A Tale of Two States: The Weeks in Review, March 26 – April 8, 2017

Traveling from Dallas to Hartford, Connecticut.

The last couple of weeks have been quite a mix, with the first one being not-so-interesting (just another week at work in Dallas) and the second one being overly exciting (travel to Connecticut, visits to my old public high school, and a concert in Boston. I don’t handle lack of sleep like I used to, so with so much running around I’ve had a strange mix of fun and exhaustion over the past week.

Closing the door on the fridge

Our treacherous refrigerator.

The refrigerator that caused so much irritation in my last multi-week retrospective is now replaced. That was one of the easier home chores I’ve had to deal with in the last 6 weeks (don’t ask me about getting the fence stained . . . waiting for the company tasked with doing it was an exercise in some kind of new “slow repair” movement and still wasn’t done by the time I departed for Connecticut, despite it being in the works for over a month). The old fridge was taken away without much ceremony, and the new one installed quickly and efficiently by a crew of guys working with Lowes. It was really nice to be able to keep food cold or, heck, even frozen when needed, and most importantly at a temperature where there was less risk of growing new and unwelcome friends.

Meeting with the SMU Society of Physics Students

I had my first formal meeting with students from our Society of Physics Students (SPS) chapter at SMU. I am hoping to do a lot more of these in the future, because it’s nice to meet with the members and leaders of that group in a formal way and to discuss current events in the department. For me, the purpose of the meeting was to make sure the students knew that there were a number of important and high-profile events coming up in the department – Honors Convocation, special talks by guests like physicists Dan Akerib and upcoming events tied to our graduation ceremony. The students, in turn, reminded me of an upcoming visit by NIST physicist Dave Seiler, which I hope will be a good chance for our undergraduates and graduate students to interact with an experienced scientist from outside the particle physics community to learn more about careers and other opportunities after they earn their degrees.

As always, I was grateful to my colleague and friend, Randy Scalise, who is the faculty mentor for the SPS chapter at SMU. It was nice of him to let me hijack a meeting with the SPS and make sure we all knew the schedule of events in the department over the next 45 days.

Jodi Returns Home

Jodi returned home from 5 weeks at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. She was delayed by various factors into Dallas, and arrived 3 hours later than planned. Nonetheless, it was very good to be at home together again, even if briefly. I left for Connecticut just two days after she came back to Dallas.

To Connecticut

Besides visiting Jodi at PNNL a few weeks ago, this semester has been a non-stop work fest. Between traveling to CERN and Argonne Laboratory to work with my students and post-docs, concluding a post-doc hire,  beginning my position as co-leader of the ATLAS Hbb Software Framework Group, and working on the book with my co-authors Frank and Jim and our editor/publisher, Otto, I’d been running around from thing to thing to thing for months. This week, I took a pause. I came back to Connecticut, where I grew up, to spend time with my mom and dad. I had also arranged to visit the classroom of an English and Journalism teacher at my old high school, Haddam-Killingworth High School (HK). I was also going to get together with my dear old friend from high school, Eric, to see a show up in Boston. It all sounded like a very nice break from physics work, that was for certain.

My parents are doing well, and we’ve taken time to go our to dinner together and get some things setup for them at their house. Last week, before I left for  Connecticut, I also did “cold outreach” to some of the science faculty at HK. I got responses back and we arranged it so that I would come into some of the classes and speak with students about physics, my own path through life after high school, and how to make the transition into college after high school.

Speaking with Mr. Keck’s first period media literacy class. (Photo by Barth Keck)

So this past Tuesday, I started my visits to HK. Tuesday was devoted to Mr. Keck, the teacher with whom I had originally made arrangements. His classes were special, however. The first class I met with was a media literacy course, and my role in speaking there was to discuss science, the scientific method, and how that can be used to enhance media literacy – especially on news items with direct connections to scientific findings. The class was awesome. I got lots of good questions. I used material from our course at SMU on the “Introduction to the Scientific Method” to stimulate scientific thinking. It was a lot of fun.

In the second period class, the focus instead turned to college and what making the transition is like. We also discussed strategies for being successful in college, including the way in which learning primarily happens outside of class time and the importance of meeting with faculty as much as you can outside the classroom. I met some students in that class who were also interested in STEM careers, or just science in general, and tried to make some connections with them to help out in the future.

