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SLAC Summer Institute Features Breadth in Physics and Fun

(Photo - poster session)
SSI 2009 participants discuss a poster during one of three evening poster social hours. (Photo by Martin Sanchez.)

Last Friday, more than 160 graduate students, post-docs and researchers completed two weeks of lectures, conferences and social events at the 37th annual SLAC Summer Institute. SSI presented topics aimed to challenge attendees and give them food for thought with this year's theme, Revolutions on the Horizon – A Decade of New Experiments.

One of the summer institute's main goals is to cover a broad range of timely topics. According to SLAC physicist JoAnne Hewett, who is one of the four head conference organizers, graduate students "become very focused on their specific research projects, so it's good for them to get out and see what is happening in other areas of physics."

However, this year's institute had an even broader focus than usual. SSI 2009 centered on three main topics: recent neutrino experiments, cosmological experiments focused on the search for dark matter and discovery possibilities presented by the impending activation of the Large Hadron Collider. This meant that the conference organizers had the challenge of giving each topic adequate attention while still creating a cohesive curriculum. "We had to identify areas that those topics have in common," said SLAC physicist and SSI co-organizer Greg Madejski.

(Photo - soccer on the SLAC Green)
SSI attendees and SLAC employees compete in the institute's soccer game. (Photo by Martin Sanchez.)

However, this breadth did not hinder student participation; in fact, it seems to have been a draw for some attendees. "This conference has a lot of theorists and experimentalists… I'm an experimentalist, and it's good to see what the theorists are doing," said Matthew Toups, a graduate student from Columbia University. Toups complemented the institute's "breadth of research." Madejski agreed, saying that students were surprisingly willing to engage with the lecturers during the school's four group discussion sections: "This has not been the biggest summer school, but certainly one of the most interactive."

The summer institute was, of course, more than a series of lectures. Its four topical afternoon sub-conferences focused on recent research results, which provided a useful contrast to the more broadly-organized morning sessions. According to Toups, the afternoon sessions gave the institute "the aspect of a conference and a summer school all packed into one." Meanwhile, three evening poster sessions allowed the attendees to display the results of their own research. There were more than 20 posters submitted, an unusually high number which is perhaps another indication of the attendee's eagerness to contribute to the conference.

Social events are another perennially popular feature of the summer institute, and this year's event did not disappoint. The dinners were well attended, and students said they particularly enjoyed tours of the Klystron Gallery and Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource. On the athletic front, the traditional SLAC versus SSI soccer game ended in a hard-fought 1-1 tie, with Avelino Vicente of IFIC Valencia in Spain scoring for the SSI team. The institute also gives students the opportunity to simply look around the famous SLAC campus. "I've never been to SLAC before, and it's a good opportunity to see the lab," Toups said.

Now the conference is finished, and the organizers are happy with how it went. "I have participated many times, and the lectures at this year's are, in my opinion, among the best," said Madejski. This confidence, along with the overwhelmingly positive student responses, it is a strong sign that the institute achieved its goal, as Hewett said, of "giving a broadening education to graduate students."

—Martin Sanchez
SLAC Today, August 17, 2009