The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

TAUP Journal: Day Zero

To Vienna

I write this while sitting on a plane flying just south of Ottawa. We are early in the flight. We departed Toronto a little behind schedule and will land in Vienna, Austria around 08:30 local time tomorrow. The in-flight meal has not been served, and we are in the quiet phase between takeoff and dinner. This is a perfect time to practice writing … and to address a long-standing problem in my life as a writer: I have been truly absent from my blog for a very long time.

Moments like these – sitting on a plane with nothing but time on your hands – are an oddly perfect opportunity for some self-reflection. As I sit here, I am about 1 year into one of the largest career changes of my life. The only bigger one was that moment in 1989 or 1990 when, thinking I would grow up to be an author, I stumbled on physics. In that year, my first year in high school, I had a mental transition from imagining my life as a writer to imagining my life as a scientist. 

A Year Ago

Circumstances in 2022 provided an opportunity to make a change I have long sought: getting away from collider physics. Or, perhaps, more to the point, I had a chance to get away from the Large Hadron Collider. When Jodi was offered the position of Executive Director of SNOLAB in Sudbury, Ontario, I found myself at a very attractive crossroads. During conversations very early in the process of applying for that position, Jodi and I made clear what we were, as a partnership, willing to accept and to not accept should she be offered the position. I made my attitude quite clear: if offered, and if she wants the position, she should accept without regard to the impact it would have on me. 

The only thing that really mattered to me was that she and I not be apart for the term of her appointment. Living separate lives for five or more years – she in Canada and me in Texas – was repugnant to me. I imagined at least two outcomes for myself: taking an extended leave of absence without pay from my faculty position at Southern Methodist University for the 5 years of the Executive Director contract, or resigning entirely from academics with the understanding that I was ending my career in physics. In the former scenario, I imagined setting down my teaching and research and pausing my work until our time in Canada was concluded. In the latter scenario, I imagined the complete freedom to maintain the home, raise our cats, and work on that full-time writing career I had imagined as a child.

There were, of course, other potential outcomes. I merely lacked the imagination, or hubris, or confidence, to consider them at the time. I might have been invited to apply for a faculty position in Canada, or for some job even at SNOLAB. I’m not the kind of person who feels the strong need to assume the world owes me anything, regardless of my record. In fact, you can make a sound argument that my lifelong struggle with imposterism – the looming sense that you have evaded detection as a fraud but that one day you will be discovered – had again reared its ugly head.

A personal history of imposterism

At the risk of wandering far afield of my intent in this journal entry, let me pause on imposterism for a moment. I have felt the dark presence of this mental phenomenon since 1994 when I entered Yale University. I stumbled immediately off the starting block in the marathon of my physics career. I was deeply interested in becoming a physicist, and so of course I would major in physics. However, I was mathematically underprepared for this journey. It’s not the fault of my public school; they offered calculus, and I could (in principle) have taken that class. However, a fateful decision in 8thgrade (combined with my interest in liberal arts) put calculus out of my reach unless I had been willing to sacrifice other courses to hasten my path to calculus. But who, in 8th grade, knows that they should have calculus before they graduate high school if they are to be on the path to their future? At the time, I was going to be a writer. Only a year later did that path change.

I took pre-algebra in 8th grade, instead of algebra. I took algebra in 9th grade, then geometry in 10th grade. Another course in more advanced algebra came in 11th grade, leading to pre-calculus in 12th grade. Each of these was a 1-year sequence. The original offset in 8th grade set me on a collision course with my first year at Yale.

This, combined with what is likely some very bad advice, planted the seeds of imposterism. I was advised upon arriving at Yale that if I wanted to major in physics I should immediately enroll in first-semester, calculus-based introductory physics. Having no calculus, and with calculus II as a pre-requisite to this course, I was advised to enroll in calculus II and teach myself calculus I in the three days before classes started. This I tried. I made a miserable effort at it.

I have the grades to prove it. As part of my recent effort to seek permanent residency in Canada, I had to order my university transcripts. I had most of them in my records, but I was missing my final semester. Now I have a complete copy of all my time at Yale, and my memory agrees with the data. I was lucky to pull of a C-level grade in calculus II, and introductory physics did not go much better. This stumble set me on a tumbling path through math and physics courses that continued right into senior year.

My struggles in coursework led to the second blow that forever implanted imposterism deep in my brain. Upon applying for graduate schools I was advised, by my excellent research advisor, to seek a letter of recommendation from one of my course instructors. However, I had failed to really impress any of them. I recalled that, during my sophomore year, one of my professors sent a letter to the Dean of my residential college (the leader tasked with our academic well-being) noting my improvement in his course. I decided to seek a letter from that professor.

