As a high school student in Birmingham, Alabama, Berkeley Lab Undergraduate Research (BLUR) intern Katie Dunne first dreamed of becoming a physicist after reading Albert Einstein’s biography, but didn’t know anyone who worked in science. “I felt like the people who were good at math and science weren’t my friends,” she said. So when it came time for college, she majored in English, and quickly grew dissatisfied because it wasn’t challenging enough. Eventually, she got to know a few engineers, but none of them were women, she recalled.
She still kept physics in the back of her mind until she read an article about “The First Lady of Physics,” Chien-Shiung Wu, an experimental physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, and later designed the “Wu experiment,” which proved that the conservation of parity is violated by weak interactions. “Two male theorists who proposed parity violation won the 1957 Nobel Prize in physics, and Wu did not,” Dunne said. “When I read about her, I decided that that’s what I want to do – design experiments.”
So she put physics front and center, and about four years ago, transferred as a physics major to the City College of San Francisco. “With Silicon Valley nearby, there are many opportunities here to get work experience in instrumentation and electrical engineering,” Dunne said. In the summers of 2014 and 2015, she landed internships in the Human Factors division at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, where she streamlined the development of a printed circuit board for active infrared illumination.
But it wasn’t until she took a class in modern physics when she discovered her true passion – particle physics. “When we got to quantum physics, it was great. Working on the problems of quantum physics is exciting,” she said. “It’s so elegant and dovetails with math. It’s the ultimate mystery because we can’t observe quantum behavior.”
When it came time to apply for her next summer internship in 2016, instead of reapplying for a position at NASA, she googled “ATLAS,” the name of a 7,000-ton detector for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Her search drummed up an article about Beate Heinemann, who, at the time, was a researcher with dual appointments at UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab and was deputy spokesperson of the ATLAS collaboration. (Heinemann is also one of the 20 percent of female physicists working on the ATLAS experiment.)
When Dunne contacted Heinemann to ask if she would consider her for an internship, she suggested that she contact Maurice Garcia-Sciveres, a physicist at Berkeley Lab whose research specializes in pixel detectors for ATLAS, and who has mentored many students interested in instrumentation.
Garcia-Sciveres invited Dunne to a meeting so she could see the kind of work that they do. “I could tell I would get a lot of hands-on experience,” she said. So she applied for her first internship with Garcia-Sciveres through the Community College Internship (CCI) program – which, like the BLUR internship program, is managed by Workforce Development & Education at Berkeley Lab – and started to work with his team on building prototype integrated circuit (IC) test systems for ATLAS as part of the High Luminosity Large Hadron Collider (HL-LHC) Project, an international collaboration headed by CERN to increase the LHC’s luminosity (rate of collisions) by a factor of 10 by 2020.
“For the ATLAS experiment, we work with the Engineering Division to build custom electronics and integrated circuits for silicon detectors. Our work is focused on improving the operation, testing, and debugging of these ICs,” said Garcia-Sciveres.
During Dunne’s first internship, she analyzed threshold scans for an IC readout chip, and tested their radiation hardness – or threshold for tolerating increasing radiation doses – at the Lab’s 88-Inch Cyclotron and at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “Berkeley Lab is a unique environment for interns. They throw you in, and you learn on the job. The Lab gives students opportunities to make a difference in the field they’re working in,” she said.
For Garcia-Sciveres, it didn’t take long for Dunne to prove she could make a difference for his team. Just after her first internship at Berkeley Lab, the results from her threshold analysis made their debut as data supporting his presentation at the 38th International Conference on High Energy Physics (ICHEP) in August 2016. “The results were from her measurements,” he said. “This is grad student-level work she’s been doing. She’s really good.”
After the conference, Garcia-Sciveres asked Dunne to write the now published proceedings (he and the other authors provided her with comments and suggested wording). And this past January, Dunne presented “Results of FE65-P2 Stability Tests for the High Luminosity LHC Upgrade” during the “HL-LHC, BELLE2, Future Colliders” session of the American Physical Society (APS) Meeting in Washington, D.C.
This summer, for her third and final internship at the Lab, Dunne is working on designing circuit boards needed for the ATLAS experiment, and assembling and testing prototype multi-chip modules to evaluate system performance. She hopes to continue working on ATLAS when she transfers to UC Santa Cruz as a physics major in the fall, and would like to get a Ph.D. in physics one day. “I love knowing that the work I do matters. My internships and work experience as a research assistant at Berkeley Lab have made me more confident in the work I’m doing, and more passionate about getting things done and sharing my results,” she said.
This work was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) under the Community College Internship (CCI) program.