Monday, December 20, 2010

Total Lunar Eclipse

Tonight (really, very early tomorrow morning), there will be a total lunar eclipse viewable in the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Lunar eclipses are caused by the Moon passing through the Earth's shadow.  Now, if you sit down and think about it, you might ask why we don't have a lunar eclipse every month during the full Moon?  The reason is that the Moon doesn't orbit the Earth exactly on the plane (flat 'imaginary' surface) that the Earth orbits the Sun.  Instead, the plane on which the Moon orbits the Earth is very slightly tilted (about 5°).  These two planes intersect on two points of the Moon's orbit.  When the Moon is at (or very near) one of these points during a full Moon, a lunar eclipse results.

Below is a very nice animation from Wikipedia on what tonight's eclipse will look like (UT is Universal Time - subtract 5 hours for Eastern time, 6 for Central, 7 for Mountain and 8 for Pacific):

The two circles that you see show the two parts of the Earth's shadow.  The outside circle (black) is called the penumbra and the inside circle (gray) is called the umbra.  The penumbra is a region where only part of the Sun's light is blocked from the Sun and the Moon will have only subtle darkening.  The umbral region is where all of the direct light from the Sun is blocked, but the Moon has a red/orange shine to it.  This red illumination is caused by the Earth's atmosphere acting like a prism and separating the colors of light and bending the longer wavelengths (like red) toward the center of the shadow.  It is this bent light that causes the Moon appear red.  The illustration below shows how the Earth acts like a prism:

The top half of the image is looking down on both the Earth and the Moon and shows how the Earth's atmosphere separates the colors of light.  The bottom half of the image shows what the Earth may look like from the Moon during an eclipse.  (This beautiful image was also taken from Wikipedia.)

If you would like to observe the eclipse but it is too cold outside or there is cloud cover, you can watch it live on NASA streaming video here:

For those of us in the Central time zone (that would be me), the eclipse starts 11:27 pm tonight, totality begins at 1:40 am, the greatest eclipse (peak of totality) is at 2:17 am.  If you get up very early in the morning, you can see the last bit of the eclipse before 5:06 am.

Clear skies!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Becoming a Physicist II - The Cost $

One aspect that I didn't discuss in my last post about becoming a physicist is how to finance your education.  Here are some thoughts and advice based on my experience...


Going to college can be expensive.  I know that first hand and this was a huge factor on where I chose to get by bachelor degree.  I didn't have the best grades (yup, that's right - you don't have to be a genius to be a scientist) but they were nothing to sneeze at either.  I ended up getting a large scholarship to a small school in western Maryland that almost no one has ever heard of (Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD) and smaller offers from more notable schools.  I chose Frostburg because I knew when I was in high school that I would need a graduate education to be the kind of physicist I wanted to be.  And, honestly, not many people care where you got your bachelor degree from once you have your doctorate.  A big name school can help you get into a good grad school, but it doesn't carry as much weight as you may think.  At Frostburg, I was truly able to spread my wings and distinguish myself more than I feel I could have at a bigger school.  (However, I don't know that for sure since I never really gave the big schools a chance.)  It was these distinctions that made me attractive to graduate schools (for example, I graduated in less than 4 years with a good GPA).

In the end, I got a good education and into a great graduate program with a minimum of cost.  Overall, I think I made the right choice for me.  Remember, your situation will be different from mine - you need to do what is right for you.


One of the questions I get asked most often when I talk to undergraduates about going to grad school is, "Great...  And how much will that cost me?"  They are almost always surprised when I tell them that you usually get paid to get a graduate degree in physics (or biology, chemistry, astronomy, engineering, etc.).  The only science centered graduate training that I know costs a lot of money is medical school (and since this is what most people are familiar with, they apply the cost for med school to any graduate science training).

When you are accepted into a graduate program (usually Ph.D. - many physics programs, at least, do not require you earn a master degree on your way to your doctorate), you are usually accepted with a tuition wavier (meaning you don't pay any tuition) and a stipend you earn through an assistantship (usually a teaching assistantship in your early years and a research assistantship when you are performing your thesis research).  I paid nothing for my Ph.D.  They paid me to work as a physicist (remember in my last post I mentioned that grad school is more like an apprenticeship than course work? - this is an example of what I meant by that).


When working to become a Ph.D. physicist (or pretty much any scientist other than a medical doctor), the major cost involves getting you bachelor degree.  After you are accepted into grad school, costs like tuition usually disappear and you start getting paid to do what you love (I hope you love it at this point!).

This picture (about Fall 2005) is of me and some of my best friends while we were in grad school.  We all gathered at one of our apartments and made pizza from scratch - crust and all.  It was a great time!  I also like this picture because everyone in this picture ended up getting married!  (The now wife of my friend third in from the left was taking this picture.)  My husband and I are the last two on the right.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Becoming a Physicist

Lately, I've been looking back on the experiences that brought me to the point I am at now - working with LIGO as a scientist.  It made me realize that many things happened throughout my education which brought me here today.  So, for any readers out there who are thinking of becoming a scientist (not just one for LIGO) here is my advice.


The bottom line about the high school experience is to learn as much as you can.  It was a little bit disappointing when I got to college that no one cared about what great things I did when I was in high school.  Colleges and universities stop caring about things like that once you have gained admission.

Therefore, the most important thing you can do is learn as much about what you want to do as you can.  I was lucky to already know what I wanted to do when I was that young, but if you don't that's fine too!  Just learn about what interests you the most at that time.  It may turn out not to be something you want to do for the rest of your life but you will still have the knowledge you gained which will help you do whatever you end up doing.  And you never know - your interests in high school may end up being your calling.

Since I knew that I wanted to be a physicist, I took all of the science that my high school offered me.  In the end, I had 1 year of biology, 1 year of chemistry, 2 years of physics, a half year of astronomy, a half year of geology and a half year of ecology.  If your high school doesn't offer this range of topics, that's fine!  Just learn as much as you can in general.


In college is where you start to make choices.  What do I want to major in?  What do I want to do with my degree?  Do I want to continue on to grad school for a masters or Ph.D. or do I want to stop with a bachelors degree?

Don't panic!  Most colleges do not make you declare a major until the end of your sophomore year BUT some majors require four years worth of coursework.  Look at the requirements for the majors you are seriously considering and start taking some of the introductory classes.  This will help you figure out if this is something you want to do for a living while making sure that you have some of the course work done if you decide it is (and if it isn't, introductory classes usually count towards your general education requirements).

Once you have decided to be a scientist, you need to think about what kind of scientist you want to be.  I'm not talking about subject matter (biologist, chemist, physicist, etc.) but how much education you will need to do the work you are most interested in.  This is a good time to seek out your advisor and start telling them about what you want from your education overall, and ask what degree you will need to do that work.

