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Today’s Students: Teacher and Atomic Particle Smasher Kevin Coulombe

COSAM E-Newsletter: May 2011

Today’s Students: Teacher and Atomic Particle Smasher Kevin Coulombe

Kevin CoulombeCal Poly physics grad Kevin Coulombe is on his way to being a smashing high school science teacher.

Coulombe double-minored in astronomy and professional communications, did his senior project on particle physics, and spent last summer learning how to run parts of the planet’s most complicated international science experiments. He’s set to return to the experiment again this summer to train other Cal Poly students.

The experiment is ALICE, which stands for A Large Ion Collider Experiment. It's going on now at the CERN Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva, Switzerland. Scientists from around the world are using the collider to fire sub-atomic particles at each other at millions of miles an hour to see what happens when they meet.

“Imagine two cars crashing into each other at a really high speed. There would be paint chips and glass and shards flying everywhere,” he said. ALICE looks at the sub-atomic particle equivalents of the paint and glass chips from the collision. The patterns of their scattering and the energy they release are helping scientists learn about conditions during the “Big Bang” and the early stages of our universe.

Coulombe was one of the students who traveled with Cal Poly Professor Jennifer Klay to work on ALICE in summer 2010 through a National Science Foundation grant. While there, he qualified as a shift leader for the experiment – the only undergraduate student to receive that designation so far, according to ALICE officials.

To get the designation, he was certified as an expert in ALICE’s Data Quality Monitoring system, which tracks every detector in use in the cathedral-sized collider and the Electromagnetic Calorimeter (EmCal) subsystem. “It detects the energy of things that run into it,” he explained.

When data monitoring or EmCal sensors or detectors were troublesome, “I started getting calls at three in the morning saying, ‘This isn’t working; come fix it.’ That’s when things started getting fun,” Coulombe said. “I got to work with the infrastructure of the experiment and the programming behind it all, and why the programming works.”

Coulombe calls his involvement with ALICE the ultimate Learn by Doing experience. “The most fascinating thing for me was the fact that I, a newly graduated physicist, was working on an experiment that is currently defining the leading edge of particle physics,” he said. “I was in the middle of this amazing international scientific community.”

“Because of it, I will be able to bring my knowledge of what exactly a scientist is and does into the classroom.”

When he’s not thinking about sub-atomic particles and the rules of the universe, Coulombe enjoys creating works of glass and snowboarding. He hopes to eventually return to his native Colorado and teach. Though his time at the ALICE experiment was fascinating, he’s set on being a teacher.

“I love science so much and I love helping people understand the topic that I love. It is so rewarding when teaching a student -- adult or child -- and seeing their eyes light up because they just figured out an answer to their question,” he said.

He’s a firm believer that all high school students – and college students -- should be physics-fluent. “There is no other major that allows you to investigate the intricacies and depth of our world like physics does. Everything that exists, exists because of some physical phenomenon that the laws of physics govern,” he said. “It’s physics that has allowed us to not only start asking ‘why,’ but to also begin answering ‘why.’ ”.