The Making of a Physicist

6th July 2018
Kelly wearing safety glasses

My name is Kelly Stifter, and I am a Ph.D. student in my third year at Stanford University (nearly my fourth! How time flies!).

kelly stifter

I am so excited to be writing a series of posts for Particle People - I am indeed a “particle person.” Thanks for reading, and letting me share some of my story with you.

The precise beginning of my foray into physics is difficult to pin down. Starting when I was three years old, I had an encyclopedic book of stars and planets that I would “read” - which at the time meant looking at all the pictures. As I grew up, my whole family supported and encouraged my interest in math and science. My grandma and I would stargaze and talk about how awesome the universe was. My parents would drive me to various science programs at local nature centers, and take me to the library where I read every astronomy book I could understand.

When I was a middle schooler, I decided that I wanted to do research in cosmology when I grew up. As people started to ask me about my future, my answer was often met with confusion or skepticism. Nobody knew what a cosmologist was (to be fair, I barely did myself).

Once, after telling someone I wanted to study cosmology, they looked at me and said, “Wait, you want to study hair and make-up?” No - cosmetology is an entirely different field.

So as a high schooler I took as many science and math classes as I possibly could. My favorite class was Physics. I took two years of it with Mr. Crofton, who always encouraged my interest. When I told him I wanted to be an astrophysicist, he looked at me and said, “I don’t think that astrophysics will suit you.” Before I could go into an indignant rant about doing it anyway, he went on to say, “I think that you should do physics instead. Seeing what you like to work on in this class, I think that you will be more interested in physics. I think you’d be really good at it.” Even though I appreciated the sentiment, I dismissed his advice and applied to undergrad to study astrophysics. I ended up going to the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, because, most importantly, it had a price tag that fit within my very tight budget. It was also close to my family and had a separate astrophysics department (which is not something many other schools have).

Kelly and her brother Michael visiting their dad at work and trying on some of the chemistry gear.
Kelly with one of her class projects - the first particle detector she ever built.

As soon as I arrived, I hit the ground running. I packed my schedule with science and math classes, and picked up several extra-curricular activities. During the first week, I met a boy named Mitchell in my math study group. Little did I know that 4 years later, he would be travelling across the country with me to California as we took some big life steps together.

As I worked through my classes, I found to my dismay that I didn’t actually enjoy astrophysics all that much… It was filled with messy equations, hand-wavy estimates, and long nights spent looking at boring spectroscopy lines (no offense to the astrophysicists who do spectroscopy). Thankfully, I was loving my physics classes - especially particle physics. I liked the elegant equations that explained how the world worked at a fundamental level, and the chance to design and execute experiments to make measurements of fundamental constants of nature. Mr. Crofton had been right! In fact, I enjoyed myself so much that I decided I wanted to pursue a graduate degree in physics so that I could continue doing physics research for my career.

To that end, I started spending my summers doing particle physics research. First I worked half a mile underground in the Soudan mine, on a muon tracking experiment. The next summer, I was a Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship (SULI) intern at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, where I worked on another tracking experiment, this time studying protons. Through all of these experiences, I worked on developing my skills in designing and operating particle detectors, which use the laws of physics in new and unique ways to detect the smallest particles imaginable , and in the process, help us learn about the structure of the universe. I loved all parts of the process - designing, building, testing, fixing. For this reason, I was thrilled when my advisor asked me if I wanted to spend a semester at CERN to continue doing just that. I told him of course, and immediately rearranged the last two semesters of my education so that I could finish all my classes in the fall, and leave for CERN after Christmas. For six months, I worked as a part of small team to build, install, and commission a new particle detector. I learned so much, and the experience solidified what it was that I wanted to do in grad school.

Kelly in front of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on the first day of her SULI internship.
Kelly at CERN in front of a model piece of the LHC
Kelly standing at the base of the giant CMS experiment at CERN
Kelly and postdoc Nicolo Tosi installing a new detector on the CMS experiment

While I was there, I started hearing back from the grad schools I had applied to. To my delight and surprise, I was accepted to many of them! To help me make this difficult decision, I went to all of my mentors and showed them the list of possibilities. Going down the list, they gave me their opinions on the various programs - some good, some bad. But every person, when they got to Stanford’s name, stopped for a moment, and said something along the lines of “Hm. You should consider Stanford. You could be really happy there.” I followed the wisdom of my elders, and chose to attend Stanford for my graduate program.

Now I’ve been here for 3 years and I am about halfway through my program. I can’t wait to see what the next 3 years bring!