If grad school appears to be in your future, you need to make sure that you get the best grades you can in the classes that are part of your major (and overall too, but a bad grade in economics is easily overlooked when you have good grades in your major field) and gain some form of research experience.

A student who has research experience has an advantage over students who don't when applying to grad schools since research is the largest component to earning a graduate degree.  There are many programs out there for you to get this experience over the summer.  For example, the NSF gives grants to colleges to have undergraduates work with professors over the summer on their research.  This program is called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU - click here for more info).  There are also similar programs out there.  Caltech has the SURF program (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships) that do a lot of work with LIGO (including at the observatories in Livingston, LA and Hanford, WA) and the University of Florida has an International REU program where you can work on LIGO related research in a different country.  (Find out more about these programs on here.)

If you are going on to grad school, you will also need to think about what you want to specialize in.   Let's say you are finishing your physics bachelors degree.  All of your work so far has been very broad and covered the foundations of physics.  In grad school, you will specialize in a particular part of physics.  I specialized in gravity.  Therefore, I am an expert on that subject matter, but if you ask me something about particle physics (like the Large Hadron Collider) I will only be able to tell you very general things about that since I am not an expert.  It is a lot like asking your neurologist (brain & spinal cord specialist) about your upset stomach - he knows generalities but you would need to see a different specialist for a deeper answer.  Having a good idea of what you want to specialize in will be helpful when applying to grad school so that they admit the right number of people for each specialty.  That's not to say that you can't change your mind later, though.


Now you have your bachelors degree in hand and you have been accepted to a grad school to work some subfield of your major.  Your first year will be filled with very challenging classes that will make you think again about if this is something you REALLY want to do.  Don't lose heart!  The first year is always the hardest and when you make it through that, it gets much better.

Make sure that you find an advisor to start performing research with.  After your first 2 years or so of grad school, the rest of the time you are there will be doing research for your thesis.  Many people think that grad school is like signing up for more school like you had from 1st grade through college - classes.  Grad school has some of that, but most of it is learning by doing research.  Grad school is more like an apprenticeship than "school" as we normally think about it.

Fast-forward a few years.  You are finishing your thesis and you are getting ready to finish your masters or Ph.D.  What now?  Well that depends on what you plan on doing next.  Many people with masters degrees go on to work in industry.  Most Ph.D.s are planning on going to a position in academia (college/university faculty positions).  The interesting thing to consider is that most of these people will end up in industry and that's not a bad thing.  For those getting Ph.D.s, they have been guided to this point by other Ph.D.'s who have usually never worked outside of academia.  Therefore, they are being guided by people who don't necessarily have the experience to talk about doing anything else with their degree.  Surveys have shown that those who move on to industry are just as happy, if not more so, than their classmates who went on to become college faculty.

If you are getting a Ph.D., chances are that you will be doing a postdoctoral (postdoc) appointment next.  This is what I am doing right now and it allows to you better establish yourself in your field by doing more independent research and publishing your results.

Regardless, you are a bona fide <whatever it is you majored in>.  One of the best but scariest things about my life right now is what lays ahead...  Can I find a permanent position where I am (I would love that) or will I have to look elsewhere?  Where am I going to end up?  I really don't know the answers to these questions (yet) but I do know that I love doing LIGO research and will continue doing that wherever I end up!


If you have any questions about becoming a scientist, feel free to contact me.  Just leave a comment below or email me at and I will be happy to talk with you!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

APS Executive Board, Council & Thanksgiving

I hope all my US readers has a nice Thanksgiving holiday!  It's been a while since I posted, so let me tell you a little about what I've been doing...

APS Executive Board & Council Meeting

My last post was about how doing professional service was a part of an academic life.  That is exactly what I went off to do between 18-19 November at the APS Executive Board and Council Meetings.  The first day, I flew out to Long Beach, CA where the meetings were taking place and, in the evening, I went to the Executive Board Dinner.  I always like these more informal gatherings since it allows me to learn more about the others and am serving with and I always learn some thing new, be it about physics or some other bit of wisdom.

 This is the view from my hotel room at the Long Beach Hyatt.  This is one of the best views I've ever had.

During the day of the 19th was the Executive Board Meeting and the Budget Committee Meeting.  This meeting is where a smaller group of people go into much more detail on topics that will be brought to the Council.  Basically, this is where many issues are debated first so that the Council Meetings proceed much more efficiently.  This was a full day of meetings for me as the Executive Board Meeting was followed by a meeting of the Budget Committee (on which I also serve).  This meeting of the Budget Committee saw the approval of the budget for next year.  While I'm not enthralled by accounting, I've learned so much about how a large society like the APS stays afloat.

The evening of the 19th was the usual Council Reception and Dinner.  This is just like the Executive Board Reception and Dinner, but we were treated to a special viewing of the Division on Fluid Dynamics' Gallery of Fluids in Motion (the Division of Fluid Dynamics meeting took place starting the day after the Council Meeting).  Then we were able to watch the incredible videos illustrating current fluid dynamics research (you can see them too here - you can also find the still images linked from that page).  My favorite one was the "Wet-Dog Shake" (found here - find the movie under "Ancillary Files" to the right of the page).

On the 20th was the Council Meeting (where I represent the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs).  These meetings are open to the membership and the usual agenda proceeds as follows:
  • Approval of Minutes (8:30 AM)
  • Report from the President
  • Report from the Executive Officer
  • Report from the Treasurer/Publisher
  • Report from the Editor in Chief
  • BREAK (10:10 AM)
  • Fellowships
  • Panel on Public Affairs
  • LUNCH (Noon)
  • Report from the Canadian Physical Society
  • Report on Education and Diversity
  • Report on Outreach
  • BREAK (2:10 PM)
  • Report on International Affairs
  • Report from Washington
  • Unit Bylaw Changes
  • New Business
  • CONCLUDE (3:30 PM)
There were several extra points to this regular agenda.  First was a debate on the merit of several proposed new prizes and awards to be awards by the APS or one of its units.  Next was a discussion on the formation of a new unit called the Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public (units are special interest groups, called forums [non-research area specific] or topical groups or divisions [based on the number of members in the unit]).  Also, at every November Council Meeting, there is an election of 2nd year Councilors to the Executive Board and I was very happy to see colleagues of mine be elected.  The best part of the meeting was a lunch talk by one of APS members who worked in estimating the oil flow from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill this summer.  It was fascinating learning how these scientists went about making the estimates and why the estimates changed several times (basically, not all of the flow was oil [there was a significant amount of methane gas] and the oil was spewing into the Gulf from many different places).

My place at the APS Council Meeting.  Even though this meeting is open to the membership, I didn't want to take a picture of the other Councilors since I didn't have their permission to post their photo on this site.

