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Featured Scientist - Ron Ray

From the Spring-Summer 1997 sciencelines

Ronald Ray (Ron) a Senior Staff Physicist has been with Fermilab for six years. Ron is currently responsible for the Teacher Research Associates (TRAC) Program through Fermilab.

Please describe your position at Fermilab.

I am a Senior Staff Physicist in the Particle Physics Division at Fermilab. Most staff physicists have "lab jobs" where they are responsible for helping to make the place run; and research responsibilities which are largely self-directed. My lab job just recently became the oversight of the TRAC teacher program. I had no previous involvement in running the program before this year. At first I viewed it as a minor annoyance which was going to detract from my research time, but after talking with some previous TRAC participants and hearing first-hand how valuable it had been to them, I became a real supporter of the program. There are so many reasons why it's important for the public to have a better understanding of science, and teachers have tremendous leverage because of their ability to reach a large number of students each year.

Please tell the readers a little more about your research activities.

My research for the past five years has been centered on the KTeV experiment. KTeV is a state-of-the-art experiment which is probing the origins of something known as CP violation, one of the fundamental mysteries of high energy physics at the moment. CP violation has been proposed as a possible mechanism for explaining the asymmetry between matter and antimatter in the universe and is one of the most important "loose ends" in our overall understanding of nature. Over the past five years I have been involved in the design and construction of the detector. We finally began taking data in the Fall of 1996 and will continue until September of 1997. Once data taking is complete we will spend several years analyzing the data.

What do you enjoy most about your position?

My mother once commented that I became a physicist because it's a job where you can dress like a bum. I'm not sure if that's exactly true, but there is a certain informality inherent to this field which I enjoy. The other aspects to the field which I enjoy are the ability to travel (I've pretty much been around the world many times over), the constant exposure to interesting people and ideas and the fact that no two days are ever the same.

Tell us about your experiences before your position at Fermilab.

I received my Ph.D. from the University of California at Irvine and spent four years after that at Northwestern University as a Postdoctoral Research Associate.

This is the typical path which physicists follow before they obtain permanent positions. As a graduate student, I worked on an experiment at Fermilab's sister laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland known as CERN. As a Postdoc at Northwestern, I worked on an experiment at Fermilab. I helped to build a detector for a new experiment and supervised several graduate students. This began what has now been an 11-year association with Fermilab.

What were your undergraduate years like?

I played basketball during my first year in college, but did little else. It was after this first year that it dawned on me that there was little chance that I would ever earn a living at the sport. At that point I got serious about school, but I was a five-year undergraduate because of that first lost year. I enjoyed those five years though. Physics was a fun major. I learned a lot in those few years, mostly just sitting in my room by myself doing problems. That's how you really learn things.

Please tell me about your exposure to science and math in school and what sparked your interest in this type of career.

I had physics when I was a junior in high school and I liked it. I think a big part of it was that it was difficult but I could do it. I recall being impressed that I could calculate properties of simple electronic circuits, build the circuit and then measure exactly what I had calculated. I had a good physics teacher in high school. He was not a great teacher, but he was good enough to not turn me off to the subject and he let people progress at their own rates.

What advice would you give to students who want to enter a career in science?

Don't do it unless you really love it. In order to extract satisfaction from this field you really have to be able to see the big picture. Much of the day-to-day activities in which you find yourself involved have little to do with the grand notion of science that many people have. There have been many days when I have found myself laying on the floor of our experimental hall for hours plugging in cables or lifting heavy power supplies. Without those cables and power supplies there is no experiment, no data and therefore no science. So you do these things with the big picture in mind.

Share with us some of your hobbies.

At any given time of the year I'm usually involved in some sport. I play basketball, volleyball, softball and golf on a regular basis. Sometimes it is difficult to find the time, but I make every effort because it's a way of retaining my sanity

What were the responsibilities of some of the teachers you have worked with at Fermilab?

During the 5 years when we were building the KTeV detector, we had a number of teachers and summer students who worked with us over the summer and contributed in various ways. We had a teacher who worked on our laser calibration system where we use a laser to distribute light through optical fibers to various detector elements for calibration purposes. He setup much of the hardware and wrote software to control the laser and some filter wheels. We had another teacher who spent a summer writing software for our digital pipeline, an important component necessary to read out data from our detector. We currently have a teacher who monitors the quality of the data coming from the detector everyday and alerts us to problems. The way in which teachers contribute depends on their particular skills and our particular needs at any given time.