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Featured Scientist - Regina Rameika

From the Fall 2000 sciencelines

Through this interview we'll meet another interestingscientist at Fermilab. Regina (Gina) Rameika is a senior scientist on the DONUT experiment.

Gina, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Please tell us about your position and recent projects at Fermilab.

My position at the Lab is a scientist. Scientist positions at the lab vary depending on personalinterests and the needs of the Lab. So, having been here for over 20 years, starting out as a postdoc, my jobs have changed from doing pure research to what we call lab service work as a junior scientist. You build a beamline, or install an experiment, or build a piece of a detector. So, I did service work and then I helped with management. I was deputy head of the research division for several years. As I got interested in neutrino physics I was able to break away from some of the management responsibilities and develop the neutrino program which eventually led me into management again. When you develop a new program, it needs to be managed. Because of the neutrino interest, we proposed the experiment to find the tau neutrino. Once that got approved and going, I was able to get away from all of my management responsibilities and just do the research. When we were taking data and analyzing it, I was just doing science, like a postdoc again. Now that a major piece of the analysis has been finished and is being published, I am getting back a little into management on the MINOS (Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search. MINOS is part of the NuMI (Neutrinos at the Main Injector) project at Fermilab, see:www.hep.anl.gov/NDK/Hypertext/numi.html) experiment. I like to change what I do, and I feel that the research part is the most fun, but the Lab needs people to do the other also. Right now, I'm in a transition of research on DONUT and management for MINOS.

These two experiments are high profile. Would you say neutrinos is an emphasis in particle physics now?

Neutrino experiments are certainly one of the major directions. My colleagues on the big collider detectors would say that the neutrinos are just a small aspect of the future of physics. Of course the collider experiments take most of the Lab's resources and are on the energy frontier running the machine at its maximum possible energy. That involves top physics, supersymmetry, searches for the Higgs and the fundamental electro-weak symmetry breaking. That's a big topic in high-energy physics.
Another big topic is neutrino physics and it can be done, not at the energy frontier, but what we call the intensity frontier. The new main injector with its capability of producing a lot of protons is able to provide us proton beams to do neutrino physics. That is why the Lab is able to go in that direction.
There is another big fundamental question in high-energy physics and that is the origin of CP violation. Those are the experiments done at the B factories and the Kaons. So, there is interest here at Fermilab to also do a Kaon experiment at the Main Injector.

Those are the three areas the Lab is pursuing which are the three main topics in high-energy physics these days. My interest is in the neutrinos.

The announcement of the tau neutrino recently was of wide general public interest. Please tell readers more about the evolution of this project.

The tau neutrino was an experiment running on the next to last fixed target, 800 GeV proton beam run. It's been pretty exciting for us. What people should realize is that we've been doing this experiment for some time and working on the analysis for three years. It's not like, one day, we just woke up and there were the tau neutrinos. When you make an announcement, it means you've gotten your results to the point that you're ready to show it to the community and your colleagues. So, it seems like we're sharing this great surprise, when we've really been working with it and known it for some time­just getting it polished up. It was exciting that so many people were thrilled by it. It made it exciting for us, but it was hard getting ready. Even though you can summarize it on five pieces of paper, it took us three years.

What does the announcement mean to the Standard Model and the overall understanding of the structure of matter?

It is a confirmation. We didn't find any surprises in the experiment. We found the events we thought we would find, no more, no less. Basically, it is a confirmation of the Standard Model. It would have been a surprise if we hadn't found the events. Then people would have been asking what's wrong, because the tau neutrino is one of the fundamental pieces that can't be missing or we would be way off. Things could be going on such as neutrino oscillations, but as far as the fundamental building blocksit had to be there. It (the tau neutrino) has its partner in the tau lepton and that's been seen for twenty-five years. It's been known that the tau lepton decays to a neutrino. So all the indirect evidence has been there. The reason we did the experiment was mostly just to get to the bottom line. You have to cross the "t's and dot the "i"s. You want to see that this particle, this neutrino of this flavor, comes in and interacts the same way as the other neutrinos. So, it was good science to say, okay, we're going to do this just to say we've done it and left no doubt. That was our motivation.

Now you're working on the MINOS experiment, again, a high-profile experiment that is so intriguing to people. Give us a bit of background on this experiment which is also studying the neutrino.

