Barry's Bay to BaBar: The evolution of a physicist
Professor Patricia Burchat teaches several large introductory physics classes, freshman seminars, Sophomore College and core courses for physics majors.
Patricia Burchat, far right, and her sisters helped their father work on a home-built airplane in the garage and enjoyed using his materials and tools.
As a child growing up in Canada, Patricia Burchat never imagined herself as a professor of physics, let alone one at Stanford. "Back then I didn't even know what physics was exactly," said Burchat, the university's Gabilan Professor. But today, as one of the founders of the BaBar project at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), conducting research about fundamental questions in physics and cosmology, she is a long way from Barry's Bay, the small logging and farming community in Ontario that was her childhood home.
Burchat, who advises Stanford freshmen as a member of the Physics Department faculty, asks to be assigned first-generation college students because she is familiar with the challenges of learning the academic ropes. Not only were she and her eight brothers and sisters the first generation in their family to attend college, they were also the first to graduate from high school. The first high school in Barry's Bay was built in 1967, when Burchat was 9 years old.
It was at Madawaska Valley District High School that Burchat first discovered she had a knack for math and physical sciences, and she often tutored her fellow students in these subjects. Burchat may have inherited some of this talent from her father, who worked as a plant engineer for the local hospital. "Although he had only a ninth-grade education, he could fix anything—from the elevator to the X-ray machines to the emergency back-up power generator," Burchat recalls. "He had great mechanical intuition." From a very young age, Burchat remembers her father working on home-built airplanes in the garage. In helping him, she and her siblings enjoyed using the tools and materials.
In her high school homeroom, Burchat was fascinated with technical drawings on the walls that inspired her to sign up for a drafting class. The experience she gained in that class led to a job at the local land-surveying office, where she further learned to apply her mathematical and drafting skills.
Burchat first took a physics course to fulfill a high-school requirement. Though she enjoyed the two years of physics she studied in high school, when it came time to apply to colleges and choose a major, Burchat never considered physics. "Many first-generation college students feel pressure to study something practical that will get them a job," Burchat said. "What would I do with a physics degree?" The engineering science bachelor's degree offered at the University of Toronto, where she enrolled in 1977, provided the opportunity to combine engineering and science. Engineering also was something she was familiar with from her father's work.
"The engineering science major turned out to be a perfect gateway to the world of higher education," Burchat said, as the rigorous training in math and physics required for that degree helped her land a position as a research assistant at the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories in North Ontario the summer after her junior year of college. It was this experience that gave Burchat her first taste of research. "It wasn't work; it was fun," she recalled.
'A reductionist at heart'
Following graduation, her excitement for research led Burchat to a summer job at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Ill., where she worked for one summer, and then to Stanford University to pursue her doctorate in physics. "By the time I had arrived at Stanford, I knew I was a reductionist at heart," she said. "I am most interested in trying to understand nature at its most fundamental level."
Particle physicists observe subatomic particles and try to explain their behavior. This interest in the small building blocks of matter led Burchat to the investigation of the decay patterns of a particle called the tau lepton, a more massive partner to the electron, as the subject of her dissertation. Much of her research was conducted at SLAC, where she helped design a powerful new detector to measure particle decays. She earned her doctorate in 1986.
Burchat took a postdoctoral position at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics within the University of California system. She became an assistant professor at the University of California-Santa Cruz in 1988. Her innovative research earned Burchat a Presidential Young Investigators Award and a Research Initiation Award from the National Science Foundation.
Burchat's reductionist focus on particles and their decay processes led her to question where the particles she studied came from and what was the structure of the universe. At the time of the Big Bang, matter and antimatter would have annihilated each other, Burchat said. Why then do we—and other forms of matter like atoms and stars—exist? What produces an excess of matter over antimatter?
Understanding differences in the behavior of matter and antimatter is essential to understanding why it dominates the universe, Burchat said. In 1988, she collaborated with Abe Seiden, director of the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics, and John Bartelt and Roy Aleksan, two SLAC physicists, to evaluate through simulation an idea proposed by Pier Oddone, then of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Oddone had suggested that it might be possible to quantify the difference between matter and antimatter by colliding electron and positron beams and observing the products.
The results of this simulation suggested Oddone was probably right. But Burchat knew that to actually do the experiment would require technology that did not exist anywhere in the world. She and her collaborators decided to launch an effort to design and build that technology.
"About a dozen of us then started more detailed detector design studies, organizing workshops, etc.," Burchat said. "The community of interested physicists grew until, in 1994, the BaBar collaboration was formed." Today, that collaboration features some 600 scientists and engineers from 77 institutions in 10 countries.
