Adventures of an Aspiring Particle Physicist (Before She Decided to Become a Particle Physicist)

by Khalida Hendricks

I was born in Los Alamos, NM, where everyone’s parents work at “the Lab” (Los Alamos National Laboratory) …or you lie and say they do to fit in. Every child from Los Alamos is expected to become a doctor, a lawyer, or a scientist, and in general this is what happens. These options were presented as the only respectable paths. Either I would grow up and become a doctor, lawyer, or scientist, or I was doomed to become a miserable failure.

I didn’t want to be a scientist. My high school physics teacher loved cars and related every lesson to cars. There was no better way to make me hate physics and science in general. If you had told my high school senior self that I would ultimately dream of getting a PhD in physics, she would have laughed at you.

As a senior I had no idea what to do with myself. Everything I had ever shown interest in was dismissed by well-meaning adults. Still, the first time the recruiter called I hung up on him. A Los Alamos kid joining the Army? Are you kidding? But the recruiter was persistent, and eventually he found the magic word: linguist. I’ve loved languages all my life, but adults told me that language majors have few, if any, career options. My recruiter argued otherwise – if I became a military linguist, I could travel the world using my language skills, while also serving my country. The more I thought about it, the better it sounded.

That's me in uniform!

So I joined the military.

I scored well on the language aptitude test and was given a choice of four challenging languages: Arabic, Chinese, Korean, or Russian. As a New Mexican, I like deserts so I picked Arabic. This was before 9/11, so I had no idea that Arabic language skills would become a valuable commodity. I simply picked Arabic because I like deserts. Yes. Seriously.

Army Arabic school is 15 months long, but Arabic came easily for me so I had plenty of free time. I had the luxury of being an eighteen year old with a well-paying job living in Monterey, California. I sampled everything I could: skydiving, scuba diving, mountain climbing, dancing, acting, and anything else that I could find. I got an associate degree in Arabic. I took classes in random subjects simply because I knew nothing about them. I would walk down a random aisle at the library to find anything new and interesting, or just surf the internet following link after link.

That is how I stumbled upon a website called “The Particle Adventure.” It’s changed a lot since then, but it is still around! I was enthralled. Why hadn’t they taught about particles in high school? I was fascinated by leptons and quarks and force carriers and interactions. After resisting my hometown mold for 18 years, the great irony was that I suddenly wanted to become a particle physicist…except that I still had a contract with the Army.

My first assignment was to Germany. While there, I taught myself Albanian, the native language of Kosovo, so that I could deploy to Kosovo. I was assigned to a Human Intelligence Team and got to drive around Kosovo just talking to people, drinking coffee with them, going to weddings and parties. For some reason the Army then decided to send me to Korea, where I was stuck on a tiny post just south of the Demilitarized Zone. To make life a little less tedious, I tried out for the 2nd Infantry Division Tae Kwon Do Team, and I got to travel around Korea doing Tae Kwon Do demonstrations. My feature trick was running up my teammate’s chest, launching off of his crossed arms, doing a backflip, and breaking a board mid-flip before landing. I also did a choreographed fight where I beat up the three biggest guys with fancy Hollywood style moves. This was a crowd-pleaser.

After a year in Korea, I received a mysterious letter informing me that I met the requirements for an unspecified position in US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC). Next thing I knew, I was at Ft. Bragg, in North Carolina, engaged in a rigorous training program. The job was just too cool to pass up, so upon graduating from the program, I re-enlisted and spent four incredible years at USASOC. I had the chance to try all sorts of things, from ice-climbing and dog-sledding to offensive driving and survival school. My nickname was “Spock” because I was always lugging books along on these trips. I read about particle physics as much as I could, but I knew that I couldn’t understand the stuff I really wanted to know without a more formal physics education.

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Dog sledding in Colorado as part of USASOC winter training.

In 2006 I was invited to try out for the United States Army Parachute Team, aka the Golden Knights. This was another one-of-a-kind life experience, so I re-enlisted a third time, swearing that it would be my last. I spent two years doing parachute demonstrations all over the country, and one year competing in parachute accuracy.

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In December of 2009 I left active duty and joined the Reserves, which allowed me to study physics full time at North Carolina State University without giving up my Army retirement. The Reserves proved difficult to juggle with school. I fielded calls from my commander between classes. I fought to schedule my two weeks of annual training between the regular school year and summer internships and spent a full weekend every month playing Army instead of studying or getting homework done. Hopefully it will pay off but it has not been easy.

