6 October 2008

Nationality: United States

Alex Harvey’s path to particle physics is rather uncommon. He is now a PhD student at Hampton University working in the ATLAS Transition Radiation Tracker (TRT) group. But when Alex was only twenty years old, he had to put on hold getting a physics degree to make a living and that happened to be working in a casino. It was only after seventeen years of a successful career in several gambling houses that Alex went back to his true vocation.

Alex had started his degree in applied physics at Stockton State College (now Richard Stockton College) in New Jersey. “I had a sort of aptitude for science. It was either that program or engineering, but I was asking myself the wrong questions to become an engineer,” Alex recalls.

After two successful years at Stockton, Alex’s daughter LeSher Alexis was born, and he decided to roll back his studies to part-time in order to be able to work and improve a very poor financial situation: “I was facing bankrupcy,” Alex remembers.

The college where he was studying was located only twenty minutes away from Atlantic City, the resort famous for its boardwalk, casino gambling, sandy beaches - and the inspiration for the board game Monopoly. “So I started working in a casino in Atlantic City,” says Alex.

It was not difficult for a bright and young person like Alex to advance rapidly in his career from a part-time dealer to a supervisor. Making his way up the ladder, Alex moved to Chicago as a full-time supervisor at another casino, close to Fermilab. After one and a half years in Illinois, he settled down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a full-time casino manager. By that time, Alex was thirty-five years old, had reached the peak of his career in the casino business, had money, but something was missing in his life.

“Casinos did very well for me, and I did good work for them, but in the end, it wasn’t what I wanted to do. It had sort of lost its flavour for me, and I had known that for a long time.”

The perfect opportunity for going back to physics arose in Baton Rouge, when the management of the casino where Alex was working changed, and he was laid off. “I could have gone somewhere else, but to get the same position would have been very difficult, I’d had to work my way up the ladder again,” he explains.

So, Alex enrolled again in Physics at Southern University at Baton Rouge. When he finished his degree, opportunities came up for him to start doing research at the COSM research center at Hampton University (HU) in Virginia, becoming one of the first graduate students in high energy physics at the department.

Hampton University, a historically black college, has been part of the ATLAS experiment since 1996. In 1999, HU ATLAS team got involved in the construction of the ATLAS Barrel Transition Radiation Tracker (TRT).

When asked how he feels about being one of the few black physicists on ATLAS, at CERN and in high energy physics at large, he says: “I feel very fortunate and it’s been a good experience, but as in anything else, when you are a bit different, initially, you may have somewhat of a credibility problem,” he says.

“Ultimately you need to give 110 per cent to fulfill expectations. This standard is not as biased in learned company, especially at CERN, but the lesson is something that never leaves you. This is a work ethic, picked up from my parents and has served me well.”

After so many years spent in gambling houses, getting into physics research has been a more than fulfilling career choice for Alex:

“In casinos, there was nothing else to learn at a certain point. In physics it’s a lot different, it’s not a regular routine, there are lots of challenges,” he says. “The statistics involved in gambling games are not what people think, you don’t need a math degree!” he laughs. However, at a certain point, Alex considered writing a paper in the art of shuffling cards, “random (chaotic) mixing or not-so-random (more ordered)”.

So far, Alex has spent four years working on ATLAS on his PhD thesis. His work involves assessing performance from combined test beam data and performance simulation for possible physics events. He is very excited about seeing the results of his work: “It seems that the transition radiation feature may be a good additional background separator in the 100GeV to 200GeV range.” Alex is also getting ready for the flood of data that will soon come out of the detector.




Cristina Jimenez

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