8 March 2010

Jim Degenhardt

Nationality: United States

Jim Degenhardt relaxes during a hike

As he munches on an all-American breakfast – fresh juice and a bagel hand-delivered by a friend from New York – Jim Degenhardt is the first to admit he’s not a morning person. It’s the aftermath of the 9 a.m. Run Meeting, a daily appointment for Jim as co-run coordinator of the TRT, but the NY-themed sustenance seems to be doing the trick.

Jim actually hails from Plymouth, near Detroit, Michigan, where he says he grew up living “your basic suburban lifestyle”. After starting out as a chemistry student at the University of Michigan, he changed to physics soon after meeting organic chemistry. “Organic chemistry and me did not mix well,” he summarises with characteristic deadpan.

His introduction to ATLAS came during the third year of his undergrad, when a contact at his college put him to work assembling Monitored Drift Tubes (MDTs) that detect muons in the ATLAS detector. Two years later, after completing a “victory lap” fifth year at college (just in case he decided to become a teacher at some point) and gaining an Honours degree in Physics, he found himself at CERN for summer 2002. He spent his time pressure-testing the shipped MDTs, to find and fix leaks, and deciding whether or not he should go on to grad school. In the end, he “took the fearless attitude” and went for a PhD on D0 at Fermilab, Chicago, before returning to ATLAS as a postdoc in 2007.

Although Michigan is a famously flat state, Jim still managed to learn to ski there, at a station named Mount Brighton. “It’s basically a 300 foot hill built on a giant heap of trash,” he informs. The skills came in handy when he moved in close range of the Alps, and he has spent the last two seasons perfecting his downhill, before attempting some randonnée skiing. “My stamina has waned some this year, probably because I’ve been spending quite a bit more time in the Control Room lately,” he concedes. “For now, I know my limits.”

Aside from a little mountaineering, most of his other leisure activities are as all-American as his breakfasts. Being Vice President of the CERN Softball Club requires him to do “very little” other than attend practices out on the Higgs Field (oh yes!) near the Prévessin site. Games against other local teams take place at the US Marine barracks at Bellevue, where the taste of home is authenticated with American beer, hotdogs and hamburgers.

Jim is also a keen bowler, and played in the Fermilab league with his team, the Sexy Beasts. Unfortunately his bowling ball and stand-out blue flame shoes did not make it to Europe with him, but his ‘I’m a Sexy Beast’ team T-Shirt did, and could make an appearance in the ATLAS Control Room at any time…

Fun stories from the Control Room are a bit of a speciality for Jim, who, aside from being one of the new crop of ATLAS Bloggers, was also Shift Leader for the very first collisions ever seen by the ATLAS detector. He landed the coveted spot through a combination of “careful planning and tea leaf reading”, booking his shifts a couple of months in advance and hoping to luck out on the timing.

His assessment of the day: “Mmm, it was a little exciting,” indicates exactly why he is a good person to have at the helm during high-pressure moments – level-headed and seemingly unflappable. “Yeah, for the most part I’m pretty laid back,” he agrees, with apparently huge understatement. So what gets under his skin?

Well, that would be his brother. His identical twin brother. Jim prides himself on his poker face, but his twin Jeff, with whom he has “a love hate relationship”, can not only read him, but can complete his sentences. “He’s more boisterous. We don’t think the same, but I understand how he thinks.” As young children, they were occasionally allied in plots against their older sister, but these unifications were short lived. “We’re the antithesis of each other!” he laughs.

What gets under his skin in a more positive way is physics analyses: “Ultimately the cool stuff is looking for interesting little things that no-one’s ever seen or thought about before.” Being TRT co-run coordinator is dominating his time right now, but he recalls getting pretty excited over his PhD WZ diboson analysis. “I think it was the first time it had been seen at a hadron collider – which was the smallest cross section at the time – and the diboson processes were just starting to be found,” he enthuses, briefly. The characteristic cool is never far away though: “Well. It’s an old bag now.”

Jim may like to keep his face straight, his cards close to his chest and to give little away, but his sense of fun isn’t far from the surface and he may just surprise you. “Last time I went to the US, I got Heelys,” he grins, referring to the shoes with rollers on the heels that under-12s go crazy for. “I’m still practicing… they’re a little bit trickier than you think. Next time I’m in the Control Room, maybe I’ll go roll around...” You have been warned.




Ceri Perkins

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