Physics Spotlight

August 2016
Photo of Professor Benjamin Brau

Benjamin Brau

Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2002)

We have chosen Professor Brau to participate in this month’s Professor Spotlight. This is due to his research in Experimental Particle Physics, his commitment to diversity in STEM, and his role as the chair of the diversity committee. Professor Brau specializes in Experimental Particle Physics. Please take a few minutes to check out the Brau website. Also, please review his recent publication on the ATLAS displaced-vertex search.

What is your professional background?  What did you major in and where?  Where did you go to graduate school and for what?  How can your educational background help you teach and mentor students at UMass?

I majored in physics at Reed College in Portland, OR.  My undergraduate advisor was an awesome African-American woman named Mary James.  Mary is an amazing teacher and physicist, and she eventually became my thesis advisor.  For my undergraduate thesis, I designed and built a small spark chamber, which is a kind of tabletop particle detector capable of detecting and studying cosmic ray muons.  I was also fortunate to be able to take several classes with David Griffiths, including Introduction to Elementary Particles.

Why did you decide to go to graduate school?  How did you decide which grad school to go to?  What advice would you have for a student who wants to go to graduate school?

As an undergraduate, I spent three summers working at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.  I helped to salvage equipment from the Mark II detector at SPEAR and later worked on building experiments in End Station A, which is the same facility that discovered quarks, which are building blocks of protons. After I graduated from Reed, I spent two years working various jobs not being a student.  It was a valuable break, but not intellectually very interesting.  In the second year off I decided I should go back to school.  I was accepted by M.I.T. and immediately knew I wanted to study in Cambridge.

What is your advise for a student who wants to go to industry?

Well I suppose it would be the same as for a student who wants to go into academia: Work hard, learn as much as you can, and have fun while you do it!

Briefly, explain your research:

I study collisions of protons at the highest energies achievable in order to search for new particles that could help explain some questions we have about the universe like, “what is the origin of matter?” and “what is dark matter?”

What class in the undergraduate curriculum is closest to your research?

Introduction to Elementary Particles, PHYS 556, based on David Griffith’s excellent text for undergraduates.

Do you take undergraduates in your research group?  What type of work do they do?  Have you published any papers with undergraduates?

I haven’t published any papers with undergraduates, but I have worked with several undergraduates since I came to UMass.  I find it works best when I’m able to pair them with a graduate student where they can take on a specific well-defined piece of a larger analysis project.

What is your favorite class to teach at UMass at the undergraduate level?

So far, I’ve enjoyed all of the classes I’ve taught.  I think the Modern Physics Lab, PHYS 286, was especially fun, because it’s really the first time in the undergraduate curriculum that students don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen in the experiments before they do them.

What do you do outside of physics?  Do you have a hobby?

I shoot pool most Thursday evenings with the Franklin County Pool League for the Shutesbury Athletic Club’s team.  And I also like to brew beer, although I seem to have trouble finding the time to do that much these days.

We know you are the chair of the diversity committee in the department.  What are you and the department doing to make the physics department more inclusive and diverse?

Although there had been people looking into diversity issues before last academic year, this was the first time the department had an actual committee devoted to diversity.  We have been working on several fronts.  One thing the department did this year was to develop departmental bylaws.  As part of that process, in consultation with the CNS Women’s Caucus, we were able to develop and include a statement on affirmative action and equal opportunity in the bylaws.  We are also looking into raising awareness in the department in a few other ways, including advocating for following the best practices guide developed by the LGBT+ physicists.  Several of us have added our names as out or allies to the lgbtphysicists.org web page.  We are also working to raise awareness of implicit bias, and to try to make a conscious effort to fight it.  And finally, we’re investigating the possibility of organizing and hosting a NE section conference for women in physics.