Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 26  |  Friday, July 25, 2003  |  Number 12
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Moving Up

by Sena Desai

Donna Hicks has made powerful use of the educational opportunities available to Fermilab employees. Hicks earned her physics bachelor's degree while working full-time at Fermilab, starting as a mechanical technician and advancing to become an engineering physicist.

"Donna always performed well, technically and academically, and the laboratory benefited from the education she got," said Karen Kephart, who supervised Hicks for 18 years. "For every class she took, I saw an immediate improvement in her work. She applied everything she learned. Donna has more than paid back the laboratory's investment in her education."

Hicks succeeded despite difficult odds. Raised in a Chicago suburb where girls were not encouraged to attend college, she was determined to further her education. As a single mom, she raised her son while working as a technician in a male-dominated field and going to school part-time. Along the way, Hicks said, help came from friends, co-workers and supervisors, but it was her drive, inquiring mind, and enthusiasm that pushed her ahead.

Starting as a mechanical technician 23 years ago, Hicks completed a bachelor's degree along the way, and is now an engineering physicist at the Technical Division's Materials Development and Testing Laboratory. Hicks came to Fermilab by chance 23 years ago. She was studying for an associate degree in material testing at Moraine Valley Community College when her instructor discovered, on a visit to Fermilab, that the laboratory was looking for technicians for its quality control group. Hicks applied and was hired.

For the first three years, Hicks worked in the Technical Division performing mechanical inspections of the Tevatron's superconducting magnets. "It was confusing in the beginning," she said. "But I always asked people questions— not just technicians but physicists and engineers."

There was just one other female technician in Hicks' group of 15 people, a situation that sometimes presented a challenge. Some male colleagues expressed the view that women should stay home.

But Hicks had experience surviving in a male-dominated place; only one other woman had taken the same classes as Hicks at Moraine Valley Community College, and Hicks knew how to hold her own. "I just asserted my viewpoint on important things," she said. Over the years the resentment towards women technicians has mostly disappeared, Hicks reports, and there are now 57 female technicians at Fermilab.

After three years testing magnets, Hicks transferred to the Physics Section, now incorporated in the Particle Physics Division, where she helped build detectors for many Fermilab experiments including CDF, DZero and MiniBooNE. She has spent many of her 23 years in the laboratory working on research and development projects for particle detectors.

And all the time she took classes, often taking courses whose application was not clear to others. She once took a photography class, gaining knowledge that came in handy years later when Hicks worked with Fermilab physicist Adam Para designing an emulsion detector for the MINOS experiment.

The detector would search for the oscillations of neutrinos. Hicks spent hours in the darkroom testing emulsions to find the right one. "It helped that she was aware of darkroom technology and emulsions from photography class," said Para. The use of emulsion in the detector was later discarded for a more cost-effective technology, but Hicks said it is still her favorite project.

"She is part of a unique group at Fermilab," said Kephart. "She understands that research and development means you work hard and still things may not pan out."

"She has the enquiring mind of a scientist and is extremely eager to learn and find solutions for herself," said Para.

It was Hicks' enquiring mind that led her to a bachelor's degree.

In the early 1990s Hicks worked on a project with Fermilab physicist Win Baker. Baker had designed an experiment very close to the Tevatron's beam and wanted to see if it affected the beam's properties in any way. Hicks worked with Baker using equipment to test beam properties in the presence of scintillator. It whetted her appetite — she decided she needed to know more about the relation between chemistry and physics.

Hicks enrolled in chemistry classes at Waubonsee Community College. On the first day she ran into Beams Division technician Dan Bollinger. Bollinger was one of the many Fermilab technicians who were going to school while working at Fermilab. He is currently an engineering physicist completing his Ph.D. at Northern Illinois University. Bollinger suggested Hicks transfer to Aurora University, his alma mater, to pursue a physics degree. Hicks took his advice.

But it was not easy. Hicks had divorced in the early 1980s and was raising her younger son, working full-time and taking classes at night. "I had no life," she recalled. She studied every moment she got, and weekdays merged into weekends. "I had to work very hard. I was not one of those people who got straight A's with little effort," she said. She pushed on, until she had enough credits for her bachelor's degree in physics in 2000.

"The thing about her that stays in my mind is that she managed to continue being a great technician as she went through her degree, class by class," said Kephart.

Earlier this year, Hicks transferred back to the Technical Division. She is now the lead person and chemical hygiene officer in the Materials Development and Testing Laboratory.

"The education enriched my life," she said.

But her learning days are far from over. Sunil Yadav, head of Materials Development and Testing Laboratory and her current supervisor, said he often catches Hicks reading chemistry books, still trying to understand and get to the bottom of things.

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