up as astronomy faculty or in data science, programming, or other jobs and to make the platform useful for astronomy students who may be accessing LSST data years from now. “We understand that academia is a pyramid, and not everybody who majors in astronomy as an undergraduate is going to become faculty,” she says.

LSST is making use of the growing availability of cloud computing platforms. The team’s Science Platform, based on the JupyterLab software development environment, will allow anyone to run their code with LSST’s data right from their web browsers—no locally saved data required. The LSST Education and Public Outreach team is also working to make parts of the environment as user-friendly as possible so it can be used in classrooms and for citizen science projects.

It is nearly impossible to predict how technology will change over the course of LSST’s mission, so flexibility is key, says Fritz Mueller, a technical manager based at DOE’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “We have to be prepared to change and evolve,” he says.

One of the team’s priorities is to make sure that their design decisions do not commit them to a single way of dealing with the data. “You try to keep the individual pieces as flexible and general-purpose as you can, so that if you find you need to reorganize them later, that’s possible,” he says.

Financial support for LSST comes from the US National Science Foundation, the US Department of Energy and private funding raised by the LSST Corporation.

LSST funding requires that all LSST software be open source, meaning that anyone can freely use and modify the code. A major goal of the data management group is to deliver software that is as flexible as possible, allowing scientists to adapt the software easily for new types of analyses that were not built in from the beginning.

“The whole mission of a survey telescope is that you’re not necessarily making the discoveries yourself,” says Nate Lust, a member of the team in Princeton. “The LSST project is a community tool for all scientists to make discoveries. The same is true for all of its software.”

See the full article here .


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From Symmetry: “Put it to the test beam”

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From Symmetry<

Lauren Biron

Before a detector component can head to its forever home, it has to pass the test.

Photo by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

If building a modern particle physics experiment is a marathon, then visiting a test beam facility is the 100-meter dash. Over the course of just a few weeks, small teams work non-stop to gather as much data as they can about a piece of equipment they are thinking of installing in an experiment.

“It is stressful, but I think it’s super fun,” says Jessica Metcalfe, a researcher at Argonne working on upgrades for the innermost part of the ATLAS detector, one of the two major detectors at CERN that co-discovered the Higgs boson.


“You’re all there squeezed together in the tiny control room, problem solving, all very focused on a very specific goal, and you learn a lot—really fast.”

Test beams generally sit to the side of full-on accelerators, sipping beam and passing it to the reconfigurable spaces housing temporary experiments. Scientists bring pieces of their detectors—sensors, chips, electronics or other material—and blast them with the well understood beam to see if things work how they expect, and if their software performs as expected. If things check out, they’re one step closer to being installed in a detector, and if not, it’s a chance to do some R&D, tinker and make things work.

“We’re typically testing pieces that are going into a larger experiment, but you’re also doing research on the detector technology, which is a form of research in itself,” Metcalfe says. “We’re not just getting ready to build something, we’re also learning a lot about the devices. There’s often many iterations of design and redevelopment.”

Test beam visits are typically short, and getting time can be competitive because there are only a handful of places around the world that have high-energy particle beams available for testing. When it comes to hadrons—particles made of quarks—there are really just two: the Department of Energy’s Fermilab in the United States and CERN in Europe.

Other test beams specialize in different particles, for example, electrons (at Germany’s DESY or California’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory) and photons (like at the Research Center for Electron Photon Science in Japan).


“It’s part of the lifecycle of any detector you build,” says Mandy Rominsky, who manages the Fermilab Test Beam Facility. “You start on a bench with an idea, and before you put something into a running experiment, you always put it in a test beam. You need to be able to characterize it, change it and go back and forth—and you can’t do that on a bench.”

Groups come with components of all shapes and sizes to the test beam. At the Fermilab test beam alone, researchers have tested teeny, tiny pieces of scintillator (the material that captures particles of light) and detector panels taller than people. Researchers come from many scientific fields, including nuclear physics, neutrino physics, collider physics, dark matter physics and astronomy. There are people working on general research and development without a specific experiment in mind, and ultra-specific tasks, like the crew working on turning smartphones into cosmic ray detectors. Still others are interested in learning how the materials they plan to put in a detector will change over time, especially in the harsh environment surrounding particle collisions.