I flew home on the 21st only to ship out again to visit my family for Thanksgiving on the 23rd...

Visit to My High School Alma Mater

Since I went home to visit my family, I contacted my old high school and asked if they would be interested in me coming in and talking to students.  They were nice enough to have me (and my husband) and we got to talk to the AP Physics class about what we do at LIGO; I talked about physics and my husband talked about engineering).  The most rewarding thing for me was that I was in that class with the same teacher (Hi, Mr. Bowman!) when I went there.  And it was there that I first fell in love with Relativity and gravity.  So it was great to come back full circle.  I also got to give a few copies of the poster I worked on with the APS to them (FYI, I'm not beyond shameless self-promotion.)


Thanksgiving went about as well as any family gathering goes.  It was great to see everyone, but it wasn't without its own stress.

Thanksgiving day was full of baking and cooking and eating :)  It was nice to get to see my family - especially my younger siblings!

I also got to have Thanksgiving, Round 2 with my husband's family on Saturday.  That's one of the nice things about marrying your high school sweetheart - their family usually lives close to yours and you don't have to chose who to visit on the big holidays.  Needless to say, I am very sick of turkey.

That's about all I have to talk about right now.  Maybe later I will bore you with a post about catching up on work after a trip out of town :)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Professional Service

Sorry about the slow posting this week!  I've been busy getting ready for a trip and Thanksgiving.  By themselves, they aren't that bad but I still need to get my regular work done so I've been trying to get ahead on that.  Hence, I haven't been on the blog as much as I'd like.

In my "About Me" section, I mention the 3 main parts of being an academic: research, teaching and service.  I've already talked about my research and teaching, so let me tell you a little about professional service.

Service covers basically any activity that enriches your profession but doesn't come in the form of teaching or performing research in whatever it is you do.  This could be sitting on a committee that helps ensure that the working environment is comfortable or you can serve the larger community through professional societies.  For physicists, the main professional society is the American Physical Society (APS) but I am also a member of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS).

This week, I am traveling to the APS Board and Council Meetings.  I sit on the APS Council as the representative of the Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA).  The Council is the legal decision making body of the APS and we vote on everything from general statements, to journal subscription rates.  Councilors are elected to the Board after 2 years (of a 4 year term) on the Council.  The Board does more behind the scenes discussions on matters before they are brought to the Council for a vote.  The Board meets 5 times a year and the Council twice (luckily for me, 2 of the Board Meetings happen the day before the Council meetings).  I will be sure to post later this week on what happens at these meetings.

Service is often seen as thankless work.  In many ways, it is.  That is one of the reasons I try to find ways to serve that I personally feel are fulfilling; that way even if no one notices the work I do, I still feel good about it.  Serving on the APS Board and Council is not only fulfilling, but I also feel deeply honored since I was elected by my peers to these posts.

Photo by Ken Cole, APS

The picture above shows Gay Stewart (University of Arkansas), Stefan Zollner (now of the New Mexico State University), and me at the LaserFest gala event that was held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on February 12th this year.  All of us are on the APS Council and were invited to represent the APS.  For me, this was a night when being nerdy was cool!  I got to mingle with several Nobel Prize winners.  This photo really doesn't show the extent that the Smithsonian went to for this gala.  You can read more about it and see great pictures here.  This is definitely a time when service was not thankless!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Doctors Appointments and Laser Safety

Yesterday was a long day of doctors appointments for me.  Since I was preoccupied much of this summer with my kidney stone, a few of my maintenance doctors visits got pushed to the back burner.

Appointment #1 - Family Medicine

My first appointment of the day started at the family doctor where both my husband and I had appointments (we try to sync appointments like this together since we only have one car and work far away from our doctors).  I was there for blood work and to have my new doctor work with me to get me off some of the many prescriptions my old doctor had me on (this is one of the reasons I changed doctors).  Everything is looking good there and I am pleased with the plan we are working on.

Appointment #2 - Dentist

I had an appointment with my dentist about a month and a half ago to have a filling fixed.  I was in the chair and all of the odds and ends and drill bits were set out when I mentioned to my dentist that, from time to time, I get a slight twitch under my right eye.  It was happening right then and he declared that he wouldn't touch me until I get confirmation from my neurologist that this dental work would not make it worse (he was worried that the anesthetic he intended to use would effect the same nerve he believed to be causing the twitch).  I told him that this is related to my TMJ and if I relax my jaw, it goes away.  He was still uncomfortable and sent me home.

So, with a note from my neurologist in hand, I returned and finally had this taken care of.

Appointment #3 - Eye Doctor

It has been a little over a year since I blew a blood vessel behind my retina and since I wore my contacts (the eye drops they had me used could not be used with contacts).  Now that my retina in better, I needed to see the eye doctor again to have my prescription renewed so I can order new contacts!  To my surprise, my prescription hasn't changed at all!  Yea!

My visit to my eye doctor reminded me of why I go to this particular doctor.  And the story starts the laser safety at LIGO...

Laser Safety at LIGO

When a new employee, student or visitor starts working at one of the LIGO observatories, they must undergo laser safety training especially if they will be working directly with the lasers or if they will be working around the lasers.

The laser used in the last data run here at LIGO was a 35 Watt Nd:YAG laser.  The first thing that makes this laser particularly dangerous is that it is powerful.  35 Watts is the equivalent of shining 35,000 of the common red laser pointers on the same spot (so that the dot is no bigger than if you were only using one laser).  That is plenty powerful enough to burn a hole in your retina and this is an injury that will NEVER heal.  If you are lucky you will simply have a blind spot in your peripheral vision and if you are unlucky you will be permanently blinded.  The other aspect that makes this laser dangerous is that is a wavelength (color) that you can't see.  The laser produces 1064 nm (about 0.0000419 in) wavelength light which is infrared.  Since we can't see the laser at all, it can be especially difficult to avoid it.  If even the reflection of this light (that you cannot see) enters your eye, you will have a burned retina.

For these and other reasons, everyone who will work with or around the lasers must undergo laser safety training, have their eyes examined, their retina photographed and wear laser safety goggles when around the detector.  That is how I came to see my eye doctor here in Baton Rouge for the first time.  This will also not be the last time I see this doctor...  Any time a that there is a suspected laser injury to the eye, that person is sent back to the eye doctor for the whole exam again.  They then compare the how the retina looks now to how it looked before the person started working around lasers (that's why they took the first retina picture) to determine what, if any, damage was done.  Also, when someone no longer works at LIGO, they must go for an exit exam to make sure that there was no damage done that they were unaware of.

