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People: Keith Bechtol Gives It His All

(Photo - Keith Bechtol)
Keith Bechtol.
(Photo courtesy of the College of William and Mary.)

Keith Bechtol likes a challenge. Whether pursuing a Ph.D. in physics or running ultra-long distances, "most of the things I like reward patience," he said.

The fourth-year Stanford graduate student spends most of his time at SLAC, working on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope studying gamma-ray emissions from other galaxies. But astrophysics isn't his only area of expertise—Bechtol is well-versed in SLAC science as well as its history, and puts this knowledge to good use as a public tour guide for the laboratory.

"It's a great way to keep being involved," said Bechtol, who thinks it is important for scientists to communicate what they do and to help "bridge the gap" for those who feel like science is too difficult to understand.

Bechtol, who has been a SLAC tour guide for about a year, said his favorite part of giving tours is answering questions. "High school students ask really good questions, ones that adults are sometimes too afraid to ask. For example, 'do particles make noise when they collide?'" (They don't—at least not at SLAC—because the particles collide in a vacuum, where sound waves can't propagate. There are, however, acoustic detectors that record collisions in other environments.)

Back on the university campus, Bechtol participates in another educational program, Habla, where he teaches English to Stanford maintenance workers. "I've probably learned more Spanish from them than they have learned English from me," Bechtol mused. "One of my students, Miguel, has a personal mission to teach me Spanish. But he says I need to practice more."

Perhaps Bechtol hasn't practiced enough because he keeps busy with another hobby, one that's recently made him a bit of a SLAC celebrity. For the past 11 years he has enjoyed long-distance running, "whatever was the longest distance available," he said. In high school, this meant a two-mile run; during college he concentrated on the 10-kilometer. "I'm not very fast," Bechtol admits. "It's just endurance."

He has finished two 50-mile runs, and once attempted a 100-kilometer event in Marin, but got lost in the woods and ended up several miles off course. "Those were mostly about survival, not about how fast you could finish," Bechtol said. So in mid-June, he took what he describes as "the next natural step," and signed up for the San Francisco Marathon, which was only six weeks away.

A first-time marathon runner, Bechtol did better than finish—he won. He crossed the finish line in 2:23:29—setting a new course record—but is quick to point out that this is still "slow" compared to the world's elite marathon runners. He has been accepted to the elite development program for runners at the Chicago Marathon on October 10 of this year, and plans to run the notoriously difficult Boston race in the spring.

"I'm really amazed at the amount of support I've gotten from the SLAC community," said the 25-year old. He also gets encouragement from his wife, who is also a runner and understands Bechtol's need to, say, go running for two hours when he gets home from a long day at the lab. The two also enjoy cooking together, including making homemade sourdough bread on a weekly basis.

Is there anything the marathoning astrophysicist doesn't do? Bechtol considers for a moment.

"I probably don't sleep as much as I should."

—Lauren Rugani
SLAC Today, September 1, 2010