Office of Economic Impact and Diversity

Women @ Energy: Deborah Harris

March 11, 2013

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Dr. Deborah Harris's current research interest is in the field of neutrino interactions and oscillations.  Her work at Fermilab began with NuMI, the beamline that provides neutrinos to the MINERvA experiment, focusing on the beamline monitoring system.  After working on both NOvA and MINOS oscillation experiments she realized that both of these experiments would need a better understanding of neutrino interactions in order to fully exploit the planned statistics of the expected data sets. Deborah is currently the co-spokesperson of MINERvA, an experiment whose goal is to measure neutrino interactions on a variety of different nuclei with unprecedented accuracy. Deborah received her A.B. in Physics from University of California-Berkeley, and her M.S. and Ph.D. in High-Energy Physics from the University of Chicago.  She was appointed as a Research Associate at the University of Rochester for five years, and started working at Fermilab as a staff scientist in 1999.  Dr. Harris served as the Project Manager for MINERvA from 2005 through the project's completion in 2010.  She has two children.

1) What inspired you to work in STEM?

After my freshman year in college I worked at Fermilab as a student technician making detectors for a particle physics experiment.  I was inspired by the idea that I could build something with my own two hands that would detect particles that were invisible to the human eye.  I also appreciated the attitude of the physicists I worked for who were doing the research.  These people really loved their jobs and were not just doing this to get paid so that they could then go do something fun on the weekend.  I didn't realize at the time that this is actually a characteristic of a lot of folks doing research, not just those in particle physics. 

2) What excites you about your work at the Energy Department?

Working on the MINERvA experiment has been exciting for different reasons at different times:  two years ago it was incredibly exciting for me to see that this detector we proposed seven years ago and managed to build in the meantime actually works as well as we thought it would.  Right now my work is exciting because we are finalizing our first measurements.  These measurements of how neutrinos interact have never been done before, and we're seeing these particles in a whole new way. 

3) How can our country engage more women, girls, and other underrepresented groups in STEM?

There are three steps, all of which I think need to happen, none of which are sufficient by themselves:

  • Convince these groups that they have the capacity to do work in STEM fields
  • Convince these groups that they can lead happy, productive, and financially secure lives working in STEM fields.
  • STEM fields have to better accommodate the diverse life situations of all workers.  Very few people (outside of the Big Bang Theory) match the image of the rogue scientist beholden to no one.

We all have different lives and different external demands on our time and attention, but it's precisely those differences in experience that STEM fields need to solve their hardest problems. 

4) Do you have tips you'd recommend for someone looking to enter your field of work?

Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do this, and don't let anyone tell you what kind of life you have to have if you do go into (particle) physics.  If you like math and if you like figuring out how the world works then you're in the right place. 

5) When you have free time, what are your hobbies?

In my free time I enjoy hanging out with my kids (now aged 12 and 16), playing the mandolin, cooking, and camping, and on rare occasions I get to do all of these on the same day.