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Basic RHIC Physics Feeds Future Workforce Pipeline

Photo of Ondrej Chvala

One of the latest of dozens of students who have worked at RHIC, Ondrej Chvala from Prague in the Czech Republic, shown at the PHENIX detector.

In addition to helping scientists peer into the very heart of matter, large-scale physics facilities like the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at BNL and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, 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. Among them are M. Munir Muniruzzaman, Andrew Hoover, Jane M. Burward-Hoy, Felix Matathias, and Robert Welsh: examples from the more than 30 students who earn Ph.D.s each year based in part on their work at RHIC.

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 also 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 ona 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 significantsignal. 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.

By offering students the opportunity to develop such wide-ranging skills and showcasing ways to apply them, the RHIC program constitutes a technical, scientific wellspring that feeds many fields. Maintaining such facilities keeps an ever-more-sophisticated, highly specialized workforce growing.