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Cindy Joe works as a particle accelerator operator at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab). She earned a bachelor's degree in physics from Reed College.
Cindy Joe works as a particle accelerator operator in the Main Control Room at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois. Along with a small crew, she holds the responsibility for operation and upkeep of Fermilab's extensive accelerator chain, comprising more than seven different accelerators/beamlines and serving dozens of different experiments with international collaborators numbering in the thousands.
As an operator, she enjoys unparalleled hands-on access to and experience with the daily nuts and bolts of all aspects of accelerator operation; identifies, troubleshoots, and repairs problems; and uses her knowledge, skill, and experience to tune the machines toward better performance. The staff members design their own on-the-job training program, and they take turns working around the clock, since the demands of the experiments and the complex mean that the control room must be staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
On a daily basis, Cindy's job could involve sitting at a computer tuning machines for hours, or going out in the field and taking apart a power supply to troubleshoot a hardware problem, or physically searching miles of beamline to find a ground fault, or cleaning up gallons and gallons of water from a leak.
1) What inspired you to work in STEM?
I think I’ve always been interested, from the earliest, introspective moments I can remember. I think all children possess fundamental curiosity about the world around them. My parents are very working class, never went to college, and always instilled in me and in my brother the idea that the pursuit of education was the path to a good life. So I think I idealized scientists specifically from an early age. I dressed up as a scientist (which involved a lab coat and a clipboard) for Career Day in junior high. I also read Ralph Leighton’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” at an impressionable age and wanted to become a physicist right then and there, if they all led such interesting lives as that.
I always tell people that I got into physics not because it was easy, but because it was hard. I took my first physics class my last year of high school and, at first, did terribly. But I couldn’t let the class beat me and so I kept plugging away at it until it got better. This led to another class once I reached college and another and another until I received my degree. Besides the fact that I simply found the material fascinating, something about the challenge appealed to me on an existential level—the idea that I could achieve success at something that did not come naturally to me, through hard work.
2) What excites you about your work at the Department of Energy?
I love being on the ground level of Big Science. No one else gets this level of consistent close access to these kinds of machines, to these incredibly complex feats of engineering. I feel like I hold a lot of power in my hands and I try to use it for good. I like feeling that my personal knowledge and training and most of all just paying attention are responsible for making things better, preventing problems, catching them before they get worse, and helping the program move forward. I like knowing that some of the big discoveries of physics, the truly groundshaking ones which affect how we as humanity perceive the vast universe around us, have happened and will happen just a little bit faster, be a little bit more possible, in part because of my work.
I also love science outreach—to members of the public, to school groups, and particularly to young women like myself. I’ve led tours for and talked to hundreds of people. I think I have a really special job and I want to share it.
3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?
I think the most lasting and effective way to reduce the difficulties women and other underrepresented groups face in STEM is to normalize their presence, and publicize their struggles. I often hear from women (or other minorities) who are scientists that they don't want any special recognition--they just want to be known as scientists first and foremost. I agree! It’s what we’re all working for. But I also think that recognizing that these institutional and systemic and deeply rooted personal-experience imbalances exist is a key step in making them go away. The truth is that they’re there. We can show that they’re there. They don’t have to be. Openly addressing the issues is the only way we can have a chance of solving them.
Another key thing is to recognize that there is no one simple, easy reason why the groups are underrepresented in the first place, and therefore the solution will have to be similarly complex, non-obvious, and multipronged—top down, bottom up, starting young, reaching the establishment, changing policy, keeping the conversation going on a personal level, all of it. Also, if we really care to reverse the trend, we have to make it seem worth it. That includes both delving to recognize the myriad difficulties faced by underrepresented groups and making the attempt to figure out what, uniquely, drives them. There is a great richness of diversity in human experience, and one of the whole points of privilege—whatever kind of privilege—is not being required to be aware of or sensitive to the ways in which others’ experiences differ from one’s own. But there is a huge scope for compassion, and for different viewpoints, and it’s to our benefit to take all of that into account.
4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?
Honestly, the thing I really wish I had taken to heart earlier is that—and I know that this varies for different environments, but still—it is OK to make mistakes. It’s OK to try something new and see what happens. It’s OK to tell people you don’t know the answer. All of those are how you learn and improve. To be afraid of doing those things is to be more concerned with how other people may perceive your knowledge; to be vulnerable and bravely able to push past that is to be more concerned with truly making yourself a more knowledgeable person. A good workplace will value that. But most of all, you will be better for it.
5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?
I grew up in my family's restaurant, and enjoy everything related to food—reading about it, trying out new ingredients or techniques, cooking and baking of all types, and of course eating. I run, off and on. I'm rarely without a book, and like everyone I have a few favorite bands, podcasts, webcomics and blogs I follow compulsively. I like old things and enjoy trawling secondhand shops and vintage fairs for finds. I enjoy calligraphy, writing letters, and a fiber craft called needle felting. As part of various projects to face my fears, I dabble in social dance (mostly Argentine Tango), rock climbing (fear of heights! I did a flying trapeze class once, too), and music (playing and singing in front of others). I like to volunteer, especially with science education and especially with kids. Anything with the words "craft" or "tinker" (or "robot") is usually right up my alley.