Test-beam facilities try to keep useful experimental infrastructure on hand for visiting researchers: There are movable tables to pull equipment in and out, cooling systems and electronics, cables, different kinds of gas, cranes, and, of course, the beam itself, which often comes in many flavors of particles and energies. But some experiments need to bring in a little something extra, creating odd requests for facility managers—like when a visiting group from the IceCube experiment needed about 1000 gallons of deionized water to test their modules before similar detectors were shipped to the South Pole and entombed in the ice.

“It is surprisingly difficult to get that much deionized water,” Rominsky notes. “We couldn’t use a tanker and had to ship it in from Indiana in 55-gallon drums.”

And while most components will have only a short stay in the test beam, some facilities do have areas for longer-term experiments. For example, the LArIAT (Liquid Argon in a Test beam) detector lived its full existence in the test beam, collecting data for three years at Fermilab.


Its goal was to better understand how particles interact with argon, the material now being used in massive neutrino detectors such as MicroBooNE and the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment hosted by Fermilab.


FNAL LBNF/DUNE from FNAL to SURF, Lead, South Dakota, USA

“I like that we help everybody,” Rominsky says. “It doesn’t matter which groups come to us. Our policy is to be very helpful to everyone.”

IceCube PMT beam test at Fermilab Test Beam Facility. Photo by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab.

Meson Test Beam Facility with LArIAT Detector. Photo by Reidar Hahn, Fermilab

Research crucible

Test beams are not only important for detectors themselves—the test beam experience is also formative for the researchers who come to do the hands-on work. Teams work together over long hours, sharing both shifts and meals, ups and downs.

“For me, it was really communal,” says Clara Nellist, an ATLAS researcher at Radboud University in the Netherlands and former co-organizer of the annual Beam Telescope and Test Beams Workshop. “I learned so much from other people, even though we were from different universities and, in essence, we were competing.”

Nellist did her PhD thesis on proposed technology for the ATLAS pixel detector and spent many night shifts at the CERN test beam facility. Sometimes, groups working on a different proposed sensor intended for the same slot in the detector would share the same experimental setup. When the competing team didn’t have enough people to run their shifts, she volunteered to take data for them. A few months later, she unexpectedly found herself on their research paper for contributing to their data.

“We needed each other’s expertise,” Nellist says. “There are friends I made in the first week of my PhD who, 10 years later, I’m still friends with and check up on.”

The diverse nature of projects also means researchers from all different stages of their careers make their way through the test beam facility doors.

“You get people who are legends in the detector R&D community, and they need beam time like everyone else, and then there are undergrads having their first lab experience,” explains Aria Soha, an engineering physicist at Fermilab who managed the test beam facility until 2013. For those new to hardware testing—and even the more seasoned pros—it’s a thrill to watch those first particle tracks splash across the detector.

“I remember knowing when the beam was coming and watching the particles show up, and thinking, ‘This is cool, this is why I went to school for physics,’” Soha says.

Those moments of triumph often come after a stressful period of testing and debugging.

“You test everything in the lab before you go. Everything works perfectly and then you go [to the test beam] and nothing works,” Metcalfe says. “Checking the cables and turning things on and off solves about 80% of the problems.”

The granular, hands-on experience can make a big difference in understanding the results coming out of the detector later on. Visiting a test beam teaches researchers how particles are going through their detector, how they interact, how the data looks when it comes out, and much more. If researchers see a problem in their data analysis, they can recognize the potential causes more quickly, Metcalfe says. These are skills for the future of physics.

“There’s going to be a next generation of experiments, and people need to know how to design them and how to make that design motivated by the physics you want to do,” Metcalfe says. “It’s part of the training.”

See the full article here .


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From Symmetry: “ARAPUCA: Let there be light traps”

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From Symmetry<

Lauren Biron

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Pedro Rivas

Latin American institutions are instrumental in creating photon detectors for the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment.

FNAL LBNF/DUNE from FNAL to SURF, Lead, South Dakota, USA

It started with a drive.

Physicists Ana Machado and Ettore Segreto trundled their car along an Italian road, headed from Gran Sasso National Laboratory on a 40-minute trip to pick up their son from kindergarten. As was often the case, physics was on their minds—in particular, the topic of light.

Light is a key tool in the physicist’s bag of tricks, able to give glimpses of far-off galaxies or streaks of subatomic particles. For physicists such as Machado and Segreto, it’s a crucial component in reconstructing the interactions of elusive particles called neutrinos. Neutrinos rarely interact, making every quantum of light—called a photon—released when they do a precious piece of data. How, the scientists wondered, could detectors more efficiently capture those gems of light?

