There are only a few thousand particle physicists in this world, and I am lucky enough to be one of them. How did that happen?
Like so much of life, it turns on small things. I met my first physics teacher when I was in fourth grade. My school district, in South Orange, NJ, had started up a program for so-called gifted and talented elementary-school students, and recruited one of the high-school physics teachers to teach math and science for a year. All of us kids ended up melting ice and boiling water and measuring heat capacities and the like. In high school, I found physics to be the most challenging science course, and that got me interested; I was captain of the physics team.
I arrived at the University of Chicago with a plan to be a physics major. The same was true for about half of the incoming class; not everyone ended up that way. I did enjoy the courses, but a major element of my college education was my research work. Largely by accident—I signed on with the instructor of my intro physics course—I found myself working in experimental particle physics, on Fermilab's CDF experiment. The lab is only about an hour's drive away from the U of C campus in Hyde Park, so I soon found myself regularly commuting for presentations and discussions with collaborators. And I have been in particle physics ever since. I genuinely enjoy this work. The physics itself is quite compelling; we are getting at some basic truths about how the universe works. The experiments themselves are projects of amazing scale, and I marvel that after all that must happen correctly to detect particles and record and process data, we are able to make measurements that make sense and can critically probe theoretical predictions. And there is great fun in working with such a wide range of people from so many backgrounds and cultures. That last part can be maddening at times too, but all part of the game.
I went to Cornell University for graduate school, and worked on the CLEO experiment there. I helped build a silicon detector, and measured properties of B mesons, finishing my Ph.D. in 1997. Afterwards, I returned to CDF as a postdoctoral researcher at The Johns Hopkins University and then the University of Michigan. Fermilab was getting ready for a new run of the upgraded Tevatron, and there many additions and improvements being developed for CDF. I helped build the online charged-particle track trigger, worked on offline tracking software, and then led the team that developed the experiment's muon reconstruction software. Once the data started rolling in, I worked in top-quark physics, leading one of CDF's analysis groups on the topic and contributing to several measurements of top-quark production and properties.
I joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an assistant professor in 2004, and was promoted to associate professor in 2009. Since there was an existing DØ group here, I switched over from CDF to DØ. But I also started working on the CMS experiment at the LHC. It has been an amazing ride, culminating in the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. I was in Melbourne, Australia for the ICHEP conference when the discovery was announced (and wrote about it extensively for this blog); this will always be one of the great memories of my career. The discovery of the Higgs was great but ultimately unsurprising. We're hoping for some real surprises when the LHC starts running again in 2015, at even higher collision energies. My own physics interests these days are in the interplay between the top quark and the Higgs boson.
I have also been very involved in computing for the experiment. Nebraska has the honor of hosting a Tier-2 computing center for CMS, one of only seven in the US; we are responsible for providing resources for data analysis and simulation production. After spending nearly ten years as leader of the Tier-2 program in the United States, I became the manager of Software and Computing for the U.S. CMS Operations Program in January 2015. Our 60 FTE team uses an $18M annual budget to provide the U.S. share of computing resources to CMS, and to support the development and operation of software and computing facilities that make the research program possible.
Having grown up near New York City, it never occurred to me that I might live in Nebraska, but here I am! I met my wife Sarah in Lincoln; she is a professor of English and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Our children Eva and Moses were born in 2006 and 2008, and they are a total delight but also a lot of work. Sarah and I are both very busy with our day jobs during the school year; there are quite a lot of things to keep up with as a professor, but the payoff is that the job is a rich canvas to paint on. We are deeply involved in our various communities, academic and otherwise, around Lincoln, but our family also enjoyed our sabbatical stay at CERN in 2013-14.