"Pat has been a leader in BaBar since its inception," said Persis Drell, associate director of SLAC and a 20-year colleague of Burchat's. "Pat is known especially for her ability to extract excellent and exciting science from complex detectors and huge data sets, requiring the coordination of many diverse parts of a large particle physics collaboration."
In 1995, these strengths led Burchat to become a tenured faculty member at Stanford, where she built up a research group for BaBar. In 1999, she took a leave from Stanford to act as physics analysis coordinator for the entire BaBar project. "The field of particle physics requires collaboration," Burchat said. "This is due to the scale, complexity and duration of studies and quantity of data collected." Burchat led the development of an analysis structure for extracting science results from the collectively generated data.
Currently every paper published through the BaBar project lists in alphabetical order all names of the nearly 600 scientists who have collaborated on BaBar. While she acknowledges that not everyone agrees with this method of giving credit, Burchat believes that it is the fairest possible system. "While one person might do the actual analysis for a paper, the data used is the product of many people's efforts to design complex technology and software," she said. Individual work can be highlighted through letters of recommendation and resumes, she said.
In 2002, Burchat became chair of BaBar's publications board. "I was responsible for insuring that all papers published by the BaBar collaboration are scientifically valid," she said. No small task: BaBar has published more than 250 journal articles. Despite the high demands of her central role in the BaBar project, Burchat has managed to actively pursue her own research, mentor graduate students and undergraduates and have a family life.
Burchat has expanded her research efforts in recent years into investigation of the distribution of matter (especially dark matter) in the universe. She uses gravitational lensing: bending of light from faraway galaxies by the mass structure in the universe. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship to jumpstart this new project while on sabbatical in the 2005-06 academic year.
Burchat's husband, Tony Norcia, earned his doctorate in psychology from Stanford in 1981 and works at Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute as a neuroscientist. The couple has two sons, Matthew and Michael (18 and 15 years old). Balancing family life in a two-career household can be difficult, Burchat said. Before coming to Stanford, she and her family lived in Palo Alto while her husband commuted to San Francisco and she to Santa Cruz. "Not an optimal situation, although I loved my job at UCSC," Burchat said. "My move to Stanford not only eliminated a long and not very safe commute, it also allowed me to become much more involved in the broader university community."
She finds her work at Stanford thoroughly enjoyable. "I often say to my children that I think I have the best job in the world," Burchat said. "It is almost always interesting and challenging."
Burchat's work has not gone unnoticed. In the fall of 2006 she was awarded the Gabilan Professorship, established at the request of an anonymous donor who has a preference for supporting women in the sciences. "Burchat is an extremely qualified first chair," said Patricia Jones, vice provost for faculty development. "She is a wonderful university citizen."
Both Jones and Stan Wojcicki, chair of the Department of Physics, noted that Burchat has contributed greatly toward the advancement of scientific thought through her research and has been widely recognized for her excellence in teaching. "She is an outstanding particle experimentalist, highly regarded for her efficient leadership within the field," added Drell.
Burchat, who was awarded the Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1996, says she has always had an interest in teaching. In high school and then college, she said, "I used to sit in class listening to the professor lecture and think, 'Oh no, you are just confusing them; you shouldn't explain it like that.' Sometimes I just wanted to jump up and do it myself."
Burchat teaches several of the large introductory physics classes, freshman seminars, Sophomore College and core courses for physics majors. "Teaching sharpens the mind," she said. "To really understand something in physics, you need to teach it—at least twice." She advises freshmen, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and she said she enjoys this part of her job because she understands the importance of a good mentor through her own experience. "One conversation with a mentor can have a life-changing impact," she said.
And according to her students and peers, she does. "Pat brings a welcoming and 'can do' approach to a subject that often appears complex and impenetrable," said Adam Edwards, one of Burchat's graduate students. "She is always able to make the time to lend a helping hand. Her enthusiasm for finding the answers inspires all others around her. It is her infectious sense of curiosity that teaches her students not only to always question, but to always find solutions."
Said Drell: "Pat has a broad view of the university and is quite selfless in dedicating her energies and talents to the benefit of the greater institution. She is a dedicated teacher and superb mentor for students."
Burchat is conscious that she is one of few females in her field and a role model for many women interested in physics. That said, she believes encouragement and good advice are even more important than role models. She said of her own experience being a woman in a male-dominated field: "I tend not to notice. I could never imagine myself doing anything else."
Kendall Madden is a science-writing intern.