They imagined a slender box that contained a silicon photomultiplier: a small detector that could count single photons. The box would contain a transparent top that light could easily pass through when entering, paired with a film that could shift the light to a different, visible wavelength. The transformed light, unable to escape through the same opening, would reflect inside the box until it was absorbed and detected by the silicon photomultiplier.

Later, Machado would liken the design to a bird trap and christen it with a name from the indigenous Guaraní word for “a trap to catch birds.” ARAPUCA was born.

With only a few months before the pair left Italy for new jobs at the University of Campinas in Machado’s home country of Brazil, they hurried to test their idea. After some internet shopping to find what filters and components they could purchase commercially (with their own money), they contacted a mechanic at Gran Sasso to help them build a box and install a silicon sensor. The simple prototype was a mere 3.3-square-centimeter container made of Teflon—but it proved the concept.

They had no idea then that their technology would soon unite scientists from across Latin America.

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Pedro Rivas

Back in Brazil
Flushed with success, the couple started their new jobs in Brazil with a focus on ARAPUCA technology and how it could be used in the international Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment (DUNE), an enormous undertaking supported by the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science and hosted by Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.

The massive project was beginning to take shape, with plans to construct some of the world’s largest neutrino detectors and install them 1.5 kilometers (about a mile) deep in a former-mine-turned-underground-laboratory. Shielded from extraneous signals, the detectors would then be bombarded with the world’s most intense high-energy neutrino beam.

The goal of DUNE is to unlock some of the mysteries of neutrinos, including the answer to the biggest question of all: whether they are part of the reason matter as we know it exists. To reach their aims, scientists would need to gather immense amounts of data from neutrino interactions—including the light.

At a 2015 conference in Albany, New York, Machado and Segreto presented the ARAPUCA design publicly for the first time. The reception was positive, and further tweaks and tests with Fermilab and new collaborators at Colorado State University showed a technology that was quickly maturing. The results were so good, Machado says, that they proposed installing 32 ARAPUCA modules in the first ProtoDUNE detector—a house-sized prototype to test technology for the even bigger final detectors of DUNE.

Even with the construction start-date looming, the collaboration accepted their proposal. The summer of 2017 found Machado and Segreto back in Europe, this time at CERN to install many of the ARAPUCA detectors over the course of six months. When the ProtoDUNE detector turned on in 2018, ARAPUCA’s success was clear: The technology worked, the light was there, and the tracks were beautiful.

“It’s fun to think that everything started from that moment during that long drive,” Segreto says.

“We never had the idea that ARAPUCA would become what it is now,” Machado adds. “We never thought that this idea would become a reality. Everything that has happened for us has been such a surprise.”

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Pedro Rivas

Spreading across the continent
Back in Brazil, Machado and Segreto found themselves at the center of a rapidly growing group.

ARAPUCA had become an important piece of technology for neutrino experiments, but it was still but one of a thousand parts needed to build DUNE. ARAPUCA would need to connect to cold electronics: the hardware that sits inside the liquid argon that makes up the bulk of the neutrino detector, hovering around a frosty negative 184 degrees Celsius (negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit). Those cold electronics would need to interface with DUNE’s warm electronics, which sit outside the detector at room temperature. Along with simulations and testing, there was plenty of work to do—and a growing number of people to lend a hand.

Scientific tendrils snaked their way from the University of Campinas to other universities in Brazil and on to other Latin American countries, binding together a Latin American consortium focused on the detection of light. Machado made many of the connections personally. She reached out to fellow physicists, some of whom she knew from her PhD program, and encouraged them to join with their teams.

That was how Jorge Molina, a scientist in the engineering school at the National University of Asunción in Paraguay, got involved. The school doesn’t have a postgraduate program in physics, but the engineers excel at instrumentation, so they joined to work on the electronics in 2017.

“This is a great opportunity,’” Molina says. “We’ve never been delegated a huge project like this. It’s a chance to demonstrate we can do it, and do it well. This will be the door for the next big project that comes.”

Sometimes, a lack of scientific infrastructure in the country—which has a population of 7 million, about the same as Massachusetts—means Molina’s group has to take their science on the road. Paraguay sent one researcher to Fermilab to test electronics in cryogenic temperatures at the ICEBERG testbed earlier this year.

