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People: A Year Away from Home

Terri Lahey and Steve Smith at their temporary home. (Photo courtesy Terri Lahey and Steve Smith.)

Steve Smith and Terri Lahey disagree about which decision they made faster—their choice to move to SLAC 21 years ago, or their choice to move to Geneva last January. They also disagree about whether it was more difficult to get out of California or into France; they were both a lot of work. The move would be for only one year, so the couple had to find a house rental in the crowded area around the French–Swiss border, and simultaneously find someone to rent their home in Half Moon Bay. But there's one place where they both chime in with the same answer right away. What's been the best part about living in France for the past six months?

"The food," said Lahey. "Mostly the cheese," said Smith. "And the pastries. And the wine."

They admit they may have been bragging a little too much to their friends and family in the U.S. about the wonderful cuisine, and things like their close proximity to skiing the Alps. But the adventurous couple can't help but love their temporary location. They live in Thoiry, France, just a few miles from CERN, at the base of the Jura Mountains—a range dwarfed by the nearby Alps, but still larger than many mountain ranges in the U.S. In their free time they go hiking, skiing or just enjoy fresh bread, cheese and produce from the open air market in Thoiry.

In the French-speaking region near the border of France and Switzerland, the couple encounters small cultural differences on a daily basis. Some of the differences, "are so delightful," Lahey said, while others "are so mystifying." Things like traffic circles, "priorite a droite" (whereby a tractor or other vehicle arriving from the right, even on a smaller road, has right-of-way), and the snow took some getting used to. (Although Lahey describes shoveling their driveway as "charming.") While the CERN community converses mainly in English, the surrounding communities speak French. Lahey said she and Smith tried to learn a little French before arriving, and have since been expanding their vocabulary.

"We know enough to get by," she said. "Enough to order [food]. But sometimes you feel like a bumbling idiot and you just have to laugh at yourself."

It's easy to see how the two make a good couple; they're equally active and adventurous, intelligent and curious, and kind and friendly. And they consider it an incredible gift that they were able to come to Geneva together.

The CERN Beam instrumentation group extended an invitation to Smith to work on research and development for the proposed Compact Linear Collider, or CLiC. Based on technology that is not yet fully developed, CLiC would collide electrons and positrons at up to 3 TeV, lower than the energy of CERN's Large Hadron Collider, but would provide cleaner precision measurements of fundamental processes. Like many accelerator scientists at SLAC, Smith's experience working with the SLAC linear collider has made him an expert in accelerator technology, and valuable to the CLiC study group, which is drawing on experts in accelerator physics from all over the world in order to make the project a reality. In the process, CLiC research will push the boundaries of accelerator technology. Smith says this CLiC work is based on and enhances SLAC core competencies in electron-based accelerator research and technology, and in advanced instrumentation, diagnostics and systems integration. And along with specific knowledge about advanced accelerator technology, he says he is learning valuable lessons about problem solving.

"When you go and you spend time in a different lab, you learn so much about how experts at other labs think about problems," he said. "Just reading a paper is so limiting. When you're in the lab and you see the other scientists solve a problem you say, 'Why did you do it that way?' I think we [at SLAC] have developed some approaches that other labs can benefit from, and vice versa."

Lahey works for the SLAC controls group. Like Smith, she spent the past five years working hard toward the start up of the Linac Coherent Light Source. When Smith's position at CERN was assured, Lahey sought temporary work there as well. She is now working in the CERN controls group and in the Fermilab LAFS group, the software group supporting the LHC Accelerator Research Program, LARP. The two groups work toward keeping connections strong between U.S. accelerator and high-energy physics scientists, and CERN. She, like Smith, says that her time at CERN benefits her work at home because it presents an opportunity to observe different approaches to similar problems.

"The decision was definitely difficult, to leave behind your friends, your work, and your life for a year," Lahey said. "But at the same time, how could we not? And now here we are, and we just love our work and the area."

—Calla Cofield
SLAC Today, August 4, 2010