I don't have any recent pictures of me in the awful green laser safety glasses, but I do have an old one from the first time I got to take a tour of the inner workings of LIGO.  Below, is a picture of me [right] when I was a graduate student and a very good friend (and fellow graduate student) Tiffany Summerscales [left] by one of the vacuum chambers inside the LIGO Hanford Observatory (the sister observatory in Washington state to the Louisiana one).  This picture is from August 2004:

Monday, November 8, 2010

Louisiana Science Teachers' Association Meeting & X-Rays

I've been away on travel to the Louisiana Science Teachers' Association (LSTA) Meeting last week in Monroe, LA.  LIGO goes to present workshops and to advertise the Science Education Center (SEC) though a booth in the exhibit hall. 

Our booth in the exhibit hall featured a projection of the LIGO documentary "Einstein's Messengers", the Visible Vibrations exhibit from our exhibit hall, 'snacks' (inexpensive, miniature versions of exhibits that teachers can build and use in their classrooms - the Exploratorium has a nice catalog of 'snacks' here), brochures, and posters.  While it was tiring being on your feet all day interacting with the teachers, it was also extremely rewarding!  One of the most inspiring people I interacted with wasn't even a teacher.  One of the security staff was so fascinated by the Visible Vibrations exhibit, that he kept coming back and interacting with it for most of the day!  To see someone who isn't even our target audience (at least that day) exploring the physics involved was extraordinary.  On top of that, he made some of the most spectacular vibration patterns I've ever seen!

LIGO also presented two one-hour workshops.  The SEC director presented one on motors and I presented another one on the LaserFest kits that I based the LaserFest Teachers' Day on a few weeks ago (you can read more about it here).  I had enough kits for 30 attendees, but my workshop was at the end of the day on Friday and only had about 10 teachers attend.  While I was a little disappointed (my ego had me convinced that EVERYONE would want to come to MY workshop), it was also a blessing in two ways.  The first way is that I got to have a lot more one-on-one time with the teachers and they had much more time to ask deeper questions than they would have normally.  The second way is that there were extra kits to be had.  The teachers seemed quite happy when I told them they got to keep their kits and, when I asked if they would like to take another kit with them to share with other teachers at their school, their faces lit up.  Each and every one of those kits has now found a good home in a Louisiana classroom.

Today in History...

Today is the 115th anniversary of the X-ray (if you hadn't noticed from Google's Doodle for today)!  I can't count how many of these I've had in my life and how many times they have saved me from some medical trouble, everything from dental cavities to finding my kidney stone.

Speaking of which, the X-ray below is after I had a ureteral stent placed between my kidney and my bladder to bypass my kidney stone and allow my kidney to drain.  The stent is clearly visible and the kidney stone is the little shrapnel looking thing about a third of the way down the stent.  The top curl is in my kidney and the bottom is in my bladder.  I am so happy that both the stone and the stent are gone!

Monday, November 1, 2010

What I Do When I'm Not Working (and an Anniversary)

Most of the posts I've made to this blog have been almost exclusively about my work even though I want this blog to be about my life, both the scientific and the mundane. 
This passed Thursday, I only worked a half day (I've been working more 6 day weeks than not for a while now) since I had a moderate migraine.  This one wasn't bad as far as all of the headaches I've had in my life, but it was more than enough to make light hurt my eyes and make me want to curl up in bed until it goes away.  So, I took care of the work that had to be done that day (like another conference call) and spent the rest of the day tending to my migraine.  This amounted to the first decent amount of down time I've had in a while.  While I wouldn't wish migraines on anyone, I am sort of glad I have mine since they force me to stop and relax from time to time (they also can hit at times when I simply can't put my life on pause and that is when I curse them).

So, what did I do with my time?  Well, first you have to know a little bit about me...  If I had 3 words to describe myself, they would be 1) physicist, 2) vampires and 3) Halloween.  I adore vampires and have read almost 200 vampire books in the last 4 years.  I also like to get the audiobook versions of books I've already read and liked to go to sleep to; if I have already read them, I won't keep my self awake to find out what happens next.  Since my eyes hurt me too much to read, I rested in bed and listened to my favorite books while I waited for my medication to take effect.  After about 2 hours of this, I felt a little better and proceeded to read a little.

This weekend was Halloween and I ADORE the holiday.  I love all of the dark fun and the idea of getting to be someone else for an evening.  I'm not one to dress up, but since I love vampire books, it is fun to think about what the world would be like if things that went bump in the night were real.

To celebrate, my husband and I went on the haunted trail at the Cajun Country Corn Maze.  (Tip:  If you go around this time of year, just go for the haunted trail since there is no line for this - there was a line almost an 500 feet long just for the maze.  Come back later in November to do the maze.)  Below is me in the pillory at the corn maze.  I think it is just scary how washed out my face looks with a camera flash:

I also love autumn in general!  So much so, that my wedding was autumn themed the day after Halloween.  That's right, today is Derek's and my anniversary!  To celebrate, here is a picture of us just after the ceremony:

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Conference Calls and a Poster

Conference Calls

When you work with scientists from around the world, you end up on a lot of phone meetings.  Today (and every Wednesday) I had two. 

The first one was the "Burst" data analysis call and I drew the short straw and got to take the minutes of the meeting.  I am not someone who is good with names (I once had a class of 4 students and I messed their names up all that time - I knew each person well, I just forgot their label); now imagine that you only have a voice to go on.  This is not my strong point but it wasn't too bad today.  We discussed what needs to be done now that our latest science data run is over to complete our analysis looking for gravitational waves.

The second call was with people I collaborate with at Penn State to keep the MATLAB library of software that has been written for various LIGO purposes available and up to date.  That doesn't mean that we write it all (I have only written some of it), but we work with the program authors to make sure that their work makes gets into the hands of the other scientists to use.  Right now we are working on taking some of the programs that have been written to perform utility functions (like checking to see if a time is in daylight savings or doing calculations on where a star was at any given time) and pulling them together into a general toolbox.  Creating a toolbox like this will help keep duplication of effort to a minimum (that is, to keep people from repeatedly reinventing the wheel) and help insure that users are getting the correct values from these basic utilities.  We are right in the middle of going through this pool of computer programs to make sure that they are documented well and up to date.


Last year, I had the honor and privilege of working with the APS to create a poster on gravitational waves.  It was a wonderful experience getting to be someone who communicated the science of LIGO to the public and I learned much from the APS editors on how to express concepts in more understandable ways.  I wrote way too much content for the poster with the idea that it is better to have too much and cut it down, than to not have enough and have to create more content later.  The side benefit to this is the full version of the text that I wrote was then adapted for the science pages on the site!

The poster as premiered by the APS at the joint APS/AAPT Meeting in Washington, DC this past February.  LIGO also arranged to have the posters included with the November issue of the AAPT magazine "The Physics Teacher" and to have the posters mailed to every physics department in the US.  I was thrilled!  So, now I am starting to spot the poster in the wild.

