High school student works on Fermilab experiment
Fermilab scientist Juan Estrada shows Natalie Harrison a CCD in a clean room at SiDet.
Many 16-year-olds learn important life skills at their first summer jobs - the value of a dollar or how to deal with the public. Natalie Harrison learned detector modeling, particle astrophysics and C++.
Harrison, now 17 and a senior, has spent the past two summers working 40 hours a week at Fermilab. She also works during the school year.
A student who regularly enrolls in courses several years above her grade level, Harrison exhausted the available math and science classes at Naperville North High School after her freshman year. She sent letters to every local scientist she knew in search of a way to continue her education.
"I contacted tons and tons of people," she said. "Most of them never got back to me. At times I thought, 'I'll never get an internship. I'll just work at the pool.'"
Harrison was saved from a summer of scooping chlorine when a Fermilab physicist invited her to work on a poster for the display area in the CDF detector hall at the Tevatron particle collider. The poster needed to contain only basic information for the general public, but Harrison combed scientific papers to learn as much as she could.
It was a habit she picked up as a 7th grader while attending Saturday Morning Physics lectures at Fermilab.
"As nerdy as it sounds, I would go home and go to the library and read until I understood what they were talking about," Harrison said. "I thought it was fascinating that you could apply math to physics. This was way cooler than doing math contest problems."
Fermilab scientists noticed her enthusiasm.
"She wants to know everything," said Ben Kilminster, now Harrison's supervisor. "The poster wasn't challenging enough."