It is very different. We usually go to great lengths to not have particles leave the boundaries of the Lab. But here we deliberately build a beam and shoot it through the earth (to send this proton beam to northern Minnesota) so we can detect it far away. Now that's different. It's kinda fun. It will be a bit tense when we first turn it (the beam) on. We hope to see it up there. I have found in general when I talk to the public, they find it kinda neat. I always get worried about explaining how much something costs and whether it's worth it. When you do little experiments that don't cost as much, you usually don't have to defend yourself, but when you do big experiments, I feel like we should justify that it is worth doing.

Could you explain to us a bit about the project design and what you expect to find once you begin to send the beam up and a year or two down the road?

It's called a long base-line experiment. That means that you create the beam of neutrinos at one point and you go rather far away to look at them and see what's in the beam that you made.

The origin comes from the idea that perhaps there's something wrong with neutrinos. This evolved from some studies of the sun. Astrophysicists were studying the neutrino flux from the sun. They thought that if they measured it well, that would predict what was going on inside the center of the sun. The neutrinos were produced in the reaction of the sun. One thing lead to another, and yes, they could measure the neutrinos from the sun. So, you have a source of neutrinos ninety-three million miles away and a detector deep underground. You could see the neutrinos and you know they are solar neutrinos. Once you get your experiments tuned well enough, you realize that you can predict how many neutrinos should be coming to your detector but you only see half of that. For many years people were saying that it was the model that was wrong­that we just don't understand the sun. But, over the past twenty-five years it has become obvious that in fact the solar models aren't crazy; it's the neutrino flux that's missing. It was confirmed by another source of natural neutrinos - atmospheric neutrinos. Those are also created very far away and go to a detector. It implies the disappearance of neutrinos.

It was a very natural thing for people doing neutrino experiments to extend their thoughts. People for twenty or thirty years have made a neutrino source at an accelerator and put a detector half a mile away at the end of a site and did neutrino physics. Since the neutrinos don't interact, they're not going to go anywhere; you can actually send them through the earth to a detector very far away. You can model, or mimic the long distance and see if they actually are disappearing. So we'll make a beam of neutrinos here at the Lab and characterize what is in it. We'll make it so that it is one kind of neutrino­the muon neutrino. Then we're going to send the beam a good distance­in our case up to northern Minnesota where the detector will be located. We'll count the neutrinos that we see and measure their energy. In doing that we will be able to compare what we measure with what we predict. Given the assumption that if nothing happens to the neutrinos, you'll expect a certain distribution­a certain number. If you measure something different you'll be able to conclude that on their way there­the neutrino, which was a muon neutrino­turned into an electron neutrino or a tau neutrino.

Ideally down the road if you were sure that these were turning into tau neutrinos, you'd like to put in a detector, just like we did on our little experiment and see them. That's a long-term goal of this type of oscillation experiments. Right now we're limited to measuring what we'll make, measuring what we detect near range and measuring what we get at the end detector. We'll compare the data and look to conclude whether or not they oscillated or changed.

You do your best to design detectors that will do that. It isn't even clear that you have to put the detector underground. No matter where you go you want to shield it from cosmic rays, the naturally occurring neutrinos. You want to limit what you see to the neutrinos from your beam.

We're planning on having the detector up there ready at the same time that the beam is ready to be sent from here. So, the minute we turn on the beam here, you look for the signals up there. Depending on how much beam you're getting you should see a few events coming everyday, and it will start to build up. Our detector will be very very large and we expect hundreds to thousands of events per year.

Please tell us about yourself.

Besides being a scientist, I am a mother. I have two children, a boy, 16 and a girl, 12. I have a dog and two cats. My husband, Byron Lundberg, and I work together. In fact he was the spokesman for the DONUT experiment. So for a few years I actually worked for him.

With you and your husband working not only in the same field, but the same projects, both with intense scientific careers and family responsibilities, how do you make it all work?

(Laughing) We don't worry about when we clean our house. We don't worry about paying late fees on our bills. We don't worry about when we cut the grass. We give up certain priorities. I don't have much time other than with my family to pursue hobbies or other interests. I work and I take care of the kids.

