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.

Dog Sledding

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!!

100_1408

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

dogs_show

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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26 thoughts on “Adventures of an Aspiring Particle Physicist (Before She Decided to Become a Particle Physicist)

  1. How old were you when you first started formally studying physics? I’m 26-years-old now and I feel like it’s probably too late to start, so I fear that physics will remain as nothing more than an interest to me.

    • It is never too late! I took my first college physics class just as I turned 31 (Fall 2009). It was a correspondence course offered by NC State that I took so that I could enroll full time the next semester (Spring 2010). I was not the oldest physics major at NC State and I am not the oldest physics grad student here at Ohio State now.

  2. Now that is an inspirational story,wish you all the best.Particle physics sounds boring to the uninitiated but its ramifications in the physical and biological worlds are so profound that it turns out to be the most fascinating and awesome scientific discipline there may be.

  3. Well, Khalida is a brilliant woman no doubt, with a strong personality, who incredibly managed to resist the powerful, local branch of the physicists sect, even before getting trained in special ops and survival. That takes an incredible mental strength.

    Now, her fantastic story is not precisely one that would inspire bright women to go straight for a higher education in physics… Rather the contrary. It is great advertising for the US armed forces! Great encouragement to have all sorts of fun as you will always have time later, to solve the mysteries of the universe.

    Quite frankly, she is giving a bad beating to her former physics teacher in terms of science deterrence. 😉 She looks like a great role model in competitiveness, that’s for sure.

    • Let me clarify that I am fascinated by physics above most other things. I was only joking when referring to the “physicists sect”. I am very glad that a brilliant mind has finally fallen for physics. These are extraordinary times to go for physics, more than ever. It seems to me that a revolution has started in science, in physics especially. One can find news of breakthroughs in physics on a daily basis, and news of mindblowing results in physics on a weekly basis! The advances have picked such an acceleration that we must expect an absolute revolution over the next 10-20 years, save some sort of world collapse.

      Physics and computer science (including AI, with fields like deep learning, etc., and quantum computer development) can have an unprecedented impact on civilization. They hold a huge promise in terms of helping the humanity avert global collapse. The global environmental and natural ressources crises have each on their own the potential to bring down civilization in a matter of very few decades. The second is likely to reinforce the first, as the world’s growing population will savage nature ever more in despair for dwindling ressources (to produce energy and to feed the industrial society, which includes industrial farming). Non renewable energy production is peaking. A number of strategic chemical substances/elements are bound or already started to fall ever more lower than world needs. The humanity’s predicament is today very, very bleak. The Earth has an awful probability to be already committed to environmental collapse, involving global change and the sixth mass extinction currently underway.

      Physics is the greatest hope of the humanity to avoid utter disaster during our lifetime. Radical and lightining-fast global cultural evolution could maybe save us as well, but who is to believe in such a miracle?

      So women: you have more potential than men to change things, and physics has more potential than anything else to rescue all of us from impending doom. Go become theoretical and experimental physicists! Please!

  4. How wonderful that it all started with DLI. I attended basic and intermediate Russian there. Wonderful school. And your career path has been just astonishing!

  5. Thank you ma’am, I am a 25 yrs old with little philosophy and no maths background, but your story inspired me to go for my dream, which is to do a master’s degree in logic. I hope your PhD goes well.

  6. You are amazing. It is NEVER to late to study Physics and Math! What you have achieved is inspiring. Thank you for passing it on. There is no substitute for enthusiasm and discipline. I have been retired from my university for more than 5 years and I still read as much physics and maths as I can absorb … and love mentoring year 11 and 12 students preparing for their university entrance exams in physics and math.

  7. Sound so interesting. Can someone help on how I can get cheap-tuition or tuition-free school for MSc Medical Physics? Thanks

  8. Wow, that’s really inspiring! I have no idea from where you get all the energy needed to do all those things! Btw, I’m also a 33 years old physics student. So your story got me deep 🙂

  9. Incredibly exciting !
    I’m 60 yrs . Past student of physics & teacher for the 17 yrs – 20 yrs physics students.
    I liked the subject but could not become passionate one !
    Now I believe to have second birth in U. S. & dream to experience a little of what you are doing !
    My best wishes in all what you do with yourself !
    I do not know if I can communicate more on your day to day experience in particle physics and intuitions developed there in ?
    Bravo khalida madam !

  10. hello mam………u rally inspiredd me for persuin my career as physicist…i m 26yr old now and i wanna start my carrer as a physicist..i wanna persue my phd from usa..i live in india..is it rght tm frst to take undrgraduation here and then phd in usa……..ritesh ganvir,india

  11. You hold an impressive military career, and it is even more exciting to be pursuing physics even after doing so much for our great nation. I am a 23 year old grunt attempting to cross into the officer side, and you provide a great deal of inspiration. Perhaps I will even jump into physics as well. A bit preferable to the social sciences I study now, and dealing with fewer opinions and more science.

  12. That’s pretty awesome. I only wish that I didn’t join the Army to be a dumb grunt and now have to struggle to get a STEM degree because all I know or did was shoot things. But, you will be my inspiration to push through the naysayers and obstacles to finish it out. BTW, I like your shotgun blast approach to figuring out what you like. Can’t pick one? Then like EVERYTHING!

  13. Just wanted to say my story is very similar. Everything from choosing the Army and then discovering how much I love astrophysics and am now pursuing that degree. I’ve had to teach myself many levels of math and convince professors to let me in higher level classes. But so far I’m doing well. Keep at it. We need all the scientists we can get!

  14. I am just writing to say my story is very similar. Everything from joining the Army to then discovering how much I love astrophysics. I’ve had to teach myself many levels of math and convince my professors to place me in higher level classes. So far I’m doing well. The point: never give up. Keep at it. We need all the scientists we can get!

  15. Hi Kalida, I am also from LA. I don’t agree with your first statement but your 2nd and 3rd statements are simply so true! I enjoyed reading about you and so feel that your approach to life is vintage for us who were lucky enough to grow up there.

  16. Holy crap soldier! Thats one heck of a career and experience! Are opportunities in the Army usually this awesome? Or did you have a strategy that allowed you to be at the top of the list? Or is it solely because you were a linguist?

  17. You make Dos Equis man inadequate. Your story needs to be heard more. Hell, why not go on TED? A truly inspiring and motivating story.
    – another veteran

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