For many partners, participating in ARAPUCA is a chance to expand their skills. The Colombian team joined to work on the warm electronics, building on their decade of experience with running simulations for the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and digitizing signals for small neutrino experiments.

“The difference between ATLAS and DUNE, and something that I like a lot, is that when we started on ATLAS, the detector was already designed,” says Deywis Moreno Lopez, a scientist at Colombia’s University of Antonio Nariño. “With DUNE, we have the opportunity to participate directly in the design and construction of the components. It’s a very nice opportunity to get the universities involved and make a closer contact with industry.”

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Pedro Rivas

Industrial partners will be vital for producing the hundreds upon hundreds of pieces necessary to instrument the large detectors of DUNE. Each of the four far-detector modules will hold 17,000 tons of liquid argon inside a container four stories high. Accelerator operators at Fermilab will send trillions of neutrinos from the accelerator complex in Illinois straight through the earth, no tunnel required, to the detectors in South Dakota. The fraction of neutrinos that interact will produce additional particles, including electrons and light, that will be captured by the electronics, processed by computing algorithms, and stored for data analysis. The invisible will become visible.

“This is something that is almost science fiction,” says Cesar Castromonte, a physicist at Peru’s National University of Engineering and part of the group from Peru that began working on ARAPUCA earlier this year. “People are totally surprised most of the time when I talk about neutrinos—and surprised that there are Peruvian people working on this kind of stuff.”

That “stuff” for DUNE includes hunting for an explanation as to why matter exists in our universe, trying to determine whether protons decay, and working to better understand exploding stars and the formation of black holes. They’re giant science goals using the biggest detector of its kind, and collaborators know they need to bring the best technological solutions in their arsenals. Not long after the initial ARAPUCA tests were successful, the team began working on upgrades to the design to make the equipment even better.

The new X-ARAPUCA rolled in additional light guides within the box that funneled photons toward the sensor. Tests showed even more light captured than before, and scientists decided to incorporate 200 of the newly designed modules into the plans for the Short-Baseline Near Detector (SBND) at Fermilab—another neutrino experiment and another good test for DUNE technologies. Machado says she expects the electronic boards, filters and mechanical structures to be shipped to Fermilab, assembled and installed in SBND around December.

With DUNE test detectors running, cavern preparation for the massive far detectors at Sanford Lab underway, and a recent groundbreaking for Fermilab’s new accelerator upgrades, teams around the world are pushing their pieces of DUNE forward quickly and aiming to start up the experiment around 2026.

“We are very excited,” Castromonte says. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

See the full article here .


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Symmetry is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication.

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From Symmetry: “A budding strategy for large-scale science in Latin America”

Symmetry Mag
From Symmetry<

Ali Sundermier

Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Pedro Rivas

For the first time, scientists and policy-makers are creating a regional strategy for scientific projects in Latin America, starting with a focus on high-energy physics and cosmology.

Earlier this year, scientists from around Latin America gathered in São Paulo. It was the start of something new: the first-ever regional strategy for large-scale research infrastructure in Latin America.

Latin America is home to a large number of experts, the majority of Earth’s astronomical observatories, and a large number of particle physics and astrophysics projects. But only recently have Latin American scientists built up the critical mass and governmental support to create their own strategy for science moving forward.

“There could be someone in Chile working on the same topic as someone in Venezuela or Colombia, and they might not even know it,” says Carla Bonifazi, a physicist at the University of Brazil. “Making connections, opening up new lines of communication and creating an exchange of ideas between these different countries could strike up new collaborations that advance science.”

Collaboration between nations is one of the biggest forces behind some of the most revolutionary discoveries in physics in recent history. Twelve countries across Europe, plus outside partners like the United States, pooled resources and expertise through CERN to build the Large Hadron Collider. With it, they discovered the Higgs boson. The UK Science and Technology Facilities Council, the Max Planck Society of Germany and the Australian Research Council all joined the National Science Foundation in the United States to build the Advanced LIGO Project. Together with the Italy-based Virgo collaboration, whose member institutions are situated in six countries in Europe, scientists used the Advanced LIGO detector to discover gravitational waves.

Scientists and policymakers from across Latin America are banding together to carve out their future in science, and they’re starting with cosmology and high-energy physics.