On this project I did work with my husband, but we have not and do not always work together. Until DONUT, we worked on different things. For the past six years we have worked on this experiment together. It does make things intense. Our kids just think it's crazy sometimes. We get home from work, and we've been here all day and we talk about work. But we work independently on things, and when we get home it's time to share what we've been doing. We have a home office and the Lab provides an ISDN line to our house. When you can be connected at home, the lab gets a real bang for the buck. We can work on the weekends and work as late as we feel. There were times when I was getting ready for this big announcement that I would work at home for days at a time. I would sit there and work all day long. My son would come home from school and say, "Mom, you're in the same place that you were this morning." Our work really permeates our lives, but that is because we really like it and we think it is a good example to our kids that we have jobs we really love. We don't get up in the morning and say, "I don't want to go to work." We get up and are anxious to work and get our day started. I think it is a good role model for them. They may choose not to be scientists, but I hope they will have the same drive for their jobs­to have jobs they love.

Tell us about your background. Where did you go to grad school?

I was studying at Rutgers. My thesis adviser, Professor Tom Devlin convinced me to come to Fermilab after my second year in grad school. He worked in a rather small group for the time in 1978. It was about fifteen people and incredibly there were three women, a senior research scientist and two graduate students. This was very unusual. High-energy physics was very male-dominated. It was a very congenial group that not only worked together but rented a house in the village and lived together. This made it easy for a new person to come in, adapt and feel like a part of the group. The next summer I came here to work on the experiment. When you are accelerator-based, your work isn't at your university. I did that in 1979.

My husband was a student from the University of Wisconsin on the same collaboration. That's how we met. We met on our graduate thesis projects.

After my thesis I got a job at Fermilab as a postdoc.

Where did you get your undergraduate degree and what were those years like?

You don't know what you want to do when you start college. Once I decided in high school that I wasn't going to be a great politician or lawyer, I decided that I liked the field of psychiatry. I was a candy striper at our state psychiatric hospital. I was appalled at the situations. There seemed to be so much need. The doctors didn't seem to care and the people seemed abandoned. I was emotionally driven to care and I knew you had to have a medical degree to be a psychiatrist.

In my senior year in high school, I took physics and it was really interesting. I liked the idea that you could predict and measure. You had an equation and you could predict an answer. You had a ball to roll down an incline plane and you could do an experiment to measure it. I thought this was really neat. I just clicked with physics.

When I went to college I had this brainstorm that I would major in physics and minor in biology/chemistry. I would apply to medical school and this would distinguish me. I would be competing with all the kids that were only biology majors. That was my scheme. I took physics my freshman year and I liked it. It was pretty easy. I got A's. I took chemistry the next year and biology the summer and I did fine. In my junior year I got into the medical courses with Mammalian Anatomy. I could not do it. I could not memorize. You had to memorize every muscle ably in elementary school. You'll find a lot of girls will take science in high school, but they fall very quickly out of the programs in college. I wish they would just stick with it. It is really so much fun! I still can't imagine how fortunate I am to get up each day and do something I love. I think girls would find that they would do well and the sciences would do well to have more women in the fields too.

We're starting to have enough women that we do have influence, at projects and meetings, and the influence comes because we think about things differently. We attack a problem differently, maybe, honestly, less contentiously. I am quite impressed with the women that I see coming up now. They can take over management jobs. They can be very, very impressive.

The one thing that we can do, that I try to do now, is force retention at this level. If you get a Ph.D. and get "into the business," the environment should be made to be appealing so people don't drop out. So women don't say, "I can't do it. I can't balance my family , even though I went this far, I'm not going further." Or, they see that they will never advance­see the glass ceilings because you are a woman. There are not too many people who are at my level, but the ones who are can do our best to make sure that the younger ones will stay. There are now five women on our project from Fermilab, so we're doing better.

Are there strategies that can be supportive in education? Do you see advantages of all girl classes, or other groupings?

Sometimes there should be just groups of girls. Let them do it themselves, no boys in the group. But that is not good all the time. Keeping the girls and boys separate just puts off the inevitable and when women work with men, some of them are difficult, some of them aren't. I think girls need to learn to deal with this. Girls will experience a guy in a lab group who dominates the situation, who doesn't let you do anything. As a teacher, I would rotate these configurations to provide opportunities where it will be all boys and all girls working separately, but other times I would "force a mix." You might even learn something and be able to guide them. You might see groups of girls who work well alone, but then when they're working in the mixed groups, they have more difficulties, somehow you would have to intervene and help them to learn the skills they need.

Looking back at myself, I have to say, I wasn't afraid to work with the guys. When we were put into group situations, girls or boys, I would tend to take over. This went back even in 6th or 7th grade.