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The SASS Czars

Noticeably young faces fill the Kavli third floor conference room by 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday, and a few dozen students settle in with brown bag lunches. Nicole Ackerman and Keith Betchol set out cookies and fruit, make a few short announcements, then introduce the student speaker. Ackerman and Betchol are the SASS czars—SASS as in the SLAC Association of Student Speakers and czars, the moniker chosen by the students for their appointed organizers. This year's czars, both second-year physics students at Stanford University, say they participate in SASS to help build an active community of graduate students at SLAC.

The current SASS czars accepted their titles in July from the group's founders, Wells Wulsin and Manuel Franco Sevilla. They'll hand off the responsibilities to two new czars in January. "Before we go, I'd like to see us create some documentation of what SASS does—what our goals are and what we'd like to achieve," says Betchol. SASS meetings began less than a year ago, and Ackerman and Betchol are trying to create a community of current graduate students and make a foundation for generations to come. Ackerman adds, "We hope this is the start of a long history for SASS."

Over the past four months, SASS presentations have included KamLAND: Where We've Been, Where We Hope to Go, Hadron Therapy, Teaching and Education, The Earth from Space, Measurement Problems in Quantum Mechanics, X-ray Lasers and You: An LCLS Primer, and LSST: May Stars Be the Actors and Dark Energy Direct, Shoot a Movie in the Sky—just to name a few. "We've had very good feedback about all the talks," says Ackerman. "Everyone always leaves feeling happy."

SASS provides one of the only organized graduate student activities on the SLAC campus. Stanford offers more student groups on the main campus, but dozens of graduate students work full-time at SLAC, and are looking for ways to meet other people their age here. For many students, SASS also provides a first opportunity to deliver a presentation about their research or on a science topic that strikes their interest. "We've had a good mix of talks," says Ackerman. "My favorites are the ones that discuss something very distant from what I do."

The group will hold its quarterly meeting soon, where students can sign up to give presentations. The group also welcomes non-student talks on science topics, science in industry, career opportunities after a physics PhD, and other areas that might be relevant to graduate students.

Betchol and Ackerman are currently seeking the next two SASS czars, and they say anyone is welcome to apply. "Even if someone hasn't been coming a lot, or doesn't feel very involved, fresh ideas are a good thing. We want to get everyone involved." Responsibilities of the czar include buying snacks for the meetings (with a small amount of funding from SLAC), hanging flyers, sending e-mails and updating the Web site. Ultimately, these duties should take only about an hour per week. Anyone interested in joining or getting more involved should attend a SASS talk or e-mail the organizers. See the SASS Web site for details.

—photo and text by Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, October 22, 2008

Betchol (left) just finished working on the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope and now works full time on the Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope. His prime interest lies in identifying new gamma ray source classes, such as galaxy clusters. Galaxy clusters have been observed in radio, optical and x-ray but they haven't been fully profiled in high energy gamma rays. These new source classes currently remain uncertain, but Betchol hopes that FGST will have the sensitivity to find these objects. He's helping to design an automatic procedure to sift through the telescope's data and search for promising candidates. For now, he puts in dozens of hours as a duty scientist, one of the many people responsible for monitoring the health and activity of the satellite.

Ackerman (right) works under Marty Breidenbach on EXO, the Enriched Xenon Observatory experiment, which aims to observe neutrino-less double beta decay. If observed, the phenomenon would reveal a precise measurement of the neutrino mass, and show that neutrinos act as their own antiparticles. Many collaboration members work at SLAC and Stanford, and contribute to the construction of the experiment apparatus in an underground mine in New Mexico. Ackerman participates in this construction, which uses liquid Xenon to detect the particle decay, and develops software for data analysis. The project hopes to begin data taking in 2009.