Artwork by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Pedro Rivas

Pilot project
Scientists began speaking seriously about a regional strategy in 2016, during a symposium on high-energy physics in Guatemala. In 2018 policymakers at the Ibero-American Meeting of Ministers and High Authorities on Science, Technology and Innovation made a ministerial declaration emphasizing the need to further the existing scientific activities of researchers and inspire new projects and collaborations.

This year marked the first workshop of LASF4RI, the Latin American Strategy Forum for Large-Scale Research Infrastructure.

“Through this forum, we hope to map out and prioritize scientific projects that will fire up collaborations and train a new generation of scientists in specific fields,” says Fernando Quevedo, a Guatemalan physicist and director of the International Center for Theoretical Physics.

At the workshop, which took place at the ICTP-affiliated South American Institute for Fundamental Research, participants formed two different groups. A preparatory group will create guidelines and receive white papers from the different efforts in high-energy physics and cosmology in Latin America, mapping the current landscape of scientific projects in the region. Using that information, a strategy group will provide feedback and recommendations to present at the next ministerial meeting.

“If this is going to work, we really need to engage people and get input and support from the community,” says Marta Losada, a Colombian physicist who has been spearheading the effort. “Through this workshop, we wanted to get everybody on the same page and explain what we mean when we talk about this strategy. We wanted to show why it’s important to develop this research infrastructure here in Latin America in order to move forward and be an active participant in science.”

Down the line, those involved in the project hope that this strategy can be applied to a wide range of scientific fields in the region.

A new stage of participation
One reason to start with cosmology and high-energy physics: There’s already a proposed Latin-America-led international project to discuss. The proposed ANDES Deep Underground Laboratory would take advantage of the construction of a road tunnel deep in the Andes mountain range between Argentina and Chile to host a variety of experiments that could benefit from the protection of a 1700 meters of rock.

“This huge rock cover will protect the laboratory from natural radiation coming from space, allowing extremely precise experiments to be run,” says Xavier Bertou, a physicist at the Bariloche Atomic Center in Argentina who originally proposed the project along with fellow scientists Osvaldo Civitarese in Argentina and Claudio Dib in Chile. “These experiments would not work in another laboratory as they would be blinded by this space radiation.”

The laboratory, which would be the first Latin America-led facility for astrophysics, could enable the study of neutrinos and the search for dark matter, as well as investigations into geosciences—of particuliar importance since the lab would sit in a strongly geoactive region. It could also enable research in fields such as biology, material science and climate studies.

“ANDES represents a new stage of participation in particle physics for Latin America,” says Dib, a physicist at the Scientific and Technological Center of Valparaís and the national coordinator for the ANDES initiative in Chile. “It will help promote particle physics, in particular for young students who normally have little access to international particle physics laboratories. Since it will be located near the border between Chile and Argentina and led by Latin American researchers, we hope it will also inspire a scientific exchange between the different countries.”

Bertou sees the project as a natural next step for the region, since many Latin American groups already participate in particle physics collaborations based in Europe and the United States, as well as astroparticle collaborations at facilities based in Latin America, such as the Pierre Auger Observatory and the High Altitude Water Cherenkov Observatory, or HAWC.

“The science done will be quite unique in Latin America and will provide a huge boost for the community working on it,” he says. “It will be one of a small number of international laboratories in the region, opening a new way to work together to build science opportunities at an international scale.

A roadmap for the future

Since nothing like this has ever been done in Latin America, the scientists will essentially have to build this infrastructure from scratch. But for Losada, the value of a new regional strategy far outweighs the difficulties.

“We have differences with respect to other regions in the world who have implemented similar strategies,” Losada says. “Since we’ve never done anything like this here before, it’s been a challenge to get everyone on board. But we can’t keep working in small groups in little pockets and expect to make an impact. We have to develop a real coherent strategy.”

Rogerio Rosenfeld—a physicist at the Institute of Theoretical Physics of the State University of São Paulo in Brazil, one of the organizers of the workshop and the current president of the Brazilian Physical Society—says he hopes that this effort becomes truly international, nurturing more cooperation among different countries in Latin America.

According to Losada, the seeds they’re planting have already started to take root.

“One of the main effects that we’re already seeing is that the communities across countries are now talking to each other,” she says. “We’re starting to get organized in a way that we hope can be interesting and effective. Through this process, we hope to identify both our strengths and weaknesses to help us build a clear-cut roadmap of how to move forward and increase our scientific impact.