A few days ago, a friends of mine who is now at the Coastal Carolina University sent me a picture of it hanging outside his office:

I also just got my November issue of "The Physics Teacher" and it was so cool to get a copy of the poster in my mail box!

If you would like to get a FREE copy, you can request it (or another great poster on the top 10 reasons to study physics) from the APS here.

Sorry for getting so giddy about this!  This is just one of those things that make your day and remind you why you get out of bed in the morning.  :)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Busy Last Week: SESAPS Meeting and LaserFest Teachers' Day

Sorry for the lack of posts but I have been completely knackered after the events of last week:

SESAPS Meeting @ LSU

The American Physical Society (APS) has regional section meetings across the country and the end of last week saw the Southeast Section Meeting of the APS Meeting at LSU.  Since Initial LIGO was decommissioned a few days before, LIGO opened up a few of its vacuum chambers to the SESAPS attendees to show off the optics that were contained within.  This was indeed a rare opportunity as the chambers are only opened in between science runs AND only when there was crucial work to be done on specific components.  I work on site and I have only ever gotten to see inside a few of the chambers before.

Over 100 (and I believe I am being conservative) guests visited LIGO on Thursday afternoon and toured the Science Education Center, control room and LVEA (Laser Vacuum Equipment Area, otherwise known as the corner of the LIGO detector where all the neat stuff is).

Above is the inside of HAM6 (Horizontal Access Module - it has a table inside in instead of hanging the equipment from the top of the chamber) which is the output of the LIGO detector.  The taller piece of equipment on the table is the Output Mode Cleaner (OMC) which will help insure that the laser light has optimal intensity and phase to be used to detect gravitational waves (you can read a more detailed description of this kind of mode cleaner here).

This is what is inside of BSC1 (Beam Splitter Chamber - the kind of chamber where the equipment is hung from the top of the chamber).  This mirror (which looks like glass, but the front surface has a transparent light purple coating to make it reflective to infrared light which is what our laser is) is called ITMY (Intermediate Test Mass on the Y [south] arm).  (Test mass is our complicated way of saying mirror.)  This mirror sits just after the corner beam splitter of LIGO to intercept the light returning from the end mirror to bounce it back to the end mirror - this bouncing happens about 100 times before the light gets past the ITM to recombine with the light coming from the X arm and go to the output (which you just saw in the previous picture).

This is a picture of me and my husband, Derek (who is an engineer at LIGO).  The bright light you see shining from the left is the spot light that is illuminating ITMY.  This isn't the best picture, but I just had to have a picture of us in front of this mirror before they closed the chamber up - which is exactly what they did just after this picture was taken!

LaserFest Teachers' Day

I've been talking lately about the workshop I've been planning for middle/high school teachers of physical science and physics.  Since 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, this year is also LaserFest.  To that end, the professional societies whose research have benefited from lasers all got together to sponsor LaserFest and to promote the educational outreach of lasers.  Since the SESAPS Meeting was taking place at LSU with physicists from all over the region, I decided it would be great to organize a LaserFest Teachers' Day to focus on the classroom kits the APS is distributing for free to teachers and to invite the meeting physicists to have lunch with the teachers and chat about what they do.

Organizing this event was quite the journey.  The first thing that needed to be done was to find the funding for the event (even if the kits are free from the APS, there are costs for food, recruiting and other miscellaneous supplies) which was supplied by the APS Forum on Education, the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) and the Optical Society of America (OSA).  Then I needed to recruit teachers from the surrounding areas.  I was lucky here since I work with the LIGO Science Education Center and was able to advertise this event through their contact who also helped to spread the word.  Then there is making sure that the supplies arrive in time, contracting catering for the event, making sure that the teachers know when and where to be and insuring that you have all the incidental supplies that are needed (e.g. the kits contain everything a teacher would need except things they should already have like scissors and tape - but I needed to make sure that we had those for the workshop).  I know that none of these things sound like a lot, but this reminded me a lot of the last days before my wedding when all the details needed to fall into place at the same time.

The day started at 9 am with breakfast followed by a wonderful talk by Dr. Ken Schafer who introduced us to the basic concepts that make a laser work, their history and their applications.  We then proceeded to the first of the 4 activities in the 2009 PhysicsQuest kit (which included a laser pointer, and LED light, polarizers, glow-in-the-dark vinyl and colored light filters).  At noon, we broke for lunch and chatting with some of the physicists visiting for the SESAPS Meeting.  The rest of the afternoon saw us working through the remaining 3 activities and the day concluded at about 3 pm.

The picture above is some of the teachers hard at work doing the laser activity where we measured the width of our hair by measuring the diffraction pattern made by shining the laser on the hair.  That explains why the teacher on the left is giving herself a hair cut!

The APS has put together a useful page on arranging a Teachers' Day of your own - see it here.

I know that there are many people out there with poor opinions of our education system and the teachers within it, but I was truly inspired by these teachers who attended this workshop on their own time and without pay so that they can learn how to do these activities and take them back into their classroomsThese teachers definitely went above and beyond to better themselves and their students!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Initial LIGO is Dead! Long Live Advanced LIGO!

Today (20 October 2010), at 8:00 am CDT (13:00 UTC) the sixth science run of the Initial LIGO detector concluded and, with it, the life of Initial LIGO.

At 11 am CDT time, the announcement was made at the Livingston Observatory that the detector was laser safe (meaning that the lasers are off and no eye protection is needed to approach the instrument).

The 4 km arms (which have not been exposed to the atmosphere for about a decade) have been sealed to preserve their vacuum and the chambers holding the optical instrumentation are being vented (allowing the atmosphere back into the individual chambers).

Work has now officially commenced on the Advanced LIGO installation (whose design and assembly has been going on for years now).

Advanced LIGO is expected to be online around 2014.

Of course, there will be much more detailed information coming to you on this blog in the future.  I just wanted to share this moment in history with you.  I have been privileged to work on LIGO since before our first science data was taken on August 23, 2002 (which is not nearly as long as the pioneers of LIGO have been laying the foundation) and feel even more privileged to be a small part of its history today.  I can't wait for what's to come.

Long live Advanced LIGO!

The illustration above shows the anticipated "reach' of Advanced LIGO (the purple sphere) compared to Initial LIGO (the orange sphere).  Each small dot in the figure represents a galaxy.  Since the volume of space that the instrument can see grows as the cube of the distance, this means that the event rates will be more than 1,000 times greater.  Advanced LIGO will equal the 1-yr integrated observation time of Initial LIGO in roughly 3 hours. (Galaxy map credit: R. Powell,

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Typical Monday at the LIGO Livingston Observatory

The morning starts at 9 am with a meeting that my husband (the engineer) needs to attend to address issues related to the upgrades that will be starting at the end of the week (these upgrades are for the Advanced LIGO detectors which I will write a more detailed post on later).  Since I don't have to be at that meeting (being that I am a data analyst and I don't get to touch the detector nearly as much as I would like) I start replying to emails and preparing for the work that needs to be done after all my meetings are over.

