Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 26  |  Friday, June 13, 2003  |  Number 10
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

All Work, No Play?

Graduate Student Association connects young scientists with life at Fermilab

by Elizabeth Clements

The 2003 GSA Representatives (from left to right): Martin Hennecke, Karlsruhe University, CDF; Andy Haas, University of Washington, DZero; Amber Jenkins, Imperial College London, DZero; Reid Mumford, John Hopkins University, CDF and Jun Zhang, Columbia University, Astro-Theory.
The 2003 GSA Representatives (from left to right): Martin Hennecke, Karlsruhe University, CDF; Andy Haas, University of Washington, DZero; Amber Jenkins, Imperial College London, DZero; Reid Mumford, John Hopkins University, CDF and Jun Zhang, Columbia University, Astro-Theory. -- Photo by Reidar Hahn
Qualifiers, owl shifts, C++, dissertations-- a few of the cacophonous words that describe the frenetic life of a graduate student at Fermilab. Fermilab is home to one of the largest concentrations of high-energy physics graduate students (and quite possibly the largest volume of high caffeine beverages) around the globe. In a lab with 2,000 employees and more than 2,600 users, a graduate student can easily feel lost in the crowd. This is how Benn Tannenbaum felt when he was a graduate student at Fermilab.

"We felt that the field as a whole wasn't really looking at or listening to graduate students' concerns about the future of high-energy physics," said Tannenbaum, currently the American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellow, working with Representative Edward Markey (Massachusetts, 7th CD). "[Graduate students] are the future of the field. We needed to be involved to make ourselves heard."

In 1995, Benn Tannenbaum, Tacy Joffe-Minor, John Kim and Michael Begel formally established the Graduate Student Association (GSA) as the voice for graduate students at Fermilab.

The main mission of the GSA is to represent the needs of the graduate students by acting as a liaison with the directorate, the experiments, and the Users' Executive Committee. Other main objectives of the GSA include continuing the education of graduate students by providing scholarships for C++ computing and academic physics classes, distributing information about employment opportunities, participating in outreach and education activities and, perhaps most significant of all, organizing social events.

Each October, the graduate student population nominates and elects five new representatives to manage and organize the GSA. The 2003 representatives are Amber Jenkins, Imperial College London, DZero; Andy Haas, University of Washington, DZero; Jun Zhang, Columbia University, Astro-Theory; Martin Hennecke, Karlsruhe University, CDF; and Reid Mumford, John Hopkins University, CDF. While some political representatives have inaugural balls, the newly elected GSA officers always kick off their term with the annual Halloween party.

"One hundred and twenty people partied in the [Kuhn] barn all night this year, and everybody had fantastic costumes. There was also apple bobbing, pumpkin carving and prizes," Jenkins said. "One of the roles of the GSA is to organize social events for the young physics community, which is how, in reality, we probably touch graduate students the most."

The GSA social calendar does not stop at Halloween. In the spring, the GSA officers organized a bingo night, renaming the game Fermi. They are also planning a summer triathlon, consisting of fifty laps in the pool, a 25K bike ride and a run once around the main ring (teams are welcome). This summer's highlight is Pachanga Season, a series of Latin- American parties with music and dancing all night long in Fermilab's village.

Although social activities are understandably important to Fermilab's graduate students, the GSA's agenda has more on it than bingo and the Merengue. In March, the Universities Research Association sent the GSA Officers on the UEC's eighth annual trip to Washington, D.C. The GSA Officers met with senators and representatives to raise awareness of high-energy physics, and of the DOE Office of Science as the largest single funder of the physical sciences in the United States. GSA also sponsors the New Perspectives Conference, which features talks by Fermilab's graduate students from various experiments during the Users Annual Meeting.

"The New Perspectives Conference is the GSA's longest-lasting legacy, and I'm especially happy that it is still continuing," said Tannenbaum. "New Perspectives is really the only chance for graduate students to hear what work is going on outside their own experiments. The Users' Meeting tends to be very high-level and political. New Perspectives features the people who are down in the trenches doing the actual work."

While social events and trips sound like fun and games, many graduate students would argue that "down in the trenches with a ball and chain" is an accurate description of what they do. As Mumford explained wryly, "We organize the social events to take our minds off the misery."

In reality, graduate students play an integral role in fulfilling the lab's science mission. From writing software to taking shifts to conducting analysis (and at some point even graduating), the students quickly become the experts in their experiments.

"[Graduate students] make the thing run. The experiment would fall over without us," said Haas with a laugh. "The professors are busy teaching classes and preparing talks. The young people actually do the work. Every now and then, we even have good new ideas--and we know C++."

John Womersley, the DZero co-spokesperson, could not agree more.

"Graduate students are the heart of these big experiments," he said. "They are the driving force behind the analysis, and they know the most about the experiments. Almost every paper published is based on the work of graduate students with their advisors. They are young, enthusiastic, and, of course, brilliant."

Graduate Student Association of Fermilab: www.fnal.gov/orgs/gsa/about/index.html

last modified 5/23/2003   email Fermilab