Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 14, 2007

SLAC takes two giant steps

As first woman director, Drell heads research facility as it undergoes $400 million renovation

by Sue Dremann

As a child, Persis Drell, newly appointed director of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), played among some of the world's most accomplished physicists and Nobel scientists who gathered in her parents' living room on the Stanford campus.

At 51, Drell, a mother of three, has become one of the preeminent scientists of her generation — among the 50 most important women scientists in the country, according to a 2002 Discover magazine report.

She is only the fourth director in SLAC's 45-year history — and the research facility's first woman director.

The daughter of well-known theoretical physicist and former SLAC deputy director Sidney Drell, one might assume she was destined to follow in her father's footsteps. But Drell said she had "zero interest" in science while growing up.

While at Palo Alto's Terman Junior High School, she aspired to become a teacher; during her years at Gunn High, she planned to study mathematics.

Despite her growing up around great men, it was a woman who inspired Drell to become a physicist in her freshman year at the women's Wellesley College.

"An outstanding teacher" showed her a world beyond mechanics, electricity and magnetism — a world of the most fundamental building blocks of the universe, invisible to the naked eye, she said.

She was hooked.

Drell went on to become a physics professor at Cornell University for 14 years, distinguishing herself in the area of experimental particle physics and the understanding of the basic constituents of matter, such as quarks.

Along the path to her career, she learned early on to put fear aside and take risks.

As the only woman in her physics graduate-school program at the University of California at Berkeley, Drell said she had felt self-conscious about asking "stupid" questions, afraid she would be remembered only for asking those questions because she is a woman. But she learned quickly to get over her fear, she said.

"You have to be bold and be willing to make mistakes ... or you can't get to an ultimate truth," she added.

Asked about the percentage of women at SLAC, Drell laughed loudly. More to the question is the small number of women in physics, she said. She had the good fortune "to be part of a generation of women (for whom) it was politically unacceptable to have overt discrimination — that helps a lot," she said.

Drell said she has been fortunate that "all of my decisions have been my own."

She had a family, but it did not hurt her career.

"When I interviewed at Cornell University for an assistant professorship, they gave it to me literally with a 6-month-old baby under one arm," she said.

The greatest challenge continues to be the small number of women in science and in physics in particular, she said.

"What many women feel is that they are forging their own path. You can't look at role models. You make your own path," she said.

Her career has led her to the top position at SLAC at a particularly exciting time. The research facility is undergoing a $400 million renovation that offers the potential to not only study nature at its most basic levels, but to expand upon nature's existing designs, she said.

The SLAC linear-accelerator upgrade — the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) — will be the world's first free-electron X-ray laser. The light source it generates from short pulses of X-rays will be used to study how to control matter on an atomic scale. That could lead to developing designer materials by taking atoms and moving them to exactly where the researchers want them to be. That understanding could lead to using energy more efficiently, with societal applications such as improving photovoltaics, she said.

SLAC will make a quantum leap forward by retooling its programs. When the linear accelerator was built, it was part of a great revolution in particle physics, used to study the building blocks of matter, according to Drell. Now, the upgraded accelerator and multidisciplinary programs in particle physics, photon science, particle astrophysics and cosmology will push SLAC into the realm of frontier science for decades to come, she said.

That may sound sexy, but "the science-fiction-y" part of physics, as Drell put it, rests on a foundation of scientific process and creativity. She has lectured — and cautioned — about the role of creativity in the physical sciences — most notably, during a lecture at Cornell University in 1998. While physics offers vast opportunities for creativity and imagination, the genius of a Copernicus or a Richard Feynman is only realized through years of hard work and meticulous experimentation, according to Drell. Johannes Kepler described the theory of planetary motion mathematically, but before that, Copernicus had to theorize that planets move around the sun; and Galileo had to invent the telescope and Tycho Brahe had to compile observational data.

The moment of discovery is the stuff of legend, and people tend to misinterpret the scientific process, she said. Drell has never had that moment of divine illumination — that "ah-ha" moment, she added.

"In particle physics, you have to study hundreds of millions of events. ... It takes a million little steps to get to the big steps," she said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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