My first meeting is at 10 am and this is an observatory staff meeting.  This is when we talk about the visitors that will be on site this week, any new hires or job postings that are going up and have a general round robin to get an overview of the work that will be going on during the week.  This does not mean this is the only meeting to discuss the various activities that will be going on - this is just an overview so that everyone has a general sense of the work for the week.  During the week, there are more detailed meetings between the staff that work on different projects as well as a meeting everyone doing work must attend to get their work permits reviewed and approved.  (Work permits are descriptions of the work that needs to be done as well as the safety issues that may be involved.  It isn't uncommon for work between groups to conflict and potentially cause safety hazards; work permit meetings help keep that from happening.)  After this round-robin, the meeting is usually dismissed unless there is a pressing presentation that needs to be made.  Today we had a presentation on OSHA work safety regulations since the new work for Advanced LIGO will be more involved than the day-to-day work at the observatory has been for years.  (If you can't tell, we take safety very seriously here at LIGO!)

At 11 am I have a meeting with the Science Education Staff to discuss the school field trip visits, teacher professional development workshops, tours, etc. that we may be having this week.  This meeting was a busy one since there is a Southeast Section of the APS Meeting taking place at LSU at the end of the week and the scientists attending this meeting will be touring the facility (the observatory and the Science Education Center), there is a MIT tour this week and the Teachers' Day I have been organizing is taking place on Saturday at LSU.  All of this is in addition to the school field trips we have scheduled.  So today's meeting focused on making sure all of us knew what we where in charge of and to discuss the help we needed from the other staff members.

Then I am off to my office to start working for the day (unless I decide it is a good time for lunch, then I start working after that).  Today I have been making many phone calls and emails to finalize the details of the Teachers' Day I've been planning.  I communicated with the APS who is supplying me with the physical materials the teachers will use and take back to their classrooms, I ordered the breakfast and lunch items for the teachers, I contacted the organizers of the APS meeting to help me recruit physicists to have lunch and talk with my teachers and to help me find a laser specialist to give an opening talk on lasers (the Teachers' Day is LaserFest themed since 2010 is the 50th anniversary of the laser), I contacted LSU about on-campus parking for the teachers, I contacted the LSU physics department to make sure I have a room for the workshop (and I still need to figure out where lunch is going to happen) and I made a list of all the other stuff that still needs to be done.  <Catching my breath...>  Everything seems to be coming together nicely and I the teachers I've worked with in the past have always been so wonderful that I am sure that bumps in the road won't derail the day.

Science wise, I have been communicating with a physicist who is interested in using the simulations that I produce for the burst gravitational wave search to apply them to the search for gravitational waves from inspiralling neutron star and/or black hole pairs.  We will call each other to talk about this tomorrow afternoon.  Also, I have been communicating with a friend I am working with regarding a project of mine that checks that for the detection delay between gravitational wave detectors (we expect gravitational waves to travel at the speed of light), what the possible range in detection strengths we can measure are for real (physical) gravitational waves.  Our conversation today focused on reapplying this to try to figure out where on the sky the source may have been.  Together, we hope to reapply this work for the inspiral gravitational wave search.

That's been my day so far.  I think I am going to stop by LSU today to check out the room that has been reserved for the workshop so that I know what I am dealing with.

My parting picture for you today is my desk lamp where I collect name tags from meetings I've gone to.  I think I might need to clear the older ones off since my husband says that this is a fire hazard (it isn't but it is starting to get difficult for the light to get out of the lamp and be useful to me):

This is something I look at every day.

Have a great week!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

If Frankenstein's Monster and Amber Had a Baby...

Scary right...  I don't think that I need to worry though since Frankenstein's Monster is most likely infertile due to him being the walking dead and what not.  :)

This picture was taken at one of the portable exhibits we had on display in the "Spooky Room" at the LIGO Science Education Center's Science Saturday (a public open house).  If you will be in the Livingston Parish area on any 3rd Saturday of the month, stop by between 1 to 5 pm to have some fun with us.  This scary image was made by placing a picture of said monster on one side of a partially refelcting mirror and your own face on the other.  When both faces are illuminated with light, you get the gruesome combined image you see above.

Another interesting exhibit in our "Spooky Room" was the dry ice comets.  This small demonstration is taken from a larger exhibit from the Exploratorium in San Francisco (almost all of the exhibits in our exhibit hall are made by them) called Icy Bodies.  A flat piece of dry ice dropped on the surface of a shallow body of water will skim around on top the water and produce a vapor trail to look like a comet (and sometimes spin around making vapor swirls).

The picture above is when about 4 of our 'comets' were petering out (which allowed some of the vapor to clear away to get a nice picture).  The bubbles in the middle are from a large piece of dry ice simmering at the bottom of the bowl (that's why you need flat pieces for the simulated comets, otherwise dry ice sinks).  "Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble..."

There was much more to do at the Open House.  There is playtime in the exhibit hall:

And then a screening of "Einstein's Messengers", a short documentary about gravitational waves and LIGO.  This is then followed by a tour of the control room by yours truly.  Finally, there is a science demonstration show (which lasts about 15 minutes to a half an hour) which is fun for the whole family.

Today, I got to interact and give observatory tours to about 100 people.  Like I've said before, I love giving tours since I get to show off what I do and answer people's questions about it.  A bonus of working on the Science Saturday today...  I got to play with the bit of left over dry ice.  Wah-ha-haaa!

The local newspaper (The Advocate) visited LIGO to do a story on our Science Saturdays this past February and includes a great picture of the control room (including me - and I really like this picture even though I rarely like pictures of myself).  You can read it here.

Also, if you in the Hanford, Washington (state) area, you can visit out sister LIGO observatory at their open houses at 3:00 pm on the fourth Friday and at 1:30 pm on the second Saturday of the month.  Read more about it here.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Multi-Messenger Astronomy

Right now, I am getting to participate in the growing field of multi-messenger astronomy.  Yes, right now!  "How can you possibly write a blog post while doing this exciting science?", you ask...  Well, because there is a lot of waiting involved.  But before I get into exactly what I am doing right this second, let me tell you a little bit more about multi-messenger astronomy...