I met him in his office and made my request. I am sure I was nervous and awkward. I was generally a mess back then. His response sticks with me to this day. It was something close to, “Look, I will write you a letter of recommendation. But I don’t think you should be a particle physicist. I think you’d be happier doing something else.”

I went from imposter seedlings to a mature banyan tree of imposterism.

I got my letters. I then got offers from two graduate schools. I went on to flourish at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as I matured, found my footing in my coursework, and learned to embrace peer mentoring. But the nagging sense that I am a phony has lingered, the shading branches of some tall and wide tree, ever since.

Back to the future

Which brings me back to 2022. SMU was not particularly interested in maintaining us as faculty members should Jodi accept the position at SNOLAB. There seemed to be a lack of understanding of the value of having an international laboratory director in the faculty. In the wake of that blow were expressions of interest from at least one Canadian university in hiring us both as full faculty. After a difficult decision-making period, we accepted positions at Queen’s University. At the same time, I was invited to interview for the position of Research Group Manager at SNOLAB. 

I was personally excited for two reasons. The first was basic: in such a pair of positions, I would be able to continue to develop and use skills in management, organization, and planning. I could remain an academic, albeit one seconded to SNOLAB for the duration of the position there. The second was more deep: I could finally break away from the LHC.

I had been profoundly unhappy about joining the LHC program since my first day at CERN in 2009, when I was told by a group leader of a system on ATLAS that my interest in service in their group was not necessary; all tasks were covered and there was nothing for me to contribute. I was immediately unwelcome on the LHC, and that left a deep mark on me. A subsequent series of missteps, partly of my own making due to naïveté about life on an LHC experiment, created a sequence of painful stumbles. Emotionally, I never recovered even as I thrived intellectually. 

Thanks to excellent colleagues who mentored me into the culture and physics of ATLAS, I was able to find a home in searches for non-standard-model Higgs particles. This would later lead into measurements of the observed Higgs particle’s properties, and ultimately to my contribution to the direct observation of the Higgs and bottom quark interaction. While my service duties in my small home department grew larger and took more time away from research, I was constantly buoyed by the students and post-docs with whom I worked and by the physics we were investigating. But the sting of the culture in the LHC … or, at least, in ATLAS … never left me. From 2010 onward I was always looking for a way out. But the LHC was really the only frontier collider game in town.

It was crystal clear to me, after the discovery of the Higgs particle and lack of observation of anything else, that collider physics was likely coming to a natural inflection point. Astrophysics, however, was poised to answer more and more of the biggest questions in the field. I became deeply interested in a move to astroparticle research.

Failures to pivot

I tried to initiate some pivots in the years between then and 2022. The first was some technical work in about 2015 in Jodi’s laboratory, where I cut my teeth on radon and the mitigation of radon contamination of materials using electric fields. This was basic work but was interesting and could have led to other opportunities if the demands of the LHC had not continually increased. During that period, I took a series of leadership positions in the LHC program, all of them valuable but demanding. I had to set aside my astroparticle interests or risk losing momentum and funding on the LHC side.

In 2019, Jodi and I pursued the idea of bringing part of an axion search experiment to SMU by joining a new effort in that field. This required gaining experience with the technical aspects of these new instruments. The pandemic intervened, however, as we were planning how to gain that experience. It was not possible to travel, and thus not possible to do anything practical. For me, that put the kibosh on another pivot from collider physics to astroparticle physics.

Instead, the pandemic lockdowns afforded a chance for computationally inclined physicists to flourish. This allowed me to begin contributing to the Electron-Ion Collider community, and those years from 2020-2022 were some of the best of my time as a faculty member at SMU. I was able to begin defining my own interests, independent of the megalithic LHC. I found a niche that was opened by my contributions to Higgs and bottom quark physics. I was really happy … but still, I had that feeling that I had been too long in collider physics, even as I was planning a move away from the LHC. Being part of a new collider was exhilarating … but part of me still longed for astrophysics.

Moments of transition

The opportunities at SNOLAB, Queen’s University, and in Canada came at a moment of transition. In that sense, though the move was jarring, they were perfectly timed. I still regret how fast we had to leave SMU. The time between the public outcome of SNOLAB’s search and the start of Jodi’s position was just 2 months. While we worked hard to help our students land on their feet it was not a perfect situation. The stress of that still haunts me, even though a lot of good things (exceptionally good things) have happened over the last year.

