- Number 362 |
- May 7, 2012
An accidental physicist tells all
Not many youngsters walk out of their sophomore year in high school and into college, but a then-new program in Ohio allowed Dru Renner , a staff scientist at DOE's Jefferson Lab, to do just that.
With the goal of funneling students into the state's university system, the program allowed high school students to take college classes at no cost. Renner, ever curious, went to an informational session about the program and was one of the few students who pursued it. What he found, largely because it was the first year of the experimental program and administrators were feeling their way through it, was the opportunity of a lifetime.
It was initially suggested that he take just a single course in the evening, but, after taking some tests, was told he was already over-qualified educationally for anything they had to offer. Program administrators suggested, instead, that he take regular college day classes.
"I asked how many I could take," he recalled. "Nobody seemed to really know, so they told me I could take as many as I wanted."
He never set foot in high school again, and walked straight into a full-ride, four-year program at the University of Cincinnati that even included text books.
Renner's parents, a carpenter and postal worker, worked hard to ensure that all four of their kids graduated from college. "So," Renner noted, "being enrolled in this program solved that problem for one of us."
When he entered the program, Renner hadn't yet had a physics or calculus course, so it was suggested that he sign up for an introductory class. His older brother pointed out that he was taking the equivalent of "Physics for Poets" and showed him how to transfer into a higher level course. Renner taught himself calculus and plunged into physics.
"Coming into physics was really an accidental thing," he said with a grin. "I just like challenges." And a challenge it was. On his first physics exam, he barely earned a "D," and struggled through the semester. By the last exam of the quarter, in his own words he'd "gotten his head around it" and received an "A" for the course.
"As an undergrad, I wanted to be in theory, but I worked with the experimentalists, too, because there was always stuff to do," he noted.
He met his wife, Ali, also a physics major, while still an undergrad. The couple headed east after graduation so she could attend Boston University and he could attend MIT. He entered MIT as an experimentalist, but changed over to theory and received his Ph.D. in 2004.
With degrees in hand, they set out for the University of Arizona, where Ali continued to develop her love of teaching and Renner pursued his post-doc work in Lattice QCD.
While there, he continued to question, as he still does, his choice of theoretical physics. "What we [theorists] do impacts society on such a long-time scale," he mused. "Sometimes I worry that I should be doing something more immediate."
Nonetheless, he landed a spot at DESY in Berlin where he began the work with Karl Jansen and their collaborators – then students Xu Feng and Marcus Petschlies – that received the inaugural Ken Wilson Lattice Award earlier this year.
"Berlin is a fantastic city," Renner exclaimed. "Truly international. It's so alive and vibrant – and incredibly cheap to live in. I was given tremendous freedom at the institute to pursue my work, too. It was all a wonderful experience."
Renner became a part of Jefferson Lab's Theory Center in October of 2010 and continued the work he, Jansen Feng (now at KEK) and Petschlies (at the Institut für Physik, Humboldt-Universität) began at DESY. Their paper, titled "Two-flavor QCD correction to lepton magnetic moments at leading-order in the electromagnetic coupling," was made public earlier this year.
Renner said he never anticipated winning the Ken Wilson Lattice Award. This was the first time the award was given, and all papers published in the past three years were under consideration. It was quite surprising that their paper, only three months old, was chosen, he said.
"By choosing our paper, they essentially knocked out all the other work from [an entire year], which can't be considered again [for the award]. It was stunning - truly a shock," he added.
The panelists said of the paper, "This is really a new application of lattice methods, applied in a timely fashion, and making an impact on an important (current) discrepancy for the muon magnetic moment…."
The announcement, he said, put tremendous pressure on him for the plenary talk he gave at the end of the 29th International Symposium on Lattice Field Theory, during which the award was presented. He decided to speak on their extended work – that had not been included in the paper. "There were a lot of questions about our paper, and I was really glad I'd brought that material along," he said. "One senior person said afterward that now he understood the importance of our work. That was very gratifying."
Efficiency is Renner's watchword these days, now that he and Ali have two sons, Nate, who's a year and a half, and Max, born earlier this month.
"I don't want to sacrifice my time with my family," he said. "I get up early in the morning to have time to spend with them, and in the evening I strap Nate onto a carrier in front of me and take him for a bike ride. This is really important to me."
And despite his success and passion for the field, he's still not sure he'll stay in physics."This is a temporary position, and it will come to an end. I'm not sure what I will do then. I sometimes think about getting involved in politics in some way," he concluded. "Not as an office-holder, but maybe with a policy organization or a think tank. There are a lot of positions out there where they're looking for someone with a science and technology background."
Submitted by DOE's Thomas Jefferson Accelerator Facility