Humans have been doing astronomy from the dawn of time by simply looking into the night sky and observing the stars and the Moon and the Sun.  But the largest advances in astronomy have come when we've devised new ways of observing our Universe.  Galileo used a telescope for the first time to discover moons around Jupiter, phases of Venus, and Sun spots.  All of these observations add up to prove Copernicus' theory that the Earth is not the center of the Universe (and this proof ended up landing Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his life).  In more modern times, we've observed the Universe with different forms of light: we've discovered pulsars when we observed the Universe with radio waves, we discovered the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) the first time we turned on a microwave telescope (which won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics for evidence supporting the Big Bang) and we discovered extraordinarily energetic gamma-ray bursts from deep space (by accident when satellites orbiting Earth were looking for gamma rays from atomic bomb detonations) whose origin we still don't fully understand.  The moral here is that every time we looked at the Universe in a new way, we discovered something we didn't expect to that revolutionized our understanding of the Universe.

Today, we can do astronomy with means other than light.  For example, neutrinos.  These are subatomic particles that have no electric charge, have nearly no mass, travel very near the speed of light and are able to pass through matter almost undisturbed.  However, these properties add up to make it very hard to detect neutrinos (did you know that there are billions of neutrinos from the Sun passing through your body every second?!).  Neutrinos are also emitted when a star dies in an explosion called a supernova.  That means we may observe the optical burst of light AND the neutrinos from a single supernova.  Any time that you can observe the same event in multiple ways, you almost always learn more than if you only observed it one way.

LIGO has been participating in multi-messenger astronomy for years by looking for gravitational wave counterparts from observed gamma-ray bursts (observing gravitational waves from a gamma-ray burst would tell us much about their mysterious origin).  Now, we are also participating by analyzing our gravitational wave data in real time to notify several partner telescopes when we think we may have detected something.  If we could observe an optical counterpart to a gravitational wave detection, not only would that be a gold plating on a first detection but we would be able to combine the information learned from both means of observation to have a deeper understanding of what we just detected.

So, what I am doing right now is waiting for a candidate gravitational wave to come through LIGO's data analysis pipeline so that I can look at how the detectors were working and make the decision on whether to send this event out for optical observation (those of us who specialize in this take 8 hour shifts for continuous 24/7 coverage).  Since LIGO has not made a direct detection of gravitational waves yet (and we didn't expect to - more on that in another post) we expect everything we send out to be a false alarm and our telescope partners know that.  But the potential of an event being real... well, that's why I do what I do; I want to be on the front lines when gravitational wave astronomy revolutionizes the way we understand our Universe!

P.S.  The is the view outside my office window right now.  The building to the left contains the input, output and corner optics of LIGO (LIGO is an 'L' shaped detector).  The concrete tunnel that goes off to the right and out of the frame is one of the arms of LIGO (the other arm comes out of the back of the corner building from this view and through the area of no trees in the back - you can see it if you look close).  Each of the arms are 4 km long (in our everyday units in the United States, that is about almost 2.5 miles).  The white silo in the middle of the view is filled with liquid nitrogen (at a temperature of −321 °F) that we use to help maintain the vacuum inside of LIGO (there is over 300,000 cubic feet of vacuum at one trillionth the atmospheric pressure inside of LIGO).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's Inside Me (Literally)

I mentioned in my last post that I've had issues with a kidney stone.  I was putting that mildly.  The stone was impacted and blocked all drainage from my kidney for months.  Because of this, I've lost over half of the function in that kidney (the other one is fine).  I've also had some complications from this, namely that my health started going to wonky about 9 months ago (so guess when they think the kidney stone started giving me issues).

I blew a blood vessel behind my right retina and had other minor hemorrhaging behind the left which gave me a flashy afterimage in my right vision.  I've been seeing a vitreoretinal specialist (retina doctor) for it since then.  I have just gotten the all clear that this has been resolved!

I have also just seen my neurologist (I've had migraines for years).  This wasn't entirely due to the kidney stone issues (although I only started seeing a neurologist once my migraines changed character about 9 months ago - notice a theme?) and this visit was a routine checkup.  I had a CT scan of my brain done when I first started seeing my doctor (it was normal) and asked for a copy of it (how could I pass up a picture of my brain to hang up in my office?).  I recently started playing with the data and have a great 3D rendering of my skull (the rotation is slow, but once it's loaded you can slide the play bar back-and-forth to rotate it as you like):

I've also just seen my urologist again.  It seems that everything has smoothed out for the time being (hooray!) , but we need to check the function of my damaged kidney again early next year to make sure that it isn't getting worse.  For your viewing pleasure, I have also made a nice 3D rendering of the CT I had done in the emergency room when they found the stone.  This video is after I was injected with contrast to make my kidneys and urinary tract light up (I also drank contrast to make my intestines light up as well since they thought I may have had appendicitis).  Notice that my right kidney is smaller than my left, that there isn't anything coming out of the right kidney and, if you look closely, you can see my 7 x 4 mm stone stuck between my kidney and bladder (they eventually had to go in, break it up with a laser and pull it out):

As you can imagine, I've had a busy few days in doctors offices.  This week, I am finishing plans for a teacher professional development workshop that I am leading on the 23rd.  I have learned a lot to share with you ['cause I know that this is right up your alley :) ]!

P.S.  Playing the physicist nerd card really helps in getting copies of scans like this!  :)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This Past Week

This week I've done both outreach and science.  If you aren't familiar, outreach is working to bring science to people who don't do science for a living; to educate the public.  This is a particular passion for me (hence this blog) since outreach lets me share my excitement for what I do with people who are interested.  It lets me remind myself of why I do what I do everyday.  Let me give you an example: looking for gravitational waves is getting the chance to discover something that no one has ever gotten to directly detect before (not that I am the only scientist looking for gravitational waves [I will do a post on the large LIGO-Virgo collaboration later] and we do know that gravitational waves exist [the 1993 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the proof]) which is very exciting, but there is a huge amount of detailed work, that can sometimes seem removed from gravitational waves, that needs to be done to reach that goal.  That means, that sometimes I sit in my office and think, "Why am I so concerned about X?  This doesn't feel like it is going to make a difference."  That's when you need to take a step back from the work and see where in the big picture your work fits in.  Then I feel my motivation return.  But when I get to do outreach, I get to share what I do with someone who may have never heard about gravitational waves before.  I get to see the awe in gravitational waves that sometimes get buried in the daily work that needs to be done.  When I do outreach, I return to my desk with a vigor that I would have not had otherwise.

Last Saturday, I came into the observatory to give a tour to about 25 first year physics students from Tulane University in New Orleans.  Since I don't get to work with college students much, this day went a little differently than when I work with middle or high school students.  The questions are sometimes a little deeper (I say sometimes because you would be surprised at the insight that a 5th grader can demonstrate) and I don't need to rephrase my responses as much (meaning that I can sometimes use the big words without explaining them).  The one thing that is always the same no matter if the group is middle/high school, college, or public is that when they get to explore the exhibit hall in the Science Education Center everyone becomes a kid again.  Everyone darts from exhibit to exhibit for the first 5-10 minutes until they find one that really catches their attention and then they start experimenting on deeper levels.  I often tell groups the best part about my job is that I have a key to the Center and I know how to turn all the exhibits on (and it is the truth).