See the full article here .


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Symmetry is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication.

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From Symmetry: “Scientists combine forces to study first light”

Symmetry Mag
From Symmetry<

Ali Sundermier

Scientists are designing a next-generation experiment to map the Big Bang’s relic afterglow.

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Ana Kova

In the first few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang, the temperature of the universe was too high for stable atoms to form. The universe was filled with a hot, dense plasma of protons and electrons, with the primordial photons bouncing off the protons and electrons like light scatters off water droplets in fog.

As the universe expanded this primordial “fog” cooled until, 380,000 years after the Big Bang, it was finally cool enough for the electrons and protons to combine to form the first stable hydrogen atoms. At this point the fog lifted and the photons escaped, free-streaming into the now-transparent universe. These photons now make up what we call the Cosmic Microwave Background.

In 1964, astronomers Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias discovered that we can still detect this background, called the CMB for short.

Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, AT&T, Holmdel, NJ USA, with the Holmdel horn antenna, first caught the faint echo of the Big Bang

CMB per ESA/Planck

ESA/Planck 2009 to 2013

Since then, scientists have employed a mix of space-, balloon-, and ground-based experiments to crack the secrets contained in the universe’s oldest light.

Ground-based experiments designed to study the CMB have gotten larger and more sophisticated over time. Now, nearly 200 scientists who have up until this point worked on different competing CMB experiments have joined forces to propose a 4th generation experiment, the largest ground-based one yet, called CMB-S4.


“Everyone in the CMB community shares a common vision,” says Abigail Vieregg, a scientist at the University of Chicago and CMB-S4 collaborator. “We want to find out what happened at some tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

“CMB-S4 will be the first experiment that is big and bold enough that it requires everybody in the community to join together.”

Over the past few decades, the cameras of CMB experiments have evolved from containing just hundreds of sensors to containing tens of thousands. CMB-S4, however, is aiming for half a million, which will provide unprecedented sensitivity—detecting nanokelvin fluctuations in the CMB, which has a measured average temperature of around 2.713 Kelvin—and position scientists to learn more from the CMB than ever before.

The US Department of Energy, along with the National Science Foundation supports planning for CMB-S4. DOE approved Critical Decision 0 “Mission Need” for CMB-S4 in July 2019. Within the next few months, DOE expects to announce a process to select a lead laboratory to carry out the potential DOE roles and responsibilities.

Illuminating the past

The CMB permeates all of the universe, carrying the imprint of early cosmological history. Scientists can use it to trace cosmic evolution to the first moments of the universe.

Measuring the polarization of the CMB enables scientists to detect gravitational waves produced in a fraction of a second after the Big Bang and learn more about cosmic inflation, the rapid early expansion of the universe. Tiny temperature fluctuations in the CMB allow them to map its density, which can help them to uncover the structural evolution of the universe and the seeds of the first stars and galaxies. Through the CMB, scientists confirmed the age of the universe and the presence of neutrinos.

“The CMB is a large part of the foundation of our modern picture of cosmology and what we understand about the universe today,” says collaborator Zeeshan Ahmed, a scientist at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “The cool thing about it is it captures information about stuff that happened before its release, and it acts like a backlight for the rest of time. As it streams along, it carries signatures of interactions that happen along the way.”

Best of both worlds

What sets CMB-S4 apart is both its unprecedented sensitivity and the area of sky it will be able to cover from the ground.

The experiment will employ both small and large telescopes in two of the highest and driest deserts on Earth—the South Pole and the high Chilean Atacama plateau—which helps minimize atmospheric disturbances that obscure the data. Because both sites provide different advantages, combining them will enable the experiment to take the best of both worlds.

“You can focus on a single ultra-deep patch of sky from the South Pole in a way that you can’t from the Atacama,” says Julian Borrill, a scientist at Berkeley Lab and co-spokesperson for CMB-S4. “But you can cover a much larger fraction of the sky from Atacama. There’s a lot of complementarity between the two sites. It doesn’t just cut into these two separate pieces.”

Split between the two sites, the smaller telescopes will zoom in on inflation signals while the larger ones will investigate structure evolution.

Scientists will equip each telescope with cameras containing superconducting sensors. Using these sensors, the cameras will scan the sky, rastering back and forth to produce maps that scientists will later analyze.

