Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 26  |  Friday, January 31, 2003  |  Number 2
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Reaching Out: Lederman Fellows Bring Science to the Public

by Mike Perricone

Jay Dittmann has spent most of his life in school. He has earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate, and even now, he is serving the equivalent of an apprenticeship as a postdoctoral researcher at Fermilab.

But when he gets the call, he loves going back to school and mixing with kids in classrooms.

“Bright-eyed, curious, uninhibited—young children are eager sponges,” Dittmann said. “I love to talk with them about what I do. Showing them what I do is even better. I remember mesmerizing a third grader with an oscilloscope. I showed him how I could make the traces appear with different shapes and colors. And then I let him push the buttons and turn the knobs himself. He was absolutely delighted. It’s hard to believe that this kind of interaction with a young person doesn’t make a lasting impression.”

A lasting impression is the greatest hope of all who do science outreach—and encouraging young scientists to take part in science outreach is the distinguishing characteristic of the Lederman Fellowships. The awards were established in 1990 by Leon Lederman, Fermilab’s director emeritus and 1988 Nobel Prize winner, and by then-director John Peoples. The three-year fellowships carry the specific requirement of participating in educational activities, including and well beyond Fermilab’s Saturday Morning Physics program for high school students.

To Lederman, a strong proponent of science education, making an impression on the public is critical for the well-being of science. And he wants scientists to be involved from the start of their careers, to get lots of practice.

“Outreach is essential for all publicly supported science research activities,” Lederman said. “Research is fundamentally inefficient and has only long-term payoff. This is not understood by most of the public that pays for it. Thus, it is our obligation to explain, to clarify, but to do it honestly. And there is a big influence if the explaining is carried out by the young scientists who carry the enthusiasm and the knowledge. Also, it takes time and experience to do it well, so start early!”

Lederman fellows—currently, four of them—do just that. Dittmann, Breese Quinn, Natalia Kuznetsova and Bonnie Fleming are definitely on the run. Just a list of all their activities would fill an entire story by itself.

They give tours for school groups, senior citizens and VIP’s. They appear regularly in Saturday Morning Physics. They work closely with Fermilab’s Education Office. They go to schools and community organizations to give science presentations and participate in career day activities. They judge science fairs.

Quinn is a dean at the lab’s Tevatron University instructional program, helping coordinate evening talks at the advanced graduate level and post-doc level. He is helping develop a visitors’ display center at DZero. Dittmann serves on committees for the Summer Internships in Science and Technology program, and for the Fermilab Colloquium program.

Kuznetsova and Fleming have each written an article for FERMINEWS. Last April, with Susan Dahl of the Lederman Science Education Center, and Gail Green, a science teacher at Keller Junior High School in Schaumburg, they organized a Girls’ Scientific Salon—a science adventure for girls in grades 6-8. The girls spent a Saturday at the Lederman center, doing various fun science-oriented things such as exploring the chemistry of cooking, and understanding the physics of dance.

“It is very important for me to relate to young students, especially girls, and present being a scientist as an attractive career option,” said Kuznetsova, who is originally from Belarus. “Our field will have no future without a very significant outreach effort, and I wish there was a better appreciation of that fact in the high-energy physics community.”

That motion is strongly seconded by veteran physicist Michael Albrow, chairman of the Lederman Fellows Committee for the past five years.

“It’s extremely important that particle physicists, and all physicists, should take very seriously the duty, in fact the obligation, to make the general public as informed as possible about what we’re doing,” Albrow said. “For example, in doing astronomy, people ask, ‘What’s the use of astronomy? Are there any applications?’

“Well, most of astronomy doesn’t have any application at all, but it’s understood by the general public as being important to do. They can appreciate the value of the knowledge, something that’s harder to get across in particle physics. People can look up and feel a connection with the stars, but it’s harder to see a connection with protons. The public pays for the research we do, and it’s entitled to get something back from it.”

Albrow experienced no comparable window on the world years ago as a young postdoc at another lab.

“There was no outreach component at all, none expected and none encouraged,” he said. “We just put our heads down and worked.”

Compared to the Lederman Fellows, it sounds like he missed out on a lot of fun.

Gathering before the fireplace, and before lunch, at Chez Leon are (from left) Leon Lederman, Lederman Fellows Jay Dittman, Bonnie Fleming, Natalia Kuznetsova and Breese Quinn, and Lederman Fellows Committee chair Michael Albrow.

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