Where are they now? -- An Interview with KIPAC alumna Jodi Cooley

Nov 22, 2015

By Lori Ann White

In the series, "Where are they now?" we check in with KIPAC alumni: where they are now, how they've fared since their days exploring particle astrophysics and cosmology at the Institute, and how their KIPAC experiences have shaped their journeys.

Next up is Jodi Cooley, who was a postdoctoral researcher at KIPAC from 2004–2009.  Cooley, who is now an Associate Professor of Physics at Southern Methodist University (SMU), has spent her scientific career thus far hot on the trail of some of the most elusive types of particles known—neutrinos and dark matter—a pursuit that has taken her from the South Pole to NPR's popular radio show Science Friday.  

LW:  Can you tell us a little bit about your background, academic and otherwise?  What was the journey that led you to KIPAC?

JC:  I grew up in Park Falls, a small town in northern Wisconsin. My father worked in a paper mill and my mother was the manager of a bakery. I was the first person in my family to go to college.

I attended the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee as an undergraduate. I really had no idea what I wanted to major in when I started. In my junior year, I decided I wanted to be an engineer and pursued a special degree program in applied math and physics. However, it was really in my fifth year, I decided I wanted to go to graduate school in physics. I felt that my physics classes were more challenging and interesting than my engineering classes. Also, my physics classmates were way more fun and interesting than those in my engineering classes.

I went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I knew that I wanted to do astrophysics from the start. My Ph.D. project was on the search for diffuse sources of astronomical neutrinos with the AMANDA-II [Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array] neutrino telescope. I did go to the South Pole twice during the course of my Ph.D. studies, which was really awesome.

LW:  Was KIPAC your first postdoctoral position?

JC:  No, my first postdoc was working with Dr. Kate Scholberg, who was at MIT at the time, on the Super-Kamiokande neutrino detection experiment in Japan. I did calibration studies and simulations of the experiment’s outer detector and I developed an event viewer for the T2K [Tokai to Kamioka] neutrino experiment in Japan, which was looking for neutrino oscillations.

LW:  Why did you make the shift from neutrinos to dark matter at KIPAC?

JC:  First, let me say that I like to solve interesting problems and I think both neutrinos and dark matter are very interesting.

I became interested in dark matter when I was a graduate student in Wisconsin and Laura Baudis, who was a postdoc for [KIPAC professor] Blas Cabrera, gave a colloquium on the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) experiment (also previously discussed in this KIPAC blogpost). When I applied for my first postdoc, I was interested in both neutrino and dark matter experiments and applied for postdoc positions in both areas. However, I had a spouse who was also a physicist. When we looked at our options, MIT was the best choice for both of us at the time.

When it came time to look for my second postdoc, I again applied for positions in both neutrino physics and dark matter. However, I was really interested in trying something new. When Blas offered me the position to work on CDMS II, I jumped at the opportunity

(NB: all the different incarnations of CDMS - the original CDMS, CDMS-II, SuperCDMS, SuperCDMS-Soudan, SuperCDMS-SNOLAB etc. - are collectively generally referred to in this interview and elsewhere often as just "CDMS".)

Above: One of the prototype germanium wafer detectors used in the CDMS experiment.

LW:  What did you do on CDMS when you were at KIPAC?

JC:  I worked on several aspects of the experiment. I did several studies of background particles that could mimic the dark matter signature in our detectors. I also wrote some code and was responsible for the data acquisition. In my last year at KIPAC, I was the analysis coordinator. I was responsible for the oversight of all the analyses on which the CDMS II collaboration was working.

LW:  There seems to be a lot of opportunities to hunt for dark matter with KIPAC. We recently had the opportunity to talk to Marusa Bradac, who is looking for dark matter on astrophysical scales using a very different technique than yours. Did you know her then? What did you think of her work?

JC:  Yes, I did know Marusa and I admired her and her work. We were lucky to have her come to SMU a couple of years ago to give a special seminar. She did a fantastic job.

LW:  When you accepted the position at SMU were they already an institutional member of the CDMS collaboration?

JC:  SMU was not a member of the CDMS collaboration. As a matter of fact, I was the first faculty member they hired who did not work in collider physics! It was a big challenge starting something new at a relatively small, but well-known research university.

LW:  And now you're a Principal Investigator for SuperCDMS—which means you lead a research group.  What does your group do? Do you work directly with the KIPAC CDMS members?

JC:  My group and I work on both versions of the SuperCDMS experiment—for SuperCDMS-Soudan, which is situated in an old iron mine in Minnesota, we're heavily involved with data analysis, and we are also heavily involved in background mitigation studies that inform the design of the SuperCDMS-SNOLAB experiment that will be in a mine in Ontario.

I keep in touch with the KIPAC-Stanford-SLAC group as best I can. Since I am a member of SuperCDMS, I attend meetings at SLAC and I try to talk with folks when I can make time. I am also surprised to find the number of KIPAC alums around when I travel for seminar engagements. Last semester I ran into John Wise at Georgia Tech.

LW:  Do you consider your experience at KIPAC to be instrumental to gaining your position at SMU?

JC:  I think KIPAC was helpful in gaining my position at SMU. However, I must admit that nowadays, I find the alumni network helpful. I am often looking to people who are or were in KIPAC when I organize astrophysics session of conferences and need speakers or if I have questions about new results I see on the arXiv or at a conference or if I need advice about an idea.

LW:  Finally, a little reminiscing and a few words of encouragement from the grizzled vet. Any fond memories or anything you miss? Any words of wisdom for postdocs in your position?

JC:  I miss the teatimes the most. Being at Kavli was a really great experience and I miss the network of diverse astrophysicists and cosmologists.

My greatest pearls of wisdom to postdocs looking for faculty jobs is to use the resources that Stanford makes available. I was able to attend workshops on “how to get a faculty job” and “grant writing” while there. I recommend to anyone who asks to look though the book “Making the Right Moves” (which is available for free from Howard Hughes Medical Institute, ). Although some of it is NIH specific, much of the advice applies to any scientist.

LW:  Final question:  You recently appeared—if that word is appropriate for a radio show—on NPR's "Science Friday." You, Nobel Prize-winner Steven Weinberg, and Dan Hooper of Fermilab and the University of Chicago all talked dark matter with host Ira Flatow. How were you approached about appearing? What was it like? Did you have fun?

JC:  I actually received an email from Becky Fogel, who produced the segment, asking if I was interested. After that, there was a pre-interview where Becky asked me questions to see if I would be a good fit for the segment. Fortunately for me, it seems I did fit well and they invited me to the show. This whole process took only 10 days.

I was definitely nervous. I had never been in a sound studio before. It is a strange feeling sitting alone in a room with nothing but a chair, headphones and microphone. The other panelists and Ira were in different locations. So, it almost seemed as if I was talking to myself.

Overall, it was really fun. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity and I would definitely do it again if asked!

Above: Cartoon by Michael Lucibella showing the challenges Dark Matter hunters are facing down in their quest to detect some of the least interactive particles in the Universe that we know of thus far (Permission to reprint granted by APS News).

Above: SuperCDMS Collaboration picture from Feb 2015 (Jodi is second from the left in the second row from the front).

---------------------- External Link:

Science Friday segment, "The Dark Side of Physics"