SLAC physicist encourages local AAUW scholarship winners

Courtesy of Allyson Johnson
The American Association of University Women’s recent luncheon included, from left, Tech Trek scholarship winners Kate Stone, Grace Cai, Alexandra Segubiensese, Souf Rivkin, Madison Chin and Taylor Ewan; and AAUW Executive Director Vicki Reeder. Not pictured is scholarship winner Astra Tulac.

Stanford University physicist Jana Thayer served as featured speaker at a luncheon last week honoring middle-school girls from Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto who will attend the Grace Hopper Tech Trek Science Camp at Stanford in the summer.

The luncheon, co-hosted April 28 by the Los Altos/Mountain View and Palo Alto branches of the American Association of University Women, encouraged the girls – recipients of camp scholarships provided by the branches – to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

Thayer, head of Linac Coherent Light Source Data Systems at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Laboratory, advised the middle-school girls in the audience to “find the thing you like and that you are good at, and do that thing.”

Thayer said she had always enjoyed building things, primarily model cars, but noted that “science and math weren’t my best subjects.” She was inspired to study physics in high school after attending a weekend science camp at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory outside Chicago, where she received hands-on experience with a particle accelerator. Soon Thayer decided that writing English essays was easy.

“It was more fun to work hard with a team to answer a really difficult question – and science is all about asking questions,” she said.

Thayer worked on her doctoral thesis at Cornell University, where she had her own particle detector to work with. By this time, she was studying quarks, the subatomic particles from which atoms are constructed. She discovered that nothing matches that feeling of knowing the answer to a question no one else can answer.

“I was the very first person to know,” she recalled of her research.

Thayer was invited to SLAC to be part of a collaboration with Fermi, building the software and hardware for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. She said she loved the teamwork she found on the project.

“We had 200 people working together to figure out how to do things no one had done before,” Thayer said. “Science is all about teamwork, not about working alone in a lab.”

The launch of the rocket that carried the telescope into space was “one of the most thrilling moments of my life,” Thayer said, describing the suspense as the physicists who had worked on the project watched from a neighboring beach, “blue in the face from holding our breaths,” as the rocket seemed to hang forever on the pad before finally rising, gaining speed and streaking upward.

After the successful launch, Thayer headed the team that collected and analyzed data from tracking points in the U.S., Russia and Australia.

From the infinitely large universe to the world of subatomic particles, SLAC has continued to find work for Thayer. Her current project involves creating “light bombs” using the linear accelerator as a massive X-ray unit to study the interactions of subatomic particles during chemical reactions.

Thayer’s parting advice to the students: “Don’t be afraid to try something you have never done before. Use the skills you have and the resources you find around you, and you can build something that is all yours.”

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