Something for everyone

CMB-S4 will track the evolution of the universe, opening a window on inflation by measuring polarization and uncovering large-scale structures by detecting slight bends in the path of the CMB as it passes through massive objects such as galaxy clusters. In addition, CMB-S4 could locate nearby objects in space, such as asteroids or the hypothetical Planet 9, and shed new light on neutrino masses, dark matter and undiscovered particles.

“These unbelievably light, faint, noninteracting particles are extraordinarily hard to detect individually, but there are so many of them that they change the evolution of the universe as a whole,” Borrill says. “We can measure that collective effect and use it to weigh neutrinos and detect missing particles.”

The CMB can also teach scientists about the Cosmic Dawn, a time shortly after the CMB was released when hydrogen and helium atoms seeded the first stars and galaxies. As these stars switched on, they heated the gas around them, producing tiny thermal signatures in the CMB which CMB-S4 could potentially detect.

“The CMB is an amazing probe of the universe,” Vieregg says. “The science portfolio is just so broad, there’s something for everyone.

“When we started to think about the next steps we need to take to investigate it, we realized there was going to have to be a sea change going from multiple competing experiments to one enormous experiment that brings together the whole community. CMB-S4 will be a technological leap that could potentially teach us about the very beginning of time all the way to what’s happening today.”

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

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Symmetry is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication.

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From Symmetry: “How HAWC landed in Mexico”

Symmetry Mag
From Symmetry<

Oscar Miyamoto Gomez

HAWC High Altitude Čerenkov Experiment, located on the flanks of the Sierra Negra volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla at an altitude of 4100 meters(13,500ft), at WikiMiniAtlas 18°59′41″N 97°18′30.6″W. searches for cosmic rays

A strong regional tradition of high-energy physics and astrophysics—plus the aspirations of one young researcher—brought the High-Altitude Water Čerenkov Gamma-ray Observatory to Mexico.

High on a plateau between Pico de Orizaba—the snowcapped tallest peak in Mexico—and Sierra Negra—an extinct volcano to the peak’s southwest—a worker took a moment to catch his breath.

He and his 40-person crew were piecing together what would eventually become a collection of 300 steel tanks for the High-Altitude Water Čerenkov Gamma-ray Observatory, or HAWC.

Once completed, each of the hulking tanks would stand a little taller than a single-story house and measure about 10 steps across. Collectively, they would hold enough purified water to fill at least 20 Olympic swimming pools.

The mountaintop array was built more than 4000 meters (about 13,500 feet) above sea level, an ideal altitude to detect the cosmic particles that pepper Earth from space. HAWC’s main goal is to gather clues as to the birthplace of these high-energy particles.

Even though the oxygen is low at that high altitude, it was still easier to build the HAWC detectors on-site than to cart them up the mountain fully assembled.

Between 2010 and 2014, workers equipped HAWC’s tanks with a total of 1200 vacuum phototubes. The phototubes were to detect Čerenkov radiation, a bluish flash emitted when charged particles outrun light that is traveling inside a liquid medium such as the water in the tanks. The HAWC array records the amplitude and timing of these particles 24 hours a day, mapping the activity of two-thirds of the sky.

Today 30 institutions across Mexico, the United States and Europe collaborate on HAWC. And it all started with a presentation at a conference that piqued the curiosity of a Mexican PhD student studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

High-altitude collaboration

In 2000 Magdalena González was in the fourth semester of a PhD in theoretical physics, and her academic life was miserable. “My life as a theorist was very serious and lonely,” she says. “There were weeks where I did not talk to anybody.”

But then she attended a talk by physicist Brenda Dingus of the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory. The topic was new to her: experimental research into gamma rays. “It blew my mind,” González says. “I thought, I want to research exactly that.”

She approached Dingus to ask her how she might get involved. Dingus took her on as a graduate student, and she switched to doing satellite analysis and later working in the MILAGRO Gamma Ray Observatory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, for her thesis.

In 2005 a freshly graduated González moved on to a postdoctoral position at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Dingus and the rest of the MILAGRO team were working on their next step. They had reached the limits of their current technology and needed bigger detectors installed at a better location.

González had a dream to build the next-generation detector array in Mexico.

Scientists were considering locations in Tibet and Bolivia as well, and she knew she would need to gather a dream team to make her case. Luckily, that team could be found in Mexico and South America.

González and Dingus reached out to Alberto Carramiñana, who was involved in the construction and development of the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano (GTM) on Pico de Orizaba. “I instantly knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Carramiñana says.