Then on Wednesday and Thursday I got to give tours of the observatory to middle school students.  The most rewarding part of working with these groups is hearing the students talk amongst themselves about how they want to work as a scientist or engineer someday.  Hearing that reminds me of when I was their age and dreamed of being a scientist.  That really makes going back to your office and doing all of the details that need to be done easier - I get to live my dream.

So, what kind of science did I do this week?  Well, I specialize in creating computer programs that go through the enormous amounts of data we take everyday to look for gravitational waves in the sea of noise that comes out of our detector.  That means that many of my issues I need to work through involve computer programming and statistics (I hope you can see now why sometimes I lose sight of the bigger picture).  To that end, I am also a 'librarian' for the computer programs that are written in MATLAB in the LIGO-Virgo Collaboration; this library is called MatApps.  I work with others from Penn State to help keep MATLAB easy to use for the collaboration and to help keep the programs we have written in a central location.  So, this week I spent time working on a tool to make it easy for MatApps users to use the programs it contains.

I also worked on reviving a project that I started about 2 years ago that will help us evaluate if any candidate gravitational waves are real by checking that the measurements are physically possible based on the detection time difference between each detector and the strength that each detector saw the signal.  I am reviving this so that I can collaborate with a friend to tailor this to the needs of the physicists that look for gravitational waves from two stars or black holes rotating around each other and merging to become one (I specialize in looking for short duration gravitational waves from unknown or unmodeled sources call bursts).  We also hope to write of the results of this work and publish it in a scientific journal.

Outside of some doctors appointments (I've had recent troubles with a kidney stone that clogged up the works), this was pretty much my week.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Origin Story

One of the things that I'm surprised scientists don't talk about more is why/how they became what they are. The feeling I get from others is that we've each had a 'calling' that led us to where we are and we just accept it as that. Or perhaps it is that many scientists don't have the best interpersonal skills and discussing something this personal may be uncomfortable. I really don't know. But when I have gotten colleagues to discuss the matter, the stories I've heard are varied and compelling. So, here's my origin story...

I grew up in Western Pennsylvania outside of Pittsburgh. Way outside and mostly in rural areas and then later in suburban areas. I have always 'known' on some level of what I wanted to be and it centered around science and space. As a child, the hero job that fit the bill was astronaut. Later, I discovered that there are many careers in science and decided that astronomer was much closer to my aspirations. I was fortunate enough to get a first class science education at my high school and took 2 years of physics, 1 year each of biology and chemistry and took a semester each of astronomy, geology and ecology. It was my physics teacher (the same for both years) that first exposed me to relativity and that is when I was hooked! It was mind blowing learning how time is not constant nor is length or mass for that matter! I didn't know exactly how I was going to use this, but I knew that this is something I wanted to pursue.

Then came college. I knew that I wanted to go on to graduate study, so most of my time in college I spent trying to excel in the physics major hoping for acceptance into a respected doctoral program. I went to Frostburg State University and graduated early. While there wasn't much to do as an undergraduate in relativity, I focused my attention on astronomy and was able to perform independent study in astrophotography.

When looking for graduate schools, I wanted to choose a research project that would allow me to work in both astronomy and relativity. I was admitted to Penn State and started work on the LIGO project. And today I work at one of the 2 LIGO sites.

While I feel like I've been privileged to always have a sense of direction as far as my career is concerned, I was not so focused academically. I was a horrible student! Sometimes when I work with visiting school groups to the observatory, I am asked if I really am a scientist and if I'm a genius. Yes, I am a real scientist but I am far from a genius! I had difficulty all though school and only started to find my academic focus once I was in high school. (One marking period in 4th grade, I received 4 F's on my report and they wanted to put me back in 3rd grade.) Establishing yourself as a scientist doesn't mean that science has to come easy to you - all you need to do is be persistent in learning the material and scientific methods. Even in college and grad school, I struggled and it just took hard work and persistence to get through it. Now that I am done with school, there is still no end to the struggle - but it is a struggle that I enjoy and the rewards are worth much more than the costs.

Are you a scientist and want to share your origin story? Feel free to leave a comment! Are you a student and think that you would like to be a scientist? Please leave a comment with your plans!

A special thanks goes out to: Mr. R. C. Bowman of Hempfield Area High School for exposing me to Relativity for the first time, to Dr. George Plitnik and Dr. Greg Latta for guiding me through college and to Dr.s Gabriela Gonzalez and Sam Finn for seeing me through grad school and establishing me in LIGO!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I have been meaning to start this blog for some time now. What you will find here is information about what being a LIGO scientist is like. LIGO is a new kind of observatory that is seeks to view the Universe through minute changes in the gravitational field due to some of the most massive and/or energetic events - like 2 black holes colliding. These changes in the gravitational field are called gravitational waves.

I work at the LIGO Livingston Observatory in Louisiana (about 45 min. east of Baton Rouge). There is another LIGO Observatory in Hanford, Washington (on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where the plutonium for 'Fat Man' was refined). We also work with international partners: Virgo in Italy (funded by Italy, France and the Netherlands), GEO in Germany (funded by Germany and the United Kingdom), and TAMA in Japan.

My job title is "Senior Postdoctoral Scholar in Physics" at Caltech (although I live and work in Louisiana). If you are not familiar with academic job titles, this means that I am a low man on the totem pole. But I love my job and my life! One of the reasons that I am so happy with my situation is that I have the job I want and I get to live with my husband (who is an engineer). It isn't uncommon in physics to have to live somewhere other than with your spouse when you are establishing yourself, especially when your spouse has a career of their own (physicists call this the two-body problem). For now, at least, my husband and I both work at LIGO Livingston.

My time at work is spent doing traditional LIGO research and working with the LIGO Science Education Center staff. To me, this is like having my cake and getting to eat it too; I get to share my love for my work with visiting students and the public while getting to work on site seeking gravitational waves. I have also been honored to be elected to leadership roles in the professional society of physicists (the American Physical Society). I hope to get to share my experiences in service, teaching and research through this blog.

I intend to update this blog regularly. If you have any questions, please feel free to post them here and I will try to answer them. But please know that I am not here to argue the validity of General Relativity or alternate theories so I will not address those questions or comments. That doesn't mean that you can't ask physics questions, I'm just not going to argue with you when you try to convince me or others that LIGO won't work because Einstein was wrong about something.

I hope that the material that will be posted here will be useful to someone. I hope that students who are considering becoming scientists and others who are simply interested in this new method of astronomy find this interesting.

- Amber L. Stuver