On Thursday, I started my visits with the science classes. Mrs. Lund was the teacher who had extended the primary invitation to me, but her classes in first and second periods were joined by those of Mr. Leavings. I spoke to a packed room both periods, talking about my path after high school, physics, particle physics, and the opportunities available to them if they are interested in physics as a career path. I took questions, especially about college applications, getting off to a good start in college, the importance of fretting over college pedigree (or not), and other related issues. I again stressed the importance of forging relationships with peers and faculty outside the classroom time, and the importance of taking initiative to keep ahead of your work between class periods.

These first two class periods went as promised by the teachers at HK: students came into the science classroom, I presented a picturebook of particle physics material, and then we did questions and open discussion. When I returned to repeat this for the last two periods of the day, I got a small surprise: the science teachers had decided this was going so well, they wanted a bigger space in which to do it, so they reserved the auditorium. So there I was, laptop on a podium, slides projected on a screen above the stage, microphone in hand, in front of two periods of students seated in the front sections of the high school auditorium. It was nerve-wracking, but awesome. That is not how I envisioned that day going – it CERTAINLY exceeded expectations!

I’m told that my visit will be written up in various forums: perhaps part of it will appear in Mr. Keck’s next column for the site ctnewsjunkie.com; there might also be a mention of it in the letter home to parents from the school principal; and there is a chance of the science portion of my visit being written up in a local newsletter for one of the towns.

All I know is this: I don’t live in this school district, so I don’t pay taxes to support my old public schools. Being able to come back after 23 years and share my experiences and perspective with students sitting in seats where I once sat is important to me. I thought I was smart when I was in high school; I got disillusioned of that when I got to college and met other people who were smart in different ways at different schools. I wasn’t quite prepared for that reality, though I’d been warned of it. In high school, I was bullied by other kids, but I also had great friends. I learned better how to make friendships in college, but I wasn’t quite prepared for that, either. (is anyone?) Like all teenage lives, mine felt more complicated then it was and seemed more confusing than it was. What helped me through it was a great family, reliable friends, and teachers willing to talk to me about my classroom interests and life beyond those interests. That kept me on track.

But I never met a professor until I visited colleges and universities, and didn’t really understand professors until I was in college full-time. If my visiting any of these classes can help even one student feel more confident about how to interact with faculty, or choosing a career in science, or making a decision about a news story, or even navigating the first month at college, then I feel like I have given something back to my school. And I would love to do it again.

To Massachusetts

After the whirlwind classroom visits of ever-increasing scale on Thursday, I went back to my parents’ house, changed, and hit the road for Massachusetts. I was to meet a friend of mine at his home there and we were to drive to Boston for dinner and a concert. I haven’t seen my buddy, Eric, since we were together in Barcelona back in 2015. It was nice to get out, and I was happy that he could take a break from being a dad and a husband for a night to hang out with an old high school pal. We reminisced, talked about what we knew about various people we knew in high school and college, and enjoyed a great show by the alt-country band Son Volt at The Paradise in Boston.

Son Volt, the amazing alt-country band, rocks out on stage at The Paradise in Boston. They played many songs from their new album while revisiting old favorites, including songs from past bands of the front man, Jay Farrar.

This was probably the latest I’ve stayed up in years, apart from intentionally doing so to travel abroad. The show started at 10pm and we left for his house after midnight, making it back to his home around 1:45am. Nonetheless, it was an awesome day and I was super-happy to be able to do something out-of-the-ordinary for a change.

I can also highly recommend the new album by Son Volt, “Notes of Blue.” It has their classic alt-country backbone, with a mix of acoustic and electric guitar melodies, gritty slide guitar, and wistful vocals calling out unbroken lyrics that span the breaks between verse and chorus. They even came back for a second encore featuring their rendition of the Rolling Stones classic, “Happy.”

I was pretty over-exhausted on Friday, having only snagged 5 hours of sleep, so I decided to head home earlier than I planned on Friday to avoid being sleepy behind the wheel of the car as the coffee began to wear off. It meant less time with Eric and his family, but at less risk to life and limb on the road.

Last day

This is my last day on Connecticut. Tomorrow, very early, I return home to Dallas. On Tuesday afternoon, I depart for London. While I enjoy the research opportunities that these occasional leaves afford, they also demand a lot of travel to actually do that research. I have to admit, there is a part of me that looks forward to being more anchored in Dallas by teaching duties this fall. But fall is a very long way away.


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