They got support from Arturo Menchaca and Andrés Sandoval, two specialists in instrumentation for high-energy physics at UNAM. They also brought on board physicist Arnulfo Zepeda, who had co-directed the assembly of Čerenkov tanks at the Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory in Argentina.

Pierre Auger Observatory in the western Mendoza Province, Argentina, near the Andes, at an altitude of 1330 m–1620 m, average ~1400 m

In 2006 Carramiñana and company conducted a study that confirmed the feasibility of building HAWC in Mexico. One year later, the National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics (INAOE) and the US National Science Foundation signed an agreement officially authorizing the installation of HAWC inside the national park.

Workers from the nearby communities of Atzitzintla and Texmalaquilla began construction in 2010. They transported a total of 55 million liters of water with trucks from a filtration plant in Esperanza, a municipality close to the mountain’s slope.

Once they completed the work, installing an array of detectors four times the area of a football field, they took off back down the mountain and left the detectors mostly to themselves.

Every day, HAWC generates about 2 terabytes of data, which are stored on hard drives that are transported to the Nuclear Sciences Institute on UNAM’s central campus. The data is then transmitted to the University of Maryland, which provides it to collaborators online. A small number of technicians living in Atzitzintla are available to deal with onsite issues.

Dingus now serves as HAWC operations manager, and González manages HAWC operations on behalf of Mexico.

Science beyond borders

In 2013 Sara Coutiño, a PhD student at INAOE, visited Sierra Negra for the first time. She stepped out of a truck after a bumpy half-hour drive up mountain switch-backs. The final road uphill was hard to walk, and the air was getting chillier and thinner. As soon as she stepped onto the mountain glade, 100 Čerenkov detectors came into view.

“Visiting HAWC for the first time was jaw-dropping,” Coutiño says.

The scenery is breathtaking, and the rows and rows of detectors are a dramatic sight, she says, but she was most impressed by the work done behind the scenes—or rather, down the mountain—by HAWC’s 100 collaboration members, who coordinate across countries and institutions. “It still amazes me how all these people work together to keep it going.”

Coutiño originally planned to do her PhD abroad. While she was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, a considerable part of Mexican experimental physics was done with cutting-edge infrastructure located outside the country at institutions like Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in the US and CERN in Europe.

But Coutiño says that once she saw the detector array, she realized she already had everything she needed in Mexico. She is now researching Markarian 501 and Markarian 421, a pair of blazar galaxies with unexplained differences in their energy distribution.

Today, projects at HAWC and GTM are home to visiting students from Russia, India, China and other nations. “From the beginning of my scientific training, it has been vital to communicate and cooperate with colleagues based in other countries,” says Zepeda, a senior researcher in the physics department at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute (CINVESTAV) in Mexico City. “The more connected you are, the more you will expand your horizons.”

Inspired by HAWC, in 2014 Coutiño started co-organizing the Annual Gathering of Astronomy Students, an independent event where young researchers from Mexico and other countries share their research. HAWC’s results have been presented there since 2015.

Eyes on the future

HAWC’s success has motivated the conception of even bigger projects in Latin America. An alliance of Latin American, American and European scientists is currently planning an even more powerful array called the Southern Gamma Ray Survey Observatory, or SGSO, to potentially be located in Argentina, Peru or Chile.

“Being part of a worldwide set of detectors is where our future is,” says Jordan Goodman, principal investigator for HAWC from the US National Science Foundation. “The next step for us would be to collaborate with South America. Having an observatory further south would be ideal for looking at the galactic center.”

The Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO), whose array of 900 Čerenkov water detectors is scheduled to start fully operating in southwest China in 2021, is expected to take part in this future network. Since HAWC and LHAASO have similar latitudes but different geographical longitudes, scientists hope to use them to monitor different aspects of a single astronomical object.

In the era of multi-messenger astronomy, scientists around the world are more connected, Goodman says. Scientists studying high-energy neutrinos from space at the IceCube array in Antarctica are comparing notes with scientists studying signals from outside our galaxy with the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, and with scientists studying gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory to see what they can learn from observing multiple aspects of the same astronomical events.

“What comes next after HAWC for our students?” González says. “We are working on a plan to harvest what we sow.”

See the full article here .


Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

Stem Education Coalition

Symmetry is a joint Fermilab/SLAC publication.

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