22 September 2010

Kathy Copic

Nationality: American

Kathy in Cassis, a small town near Marseilles

Maybe it snuck into her subconscious while she was wandering the geometrically perfect street plan of her native Euclid (yes, named after the famous 'Father of Geometry') near Cleveland, Ohio. Maybe it rubbed off on her as she discovered the intricacies of risk and probability while dealing smoky late night blackjack for her father's casino equipment hire business. Or maybe it was just pure chance. But one way or another, mathematics is in Kathy Copic's bones.

This realisation was slow to dawn though and, after enduring solid but uninspiring high school science teachers, Kathy started college at Cornell as a Government major. “I wanted to do [that] because I could understand the job of government: making things better for people. I like that,” she says with conviction. “I didn't understand what the job of a scientist was or that research was still ongoing and that there was stuff still to do and not just balls rolling down wedges.”

But she soon became disillusioned with how government was taught at her university, where the classes seemed to be “totally divorced from math and reality”. Classmates laxly quoting statistics they didn't know the origin of, and professors who didn't bother to correct them left Kathy feeling out of place.

“Trying to care about statistics, in a culture where no-one else seemed to, was one of the things that pushed me towards physics, where people really care about getting the right answer,” she says. “I took a bunch of math classes because I liked math, and that should have been the tip-off for me that I should have been going into a more quantitative field.”

This, combined with seeing her science major peers doing interesting undergraduate research, meant that by the end of her third year she was ready to shake things up. “I didn't actually know anyone in physics. I just liked the idea of physics,” she smiles, citing the fact that it seeks to answer the most basic fundamental questions, but has the 'testable' element which is missing from pure maths. “It's a thing that a lot of physicists say, but that I think is true for me too.”

She took her first physics classes at this juncture, and then focussed on physics and maths for the following two years so that she could apply for physics grad school. After five years of college, she finished with a double major in maths and government.

Although her unusual path meant that certain undergrad physics classes had to wait until she began her PhD, Kathy did manage to build in some experimental work on CESR, Cornell's electron-positron collider. This solid research experience, she believes, helped bag her a year's “predoc” work (not an official term “I just made it up!”) at Berkeley with BABAR and ATLAS, before starting PhD studies on CDF with the University of Michigan.

As a Columbia postdoc, Kathy moved to Geneva to work on ATLAS in May 2007, and got involved with the Liquid Argon calorimeter repairing the front end boards, organising operations and editing an electronics performance paper. She counts herself lucky to have been in the Control Room on the day the of first beams in 2008: “That was really exciting,” she remembers. “People had spent 15 or more years building the LHC, and the same kind of time scale on ATLAS. And this was the first time that those two things talked to each other.”

Kathy relocated to New York in September 2009, when her husband known to everyone, even his parents, as Spoons got a job designing programming languages for Google. Theirs is a long and geographically varied history, which began with them living across the hall from each other in undergrad dorms. A year of friendship with undercurrents followed, during which Kathy admits to having lit candles in her apartment for one of their maths homework sessions. “It was part of the joke!” she protests.

When they eventually became a couple they lived together in Ithaca and Berkeley, but following that they attended grad schools five hours' drive apart. “In the end it worked up well for us,” she considers. “We met before we had much life experience. Living in different places gave us a chance to have our own adventures, to each set up a life on our own, but still be together. It's also made us pretty resilient to being apart when we have to be.”

They got married just before Kathy moved to CERN, and Spoons spent 18 months with her in Geneva, writing up his thesis and riding his bike up and down every mountain he could find.

Back in New York, they live in Park Slope in Brooklyn, and love nothing more than cooking. “We really like food from all kinds of places. We have a large collection of cookbooks and I'm always going to different grocery stores to find interesting ingredients,” Kathy enthuses. Beginning a few months ago, she's now based at CERN 50 per cent of the time, living in the hostel for stretches of three weeks or so, meaning that opportunities for her to indulge this hobby here are limited: “I cook at other people's houses sometimes but I want my stuff. I want my knife and my pans and my cookbooks and my spices, and so it's hard to do in the hostel.”

Her other hobbies too are generally more suited to either one place or the other. In New York she goes to concerts, events, watches friends play sports, and hangs out with a group of comedians she acted with back in college. In Geneva, she hikes, bikes and snowboards, as well as taking advantage of the location to see other places Porto, Barcelona, Marrakech, Paris, and London, are just a handful of the cities she's visited.

Her main ATLAS responsibility right now is being the paper contact for the first exotics dilepton search; an organisational challenge that requires her to coordinate active contributors from all over the world. “Making sure that people who aren't at CERN 100 per cent of the time are also able to contribute to the analysis is something that I'm really interested in doing,” she says.

The nature of her role and her commuting means that emails are always rolling in at odd times of day and night relative to where she is, and she often misses out on occasions or adventures with friends in one location or the other. But on balance, she'd agree her position is pretty sweet:

“If there's something that Geneva doesn't have, New York has so much. But it doesn't have the beautiful countryside so close by. Instead of like other New Yorkers, leaving to the beach or upstate, I leave to go to Geneva!” she grins. “I have the best of both worlds.”




Ceri Perkins

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