Fermilab Student and Postdoc Association talks with Bryan Ramson

In February, Fermilab Student and Postdoc Association officer Anna Hall chatted with scientist Bryan Ramson about his research, journey and experiences in the field of physics and the work he’s done and is doing to improve the accessibility of physics, especially for underrepresented groups.

As a student at the University of Michigan, Bryan studied high- and medium-energy nuclear physics. For the last two-and-a-half years, he’s been a Fermilab research associate, conducting neutrino research on DUNE and NOvA.

Anna Hall: Tell us a bit about what you work on.

Bryan Ramson: On NOvA I work on the semi-inclusive neutral-current pion analysis. I also participate a bit in data quality. On DUNE I participated in the photon detection system on one of the prototype detectors, the ProtoDUNE single-phase detector. I’ve been lightly involved in the development in the photon detection system for one of DUNE’s far detector modules, and I’m also looking to work on one of the other far detector modules in the future.

How did you get into physics?

I got interested when I took a class in high school with a teacher who had a master’s in physics. Before that I wanted to be a computer scientist because I liked programming, and I was just super into computers and video games. Then I took that physics course, and it was like, OK, never mind, it looks like I’m doing physics now.

What I liked about programming is that when you’re programming a computer, you sort of have control over the universe within the computer. But when you learn about how things work with physics, you sort of have some control over what happens in the real universe, and I thought that was really interesting. I knew that at any point in time I could always switch back to computer programming, and I still have that option for the future.

You’re a postdoc here at Fermilab now. Do you know what you want to do next?

I have a couple options. I’d like to stay involved in physics proper, be that at a national lab or a university. I’d like to find a tenure-track position somewhere in academia. If that doesn’t work out — if I don’t continue in physics proper — I’d be interested in working in the defense industry. I’d also be interested in moving into AI research or research on Wall Street. I’m pretty flexible in what I would want to do in the private sector.

I would prefer to be able to continue working on what I have been working on, which would be preparing for DUNE and doing interesting physics there and on NOvA. I’m also super interested in neutrino-nuclei cross sections, so I’d be especially interested in opportunities that would allow me to study that, including building new detectors. I even have a few ideas for making a bubble chamber and putting it in the DUNE beam to see if we can accurately measure cross sections on light nuclei.

In getting to where you are, what adversity have you faced?

Oh, man, there’s been tons of adversity. I’m from New Orleans, and on my first day of college, Hurricane Katrina happened. I was just starting school in Washington, DC, I went to Howard University and I couldn’t talk to my family because of the catastrophe. My cell phone didn’t work at all because, at least back then, when you have a phone from out of state, it routes your call from the local towers in your home state, and because all of those were inoperable, I couldn’t make calls even though I was in Washington.

I didn’t have money for books or other essentials. Being from New Orleans, I had never been in a cold climate for an extended period of time, so I also didn’t realize how cold things could get and that I would need a winter coat. Luckily, there was a donation drive where I was able to get a coat.

That first year of undergrad, I was so distracted by the entire debacle that was Hurricane Katrina that I received a C in my first physics course. We lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. The only person in my family who didn’t lose their house was my mother. We were able to get insurance money and rebuild, but that was not clear at the time, and it really took a toll on me during my first year.

Did your family all have to relocate because of the storm?

All of my family lived in New Orleans, and then after the hurricane, they spread out throughout the United States. Some stayed in New Orleans. Some didn’t evacuate when the order went out, so they were trapped and had to take refuge in the Superdome. Some moved to Houston after the storm, some moved to the Washington-Baltimore area. Some moved to Florida, some to Arkansas, some to Tennessee. They went all over.

Hurricane Katrina was one of the first instances of adversity I saw. Getting into grad school was difficult. Then I experienced racism in graduate school. I won’t get into detail there, but I will say that it is difficult to be a Black person in physics.

One of the things that actually saved my career in physics was going to Fermilab as a graduate student. I came here in 2013 as a third-year student and worked on SeaQuest, which is a fixed target Drell-Yan nuclear physics experiment. That was what actually made me stay in physics, coming to Fermilab and working with peers who were happy to have me around.

How has life over the last year been?

Even before the George Floyd protests started, the isolation had a significant effect on me. I’ve just been in my house by myself trying to find ways to stay sane. That usually involves a lot of exercise, a lot of reading, a lot of journaling. I think what the pandemic has taught me is how to really get down to the essentials of things, and I’ve  found out what’s important and what isn’t. From there I think I’ve been able to figure out how to give more focus to the things that are important to me.

What has inspired you throughout your physics career?

A few people. First, one of my mentors, Homer Neal. He was a University of Michigan professor and  a large driver of the creation of the University of Michigan’s ATLAS group. Unfortunately, he died in 2018. He was a vital mentor, making sure I finished my Ph.D. and got to where I needed to go. We had discussions every month about the state of physics and where things were going. He was really helpful in giving me a large overview of the field and in which ways I should be moving in order to be effective.

Another person, Christine Aidala, was an absolutely amazing advisor. She was so encouraging and so helpful and gave me space to learn, which is very important. I find that Black students typically don’t get the same space to learn as others do in that they aren’t afforded the time or energy to be bad at things. In order to get good at something, you need time to learn it, and that means you are going to be bad at it for a while before you get an understanding of it. So she was very helpful and understanding and very good at making sure that I not only finished my Ph.D., but that I wasn’t made to feel like a bad student because I didn’t understand things on the first try or as quickly as my peers.

At Fermilab, I would say that Alex Himmel has been amazing. He is very similar to my advisor in that he gives me space to learn things. He is an effective guide and a communicator on where I should be moving and putting my energy to more effectively advance my career. I can’t stress enough how helpful he has been in the last two to three years in just understanding what it’s been like for me, being introduced to the world of neutrinos in general for the first time. I’ve only been a neutrino physicist for the last two or three years.

There are other Fermilab scientists: Jen Raaf and Brian Nord, Jessica Esquivel, Tammy Walton and Doug Berry have also all been supportive in the last year or so..

What hobbies or interests outside of physics do you have?

I’m really into reading and going to the gym. I used to play a lot of video games, but I don’t do that as much anymore because, more recently, since I’ve come to Chicago, I’ve picked up real estate. I bought an apartment building in March 2019 and rehabbed it, and I currently live in it. It takes a lot of energy to manage it, but I am currently looking into new real estate projects.

That’s cool!

It’s a lot of work! I’m interested in starting up a couple of other businesses, but we’ll see how much time I have to do that. Probably more effective delegation will help.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I think that since it is Black History Month, that it is important we talk about the work that Jessica, Brian, Doug, Tammy Walton and I have done on changenowphysics.com After the killing of George Floyd, all of the Black scientists at the lab got together submitted a call to action to improve relations, retention and diversity in the lab. That work is ongoing, and it is described on our website changenowphysics.com. If you are reading this, please go to the website, read about our calls to action, and consider supporting us.

I’m also part of a group of physicists as a supporting member that put together Black in Physics. We had a Black in Physics Week back in October during which we highlighted Black physicists among other things, so you should check that out as well.

Anna Hall is a University of Virginia graduate student on the NOvA experiment and Fermilab Student and Postdoc Association officer.