Fermi National Laboratory

Volume 22  |  Friday, March 19, 1999  |  Number 6
In This Issue  |  FermiNews Main Page

Janet Conrad: At High Speeds

by Sharon Butler

If Janet Conrad were a particle, she’d be a photon.

Colleagues clock her pace at close to the speed of light and swear that time dilates around her–how else to explain all she accomplishes? One moment she is in New York, at Columbia University, teaching undergraduate physics classes, designing triggers, and analyzing data. The next she is in Batavia and elsewhere running collaboration meetings, lecturing on the physics of neutrinos, checking in on students, lobbying for resources for the MiniBooNE experiment–and, meanwhile, raising dahlias, indulging her love of photographic art, and, oh yes, meeting up with her husband, a physicist at New Mexico State University.

Some guess that, with a can of Diet Coke always in hand, Conrad must be chemically enhanced to keep up this perpetual motion. Her mother claims she is "nothing if not determined," and Conrad fully concedes she’s "self-propelled."

Conrad has just won the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award, the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers beginning their careers. The award comes with a $500,000 research grant, money that might go far for scientists working on tabletop experiments, but money that Janet has already spent. Some $40,000 will go to an education project to develop connections between physics and medical science. The rest she has committed to purchasing phototubes for MiniBooNE.

When Conrad was in fifth grade, Star Trek hooked her on astronomy, Soon she was helping her dad, an agricultural scientist, build radios in their basement workshop (that’s how she learned to solder), and tagging along on business trips to tour particle accelerators and observatories.

In her second year as an undergraduate at Swarthmore, a course in quantum mechanics made her realize that particle physics, not astronomy, was her calling. The astronomy course on solar interiors (mostly thermodynamics) was boring in comparison. "Quantum mechanics is a totally different way of thinking than the structured world of mechanics," she explained. "It opens up all sorts of possibilities: If the universe is completely open and goes on forever, then there is some finite probability–very tiny, of course–that a purple unicorn will appear."

From the beginning, unlike most physics students, she wanted to be an experimentalist, not a theorist. "I like to build things; I really enjoy having something there when I’m finished," she said.

Conrad’s career has soared. Last year, she gave the plenary talk at the world-famous International Conference on High-Energy Physics, followed by invited talks at universities in Sweden and Germany. Fermilab recently offered her half-time salary to conduct research at the Laboratory, freeing her from teaching responsibilities at Columbia. Just days after receiving the presidential award, she learned she had been promoted to associate professor.

Conrad can’t imagine life getting any better than this ("I’m paid to do what I love to do," she said)–unless, perhaps, she becomes famous enough one day to have her portrait done by Annie Liebowitz.

last modified 3/19/1999   email Fermilab