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Science Careers: Interview with Ivo Gough Eschrich

Name: Ivo Gough Eschrich
Current employer: The University of California at Irvine
Science Career: Associate Project Scientist
Time working in this field: Going on 12 years (15 if you include PhD thesis work).

How did you become interested in this area of science?

I wanted to understand how chemical reactions work, which, essentially, are reactions that happen between molecules, which are clusters of atoms. So I started studying molecular and atomic physics. An atom consists of a nucleus and a cloud of electrons. Next, I wanted to know more about the internal parts of an atom. The nucleus, in turn, consists of even smaller building blocks, known as protons and neutrons. Being of the same charge, the protons in a nucleus repel each other, so how can they stick together in such a tiny volume? The answer is there is an even stronger force (actually named the strong force), which only acts at very small distances, like the inside of a nucleus. You've guessed it, now I had become curious about nuclear physics. And as it turns out, protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller building blocks (called quarks and gluons). Today we call those elementary particles, because they appear to be the elementary building blocks of matter. The realm of physics working to understand what elementary particles exist and how they interact is called elementary particle physics (traditionally, it is also known as high-energy physics).

What did you study in high school, undergraduate, and graduate school?

In high school, I was mostly interested in chemistry. Only in my last two years of high school did I become curious about how chemical reactions work at the molecular, and then atomic, level. This is what got me interested in physics. I grew up in Germany, where at that time, there was no undergraduate program as we know it in the U.S. Instead, you picked your major and went straight to earning a master's degree in about 5 years. So I majored in physics, and specialized in nuclear physics for my master's degree. Then I switched to elementary particle physics for my PhD.

How would you describe your work environment?

My work entails building and operating experiments, as well as analyzing data from experiments. While data analysis is mostly done in front of a computer in an office, working on an experiment is quite a different experience. Some of the experiments I have worked on are fairly large and complex structures. The ATLAS detector, for example, is the size of a five-story building! In addition, it is located a few hundred feet underground. It is much like working on a construction site inside a mine. You have to wear a hard hat and a safety harness when climbing on the detector, and you get to operate cherry pickers, which lift you to places 50 ft. above the floor. You learn a lot about working safely on such a construction site, including electrical safety and radiation safety.

What are some of the key characteristics that are important for a person to succeed in your type of work?

In experimental high-energy physics, you usually work in large teams—a few hundred up to a few thousand physicists and engineers might work on the same experiment. This is simply because these experiments are so large and complex, and it takes the effort of a lot of people to complete them. Interpersonal communication skills are very important. If you are not able to work as part of a team, you are at a disadvantage.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What do you not like or wish you could change?

The most positive thing about my work is probably the freedom; my schedule is driven by what needs to be done at the time, and to a large extent, I get to decide when and where to do my work. Of course there are constraints, like meetings, deadlines, etc. but it is certainly not your typical 8–5 job.

And this freedom has its disadvantages, too: it requires discipline to get things done, lots of it, and not everybody has that kind of discipline. And since you always depend on other people getting their work done, you are usually waiting for somebody to catch up. That puts a limit on how efficient one can be, and it can be frustrating at times.

Is there anything about your profession that you think people misunderstand, or anything you think people would be surprised to learn about your job?

A common misconception is that working in public research pays well. It does not. There probably is no more poorly paid profession that requires a PhD. No one stays in public research for the money.

Describe a project that you have worked on that was of particular interest to you.

Well, it is kind of hard to pick just one. I have enjoyed most of the projects I've worked on. One that I cooked up on my own was an investigation of unexpected increase of radiation effects in one part of the BABAR detector at SLAC. At the time, I was in charge of the calorimeter—the part that measures the energy released in a collision of beam particles. I had noticed the average leakage current of photodiodes in some parts of the detector was increasing over time (i.e. exposure to radiation) much faster than expected. I knew the kind of radiation produced in these collisions would not cause such a rise. At a conference on calorimetry, I talked to the calorimeter expert from another, but almost identical detector, and he had seen the same thing! We discussed this for a while and thought of neutrons as the source of the damage. Neutrons were not really expected to occur at a high rate in this kind of experiment; the only source would be secondary interactions from beam particles hitting the beam pipe.

BABAR had no means of detecting neutrons itself, so I borrowed two calibrated diodes from the radiation physics department and placed them in areas where I had observed the abnormal rise in leakage current. After a few months, I removed and read them out again, and bingo, there was significant evidence for neutrons! Next, I assembled a dozen similar diodes from spare parts, calibrated them, and stuck them in various places on the detector and along the beam line. This gave us an idea where neutrons were likely to appear. Later on, after I had left the experiment, special shielding was installed to lessen the impact of neutrons on the detector.

What can a student do now to prepare for a career in your field?

In terms of coursework, I would say it pays in the long run to take all classes that are available in the natural sciences, particularly physics and chemistry. I've always found hands-on studies, like lab or excursions, significantly more rewarding than classroom instruction. Then there is math, in particular calculus, analytic geometry, and linear algebra. Math is both a tool and a language for physicists, not more and not less. You can understand a lot of nature without the math, but for a career in natural sciences, it is essential to be 'fluent' in math.

In terms of other activities, if you know about Science Buddies, you're already on the right track. Participating in or conducting your own research is a great way to get some hands-on experience under your belt.

Another thing that I recommend is: keep your eyes open—observe nature and ask how it works and why. Example: the sky is blue on a sunny day. Why blue? Why not ...green? Look it up! This helps you hone your observation and fact-finding skills.

Did you ever participate in science fairs as a student? What was your experience like?

Where I grew up, we didn't have science fairs. But I was lucky that both my parents were biologists, so I was exposed to research talk all my life. At junior high school age, I had already helped my Dad in the lab. Later, I proofread his papers (since my English was better than his). As a result, when I entered college, I already knew how to move around in a lab and had a good idea of how to write a scientific paper.

Is there any advice you would give to someone interested in this field that you wish someone had given you when you were starting out?

Remember that while math is a tool and language, physics describes how and why nature works, and keep your eyes open.

What do you do in your free time?

I like being outdoors, especially hiking together with my family or alone. I used to play volleyball and tennis a lot, but nowadays I mostly just go to the gym. I also love to travel. I have a passion for cars and trucks and I like to maintain and fix them myself. Same with computers, and working on the house. I'm kind of a do-it-yourselfer.

Another old passion of mine is geophysics, particularly seismology (earthquake science). I actually studied geophysics in college, and when I went on to work in nuclear and later, high-energy physics, it became a hobby. Now I happen to live in California—earthquake country—where not only can you feel one every once in a while, but also go out and observe the more subtle effects that seismic motion has on the landscape. And at the end of the day, I like to read—mostly books on 20th-century history.

Free science fair projects.