I also still have a habit of jumping out of airplanes. Before leaving active duty I placed fifth in parachute accuracy at the US Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships, earning a spot on the United States Skydiving Team. I skipped the first three weeks of my sophomore year to travel to Nicsik, Montenegro, and compete at the 31st Fédération Aéronautique Internationale World Style and Accuracy Parachuting Championships. I didn’t get an individual medal, but my team earned second place. I never really got caught up that semester but I think the experience was worth it.

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I managed to do some physics along the way, too! I did internships at Fermilab and Jefferson Lab, as well as some undergraduate research at NC State. I’ve tried computational and experimental particle physics, theoretical nuclear physics, and astrophysics. Given my history of casting a broad net, it is going to be really tough for me to settle down to just one topic for my PhD!!

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With my Beagles Hude (left) and Aerial (right) at Jefferson Lab.

But at least I have gotten this far. Like I said, if you had told me back in high school that this is where I would end up, I would have thought you were crazy. It has been a long, winding, and often difficult road, but it has been full of adventures that I will never regret.

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About Khalida Hendricks

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Lexi, Huda, and Aerial.

It’s hard to believe sometimes but I now have 12.5 years of active duty and 18 years of total Army service. I plan to continue with the Reserves at least until I hit 20 years so I can get a retirement out of it. I have three beagles and two cats and I like to compete with my dogs in events such as obedience, agility, Barn Hunt, and other dog sports, whenever possible. Also I still get to do occasional parachute demonstrations as a member of the All Veteran Parachute Team, which was founded by one of my Golden Knights friends. I am currently studying particle physics, quantum field theory, and astroparticle physics as a PhD student at The Ohio State University.

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Happy New Year!

by Nancy Santagata

A New Year’s post has become a sort of unofficial custom here at a Day in the Life.  Therefore, in keeping with tradition, Amy, Megan, Natalie, and I would like to wish you a Happy 2015! 2015-made-out-of-sparkler-lights 2014 was a busy year for us outside of the blog, as you might be able to tell by the fluctuations in time between posts.  🙂  Rest assured that is not an indication that we are slowing down.  We still love working with our friends here at Ohio State (and beyond!) to share their fascinating stories with you.  These included Brendan Mikula’s discussion of the science behind teaching science, Kate Grier’s observations of the night sky from atop Kitt Peak, and a look into the fun of smashing atoms together with Christopher Plumberg.  With all of these great stories, imagine our surprise when we looked at the numbers and saw that our most popular post was written by the editorial board!  We each sincerely enjoyed sharing our individual experiences with being the only woman in the room, and we’re so glad to see that our readers did as well.  Collectively, all of these stories helped the blog accumulate over 11,000 visits in 2014.  That’s equivalent to all of the visits from both 2012 and 2013 combined! We are humbled by those numbers, and we owe the biggest of thanks to each and every one of our readers.

And the map – we can’t forget about the map!

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Of all of the stats that WordPress provides for us, the map is honestly my favorite.

It’s really filling in.  We’d like to take a second to personally thank the one person in each of the following countries that single-handedly put or kept their country on the map this year: Botswana, Mongolia, Cambodia, Cyprus, Swaziland, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Barbados, Cape Verde, Ecuador, Mozambique, Albania, Nicaragua, Guernsey, Estonia, Antigua and Barbuda, Luxembourg, Ethiopia, Georgia, and Maldives.  Nothing makes us happier to know that we are reaching readers all over the globe!

Looking forward, we’ll be sharing some pretty unique stories with you this year.  Keep an eye out for posts about jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, what life is like once you finally finish your PhD, attempting research for the first time and loving it, and why the veins in your arm appear blue.  The editorial board is going to sneak a few stories in as well. This winter I spent a few weeks in Alaska photographing the aurora borealis (also known as the northern lights), and the experience was too amazing not to share.  And Megan and Natalie are preparing a post describing the workshop that ultimately brought Natalie to the blog. We hope that these new stories are as well received as our last!

In closing, we’d love to hear from you! What was the coolest science story that you read in 2014, either here at A Day in the Life or elsewhere in the blogosphere? Are there any topics that you’d like to read more about in 2015? Leave us a comment here, on our Facebook page, or tweet us @AditLatOSU.

Once again, Happy New Year!

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About Nancy Santagata

violet As a sneak peak to my upcoming post, here I am knee deep in snow while on a hike at Creamer’s Field State State Migratory Waterfoul Refuge in Fairbanks, Alaska. I have been told that this getup reminds people of the character Violet Beauregarde from the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory.  Hey, when it’s -20 deg F, all that I care about is staying warm.  🙂