Working at National Labs: Fermilab

Fermilab, Wilson Hall (credit: Fermilab)

Ever since the laboratory produced its first high-energy particle beam in 1972, scientists at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) have worked to answer fundamental questions about the nature of the universe by revealing its most elementary particles. As one of the nation’s top federal research institutes, Fermilab attracts scientific talent from around the world via employment opportunities, fellowship programs, and collaborative projects.

But for many of the people who work there, the attractiveness of the lab goes well beyond the research opportunities it offers. "We have to have everything on site, making it very much like a town onto itself,” says Young-Kee Kim, the lab's deputy director. The lab's townlike character and resources and its sense of community allow scientists such as junior researcher Jane Nachtman to focus on science while also raising a family and dealing with the bureaucracy that's endemic at any government-run facility. “I feel lucky that I have an employee daycare on site, and that the administration here is so understanding,” she says. “I think it makes it easier for me to juggle my family life and career.”

Time machine

A Department of Energy facility located just outside Chicago, Illinois, Fermilab "advances the understanding of the fundamental nature of matter and energy by providing leadership and resources for qualified researchers to conduct basic research at the frontiers of high-energy physics and related disciplines," says the lab's mission statement. For Fermilab's scientists this means building, maintaining, and operating particle accelerators and detectors and using them to seek answers to some of science's most fundamental questions--"unlocking nature's deepest secrets, and learning how the universe is made and how it works," as the lab's Web site puts it.

Fermilab is the largest high-energy physics facility in North America and home to the world’s most powerful particle collider, the 4-mile-long underground synchrotron ring called the Tevatron. Accelerating beams of protons and antiprotons in opposite directions to near the speed of light and colliding them inside the Tevatron creates a menagerie of particles that physicists then work to identify. Physicists believe that many of the particles created in their high-energy collisions existed in nature only during the earliest moments of the universe.

Young-Kee Kim

“Our colliders are like time machines for physicists,” says Kim, “In a sense, we are creating early universes in our accelerators.” In 1995, the heaviest elementary particle known to exist--the top quark--was observed for the first time following a Tevatron collision. Fermilab also operates a cancer facility where neutron beams are used to treat tumors that are difficult to kill using other forms of radiation.

When Nachtman joined the lab 4 years ago, she was charged with keeping the detectors running 24 hours a day--"carrying a pager so that I could assist with operational problems that come up any time of the day or night." Nachtman now is the "convener" of the "exotics" research group. She is responsible for setting the group's priorities so that its core goals are met.

Lab life

Life at Fermilab can be hectic. Shifts of workers keep the machines running around the clock, so new data are always coming in. It is hard to keep up, but the constant flow of information makes the lab an exciting place to work. Scientists who choose Fermilab, Kim says, enjoy the lab's intensity.

Working at Fermilab--and at other national labs--is different from what academic researchers are used to in one important respect: National-lab researchers don't have to divide their time among research, teaching, the search for funding, managing budgets, and so on. “A big benefit of being at a national laboratory is that you have a much simpler life because you can concentrate on research more,” says Kim. She estimates that Fermilab scientists spend 80% to 90% of their working time conducting experiments and analyzing data. “If you’re interested in research, I think it’s easier here than as a young faculty member because you don’t have to juggle so many things at once.”

Hogan Nguyen

Fermilab also provides better and more focused resources than most universities, says Hogan Nguyen, a member of Fermilab's permanent scientific staff for the past 9 years. Nguyen is now in charge of the "Technical Centers" department in the particle physics division. His job is to oversee the development of the silicon detectors that track the charged particles produced during experiments. “With so many research programs running simultaneously, I feel I have chances to do things here that that at a university I would have a hard time doing,” he says. “Resources--in terms of people here--are deeper … than [at] most academic places. I can work with so many different types of engineers and technicians that I can put together detectors in a very short time scale.” Interacting with so many different people makes it much easier and faster to solve experimental problems and run data analysis.” adds Nachtman.

But, although the work is focused, it isn't insular. Most of the lab's projects--indeed, most of the field's projects -- are multi-institutional. Fermilab cultivates relationships with universities and works hard to make scientific visitors feel welcome. Nachtman says her collaborations, internal and external, have taught her how to communicate better and to work more effectively. “It's been a definite challenge trying to keep up with what everyone is doing, but it's just the nature of the work when in this field.” Nyugen agrees that these characteristics have become a part of Femilab's character; he is constantly working on at least two--and often three--large collaborative studies, which “has a lot of upsides. You get to learn how to cooperate with large groups and academic colleagues," he says. “There’s a certain amount of camaraderie that develops, too.”


Kim says that many of the students who visit Fermilab to work on collaborative research projects or internships want to stay on or to return there later--and a few have pulled it off. Nachtman is an example. She first visited Fermilab while she was an undergraduate at the University of Iowa. She was so impressed with the caliber of science and the work environment that she knew that she would like to come back someday. “I knew very early on that this was an exciting place to be a researcher, and I wanted to be part of it,” she says.

Jane Nachtman

Indeed, although Fermilab sometimes hires particle physicists with only a Ph.D., it is more common for new permanent staff to be hired through their fellowship programs, of which the Wilson and the People's fellowship programs are the most important. These program are very competitive; 2-4 Wilson fellowships are awarded each year from among 100-200 applications. Annual application deadlines are in late fall; this year's deadline is 3 November. Fellowships last 3 years, but can be renewed for an additional 2 years pending a performance review. Wilson and Peoples fellows are considered tenure-track: “Every fellow at the end of the first extension is automatically considered for a permanent position at the laboratory,” says Jeffrey Appel, Assistant Director of Program Planning at Fermilab. Nachtman is currently on a tenure-track fellowship. She is hoping to be offered a permanent position when her term ends next year.

An energetic future

Fermilab's Tevatron is expected lose its position as the world's highest-energy accelerator in 2007 when CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research ), just outside Geneva, Switzerland, powers up its Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which will be seven times more powerful than the Tevatron. But, says Kim, that's not all bad for Fermilab; Fermilab researchers are deeply involved in building the new accelerator. Even though it is based in Europe, the United States is paying 20% of the project's costs. Kim says that the LHC will provide plenty of work for Fermilab researchers. “We are heavily collaborating with CERN on developing new detectors and upgrading existing detectors for the new instrument,” she says.

Planning is underway for the International Linear Collider, an electron-positron accelerator, and an international scientific panel is deciding where to build it. Physicists at Fermilab are keeping their fingers crossed. The decision should be made by 2009 and construction could begin by the end of the decade. No matter where the new facility is built, it will be a boon for employment in particle physics, but building it in the United States would be a big advantage for Fermilab and for American particle physicists. “Having this on our soil would really energize the younger generation of scientists and engineers and attract the best brains from all over the country,” says Kim.

For more information on Fermilab visit their official Web site.

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