Changing fields, from collider physics to underground science, was a significant transition for me. Some things were easy. Generally speaking, management is management. There are important details about Canada’s funding models that I am still learning, but strategic planning, cooperative leadership, and communication in an organization are generally the same in the U.S. and Canada. 

If anything, the Canadian way was a significant and welcome change from the U.S. approach. In the U.S., people seem to work very hard to outdo and one-up one another, even in ostensibly cooperative situations. Americans do not prioritize their family and themselves over work, and it shows in how few breaks Americans take and how few holidays and vacations we truly celebrate (e.g., with time off work). Canada, in contrast, generally starts from a more cooperative and inclusive approach to collaboration. People are individual and distinct, but it’s more rare for physics colleagues to constantly be adversarial or one-upping in their relationships. I have observed fewer petty rivalries in my new institutions. 

I feel much more at home in Canada in 2023 than I have in the U.S. in over a decade. Each nation seems on a very different trajectory, and while both can boast good and bad, I feel safer, wiser, and healthier in Canada than I did in the U.S.

Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the mass shooting at the outlet mall in Allen, Texas, the city we used to call “home”. Just months after we moved to Canada, a person used military-style weapons, equipment, and tactics to attack the mall and killed, seemingly preferentially, dark-skinned people. This one incident neatly sums up the malevolent forces that have been unleashed in the last decade by a particular strain of American fascism. These killings, motivated by race or other discriminating factors, happen so often in the U.S. now that “fatigue”, rather than “horror”, is the word most often bandied about when such killings happen.

To live in a place where there is a concerted effort to spread misinformation, build policy on that misinformation, and then blame, suppress, or kill the “other”, takes a huge toll on a by-stander. I did not understand that toll until Texas (and then Oklahoma) were in our literal rearview mirror. As we journeyed north during our move to Canada in July, 2022, Jodi and I both experienced a profound and deep sense of relief. We had escaped. We escaped the brutal high temperatures that dominate for 6-7 months of the year and trap you indoors. We escaped the inhumane political climate. We escaped the hypocrisy of a state that claims to value individual freedom but delights in its homeowner associations and selective definitions of human rights. 

For me, it was also a personal escape from collider physics into astroparticle physics. I was starting over again. I recognize that this brings its own stress … and with that a renewed sense of imposterism. But I was confident that I could claw my way back into scientific productivity with sufficient time, patience from my new colleagues, and a chance to learn and prove myself.

A sense of a future

Which brings me to this plane ride. A year into this new chapter of life in Sudbury, Ontario, I have more of a sense of imposterism than I have had in a long time. I feel overwhelmed by our new life in both positive and negative ways. I am thrilled to be able to finally work on hardware, to help build an experiment (PICO-40L and soon PICO-500, each a dark matter experiment). I am relieved to no longer be pigeon-holed as a “computational physicist”. I am proud to use those skills, helping to process data from the HALO experiment (a supernova observatory) and monitor the well-being of PICO-40L, but I no longer feel trapped in that skill set. I am excited to be able to work with outstanding colleagues in a supportive, collaborative, and world-class environment.

There have been moments of extreme stress. My work permit was in error when it was issued, and I made a bad choice that led to a 3-month odyssey to get it fixed, delaying my first paycheck. Importing the Chevy Volt to Canada was a long series of stages, missteps, and dead ends that took nearly a year to resolve. It was tough to be a one-car family when our schedules became radically different (we recently solved that problem with a second car, but financial pressures delayed that). It was tough to sell a home in Texas and buy a home in Ontario before the laws for foreign nationals changed regarding property ownership (as of December of 2022, foreign nationals were barred from buying property for two years). Jodi and I swapped responsibilities to make sure she could concentrate on her far more challenging job. I handle finances and a range of domestic responsibilities like cleaning and dishwashing. 

Having all of this on my plate is no different than when Jodi had those responsibilities on her plate, but she is better at handling many competing tasks. I am not as skilled as her at this. I had an emotional and physical meltdown recently, and while I have recovered from that it’s also true that many of the underlying stresses have not really changed. My lingering imposterism does not make any of this better.

But here I am, on a plane. I am headed to Vienna for the international conference on topics in astroparticle and underground physics (TAUP). I will present a brief talk on, a community database for radioisotope assays of materials – essential for building experiments with low contamination. I will deliver a poster on new and preliminary results from 10 years of data from HALO. I am becoming a part of this community, and I hope to prove valuable as a colleague and a collaborator in astroparticle physics. I am excited to finally feel like a physicist in this domain, and I am excited to see what I will learn from my peers at this major conference.