Taking the Polar Plunge: Engineer Turned Teacher Heads to South Pole for BICEP3

Oct 28, 2015

By Lori Ann White

Above: Val Monticue [Credit: Sarah Reece].

Meet Val Monticue, a systems engineer turned physics teacher. Val has spent the last two summers at Stanford University through Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME), a nonprofit, industry-education partnership that gives teachers the opportunity to gain real-world experience in various STEM disciplines through summer fellowships with host companies and universities.  

Val spent her summers working with KIPAC researchers building and testing the instruments for the BICEP3, which studies the cosmic microwave background radiation, light that's left over from the earliest days of the universe, from its location at the South Pole (and builds on the success of the BICEP2 project). Monticue has had a hankering to go to the South Pole since her undergraduate days at Harvey Mudd College in southern California, but she thought her contribution to BICEP3 would start and end in the lab of Chao-Lin Kuo, the KIPAC faculty member who is one of the principal investigators of the BICEP collaboration.

Little did she know….

LW:  We understand you're going to the South Pole with the BICEP3 group from KIPAC. First, congratulations!

VM:  Thanks! (Laughs.)

LW:  Tell us a little bit about what you've been doing with the BICEP team that led to this.

VM:  During my first summer everyone was really busy getting BICEP3 ready for initial deployment, so wherever they needed an extra pair of hands I pitched in on whatever task they had. I have enough engineering experience to be able to jump in as needed. I enjoyed it so much I asked if I could come back the next summer. They agreed, so I did. This past summer I built and tested and took apart and re-machined and put back together all kinds of parts while we built FrankenPOLAR.

LW:  FrankenPOLAR?

VM: That's a cryostat made of old leftover parts intended for cryogenic testing

Above: The "FrankenPOLAR" dewar label [Credit: V. Monticue/BICEP3].

LW:  What were you testing?

VM:  The cryostat that keeps the detectors cold. The detectors themselves are fine but to work they need to be kept at 250 mK. They are not staying cold as long as we would like, so we're looking to improve the cryogenic efficiency. If your experiment depends on collecting huge amounts of data, higher efficiency means faster results. We built a test cryostat to figure out where the extra heat load was coming from and if we could reduce it. When we get down to Pole we have to take apart the telescope, pull out a few parts to reuse, rebuild the wedding cake, and put it all back together.

LW:  Wedding cake? There's a Bride of FrankenPOLAR?

VM:  (Laughs.)  That’s what we call the cold structure inside the cryostat. It steps the temperature down by increments to reach 250 mK and each increment is a layer in the cake.

Above: Cryostat assembly in native environment in the lab [Credit: V. Monticue/BICEP3]

LW:  What are your duties as a BICEP3 team member?

VM:  I am joining the team as an engineer and will be working on the telescope full time with the other members of the team. Along with the wedding cake rebuild, we're adjusting the focal plane for better data acquisition, which requires dismantling a lot of it. I've taken apart and put together pieces of telescope many times over the past two summers, so I'm already up to speed on the system.

LW:  How did you found out you were going?

VM:   I always made it very clear I would be willing to go, but I honestly thought I was joking about it happening. Then, after this meeting where I said, "I just broke four drill bits—I need to go to the store," they said, "Sit down—we want to send you to Pole." Then I thought they were joking. Turns out not. It took three months of considerable effort on all our parts, but it happened. I'm so privileged to be working with this team. The people in the lab are amazing. They never had an unkind thing to say over two summers and worked hard to bring me in on the project. Learning so much from intelligent, interesting, and talented people is an unparalleled opportunity. Kaye Storm organizes the labs on campus to make sure the placements happen, and there is not enough space for me to wax poetic about how wonderful she is or grateful I am. And I really have to thank the NSF for providing the funding for me to go. None of this would be possible without them.

Above: A poster resulting from some of the collaborative work of Monticue and the rest of the BICEP3 team.

LW:  So how did a high school physics teacher get to be so comfortable around cutting edge research? Can you tell us about your background?

VM:  I grew up in Stigler, OK. It had a population of about 2500 people and both the stoplights in the county when I was growing up there (and only a few more now). But I had the chance to go to the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics in Oklahoma City for my junior and senior years of high school, and then I went to Scripps and Harvey Mudd for my undergraduate degrees.

LW:  Did you take physics or math?  

VM:   I wanted to be a cowgirl or an astronaut when I was a little girl. Still do, to be honest. But once I started taking science in high school, my interests morphed from biology to chemistry to chemical engineering to just engineering, and I studied systems engineering in college. My degrees are in engineering, economics and stats. While getting those degrees, I completed two senior thesis projects on Antarctic telescope engineering. One project was designing a tower and control system combination to control pointing for a telescope on a 30-meter tower at Dome C, Antarctica. Another project was figuring out how to deploy an interferometer from Pasadena to Dome C with minimal shocks along the way and a short build time once it got there.

LW:  So that last was a giant egg-drop experiment?

VM:  (Laughs.)  It was a big egg-drop project that ended up with two published papers and a trip to Paris. But that's why I applied for the fellowship and accepted their offer. After spending years researching and designing structures for the Antarctic environment, I never lost interest in Antarctic science and engineering. I've spent a decade dreaming of going there. Working in the Kuo lab for the summer had me feeling like I was in that world again. But to spend weeks at Pole as an engineer? This is the opportunity of a lifetime.

LW:  Have you been teaching since you got out of school?

VM:   No—I've also been an analyst in two areas, economic consulting and risk analysis. I left industry to teach. I want to use my science and math knowledge to help people. Besides, people are way more interesting than spreadsheets. After bouncing around a bit, I eventually found my current job at Pinewood School in Los Altos Hills, and it's the best job in the universe! 

LW:  What makes teaching physics the best job in the universe?

VM:   I love my job, I love my students, I love physics, I love my school. I love teaching. I get to play with awesome toys all day and talk to awesome kids about science. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for a living, I realized I wanted to make stuff and I wanted to help people, and now I am doing both every day. Teaching has a similar development process to engineering. You make a plan, test it out, analyze the results, make adjustments, and iterate. I also spend a lot of time building things to help my students understand science. And now I'm going to be building a telescope to help scientists learn more science that I will eventually teach to my students. It doesn't quite feel real.

LW:  How are you going to involve your students in your research in Antarctica? Will you hold regular videoconferences with them?

VM:   Probably not videoconferences. Apparently there's not a lot of bandwidth. But we're making plans for me to call in and leave voice mails for them to play over the announcements, and I'm asking the whole school to come up with experiments for me to do and questions for me to answer.

LW:  When do you leave? How long will you be gone?

VM:  I'm leaving in early November and traveling to Pole via New Zealand and McMurdo. The whole trip will be about six weeks. I honestly have no idea what to expect. I've never been across the Pacific. I've never been to New Zealand. Other than brief visits to Mexico and Canada, I've only been to Paris to present papers and Switzerland to hike. This will be an adventure from beginning to end.

LW:  Are you doing anything special to prepare?

VM:  I'm knitting my own socks. I looked at the recommended packing list and they recommended merino wool. I have tons of merino yarn, so I'm knitting a pair.  They're purple.

Above: Purple merino wool socks mid-knitting process [Credit: V. Monticue]

---------------------- For more information:

BICEP and Keck Array Project Wikipedia Webpage

 


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