Standing Out in a Crowd

by Andrea Albert

Hi there, I’m Andrea Albert and here’s a look into my life as a physics graduate student.  I’m entering my fourth and final year at OSU and will be defending–successfully, I hope!–my PhD thesis in the spring.  Since graduation is right around the corner I’ve been thinking a lot about my post-graduation research options.

I am a member of the Fermi Large Area Telescope (Fermi LAT) collaboration, which is an international group of ~400 scientists who maintain and analyze data from the LAT.  The LAT is a telescope in space that is surveying gamma rays.  Gamma rays are super energetic photons, or light particles, that come from the most violent, extreme processes in the universe like spinning neutron star jets and supernovae!  Our data is publicly available so anyone–even you!–can download and analyze Fermi LAT data.

As a high-energy physicist, I am no stranger to working in large collaborations.  The Fermi LAT collaboration is small compared to the teams that discovered the Higgs Boson–CMS and ATLAS.  There are thousands of physicists on those experiments.  In my case, I work closely with about a dozen collaboration members whom I almost never see.  They are in Sweden, Italy, or California so we mostly communicate via email or group conference calls.  In that sort of environment it is very easy to just sit back and listen, which is pretty much what I did for my first year and a half of graduate school.  I absorbed a lot of information, but few people in the collaboration knew who I was.

In the spring of 2011 I was almost done with classes and had started my own research project.  As I progressed, my advisers encouraged me to give frequent updates at our collaboration conference calls.  At first I was intimidated to be presenting my results to a group of more experienced physicists.  Would I come across as a complete moron who had no idea what she was doing?  Thankfully this was fundamental research and I quickly realized that we were all investigating the unknown together.  My colleagues are great about giving me tips of things to look at or details about the instrument to keep in mind.

Over the past year and a half my visibility within the collaboration has grown.   Now I have collaboration members asking for my advice, too!  A few weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C., for our annual collaboration meeting.  I had a great time finally meeting several colleagues whom I had worked with via email or over the phone, but had not met face-to-face.  I was also given the opportunity to present a status update on my research to the entire collaboration.  This was awesome and I was so thankful they were confident in asking me instead of my adviser.  Since I had made myself so visible within the collaboration, it was obvious to everyone that I had done the majority of the work on my current analysis and so it made sense for me to give the update.

Also, while I was at the collaboration meeting, I started asking around about potential postdoctoral research position openings at other institutions.  Much to my surprise, several professors told me they were impressed by my work and wanted to help me get a position at their institution or where ever I wanted to go.  Now I know I will have strong letters of recommendation from scientists besides my adviser, which is really important for postdoctoral applications.

Physicists have a reputation for being somewhat anti-social, but even physicists need to network and create good professional relationships with the people who are going to help them get to the next level.  I think this applies for any aspiring scientist, even one who’s still in high school because you will need recommendation letters for college applications.  Recommendation letters from people who have seen you in action count more than from someone who can only say “well he/she got a really good grade in my class”.   All of my major opportunities that have helped shape me into the scientist I am today would not have been possible without my mentors along the way helping to open doors for me.  Of course those doors would have shut quickly if I had not stepped up and proved myself to be an excellent scientist too.

I’m excited about finishing up my thesis and moving on to a new institution to do research as a postdoc.  It looks like I will have choices regarding where I end up and will be working with great people who want to work with me as well.  It would have been easy to just sit in the background in the Fermi LAT collaboration, but I am so glad my advisers encouraged me to make myself visible because it has led me to develop several strong professional relationships with the physicists I work with.

Here I am (back row, fifth person from the right) at the 2011 Fermi Summer School.  The two week summer school is held annually by the Fermi Collaboration and introduces new members to research using Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.

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About Andrea Albert

I grew up as an Air Force brat and have lived all over the United States.  I went to an all-girls high school in Connecticut called Miss Porter’s School where I had fantastic science teachers who encouraged my interest in physics.  I received my B.S. in Astrophysics and Religious Studies from Rice University in Houston, Texas.  I got involved in research right away in college and have always loved it more than class work.  I came to Ohio State early to do research the summer before classes started and have been with my group ever since.  My advisers are Richard Hughes and Brian Winer and we search for gamma rays from dark matter interactions in the galaxy.  So far we have only seen dark matter through its gravitational influence, and many physicists these days are trying to find a difference kind of signal, like gamma rays.  Besides research, I have also been in an a capella group, am an active member of the Graduate Women in Physics group, and have performed dozens of physics outreach shows around Columbus.

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One thought on “Standing Out in a Crowd

  1. Hi Andrea! Will you let us know when you make a decision on where you are heading after you graduate? I’d love to hear more about what it is like to write your thesis and (gasp) interview for a new job.

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