Meet Benn: Particle Physicist and Track Star

Benn tests a copper wedge at the CERN test-beam chamber in 2000.

Benn tests a copper wedge at the CERN test-beam chamber in 2000.

Dr. John here You may not know this, but I was once an incredible a decent high school athlete on a path to a successful professional tennis intramurals career. That is, until my hopes were dashed by a foot injury, and I never looked back. Boy, I wish I knew today’s guest back then!

I’d like to introduce you to Benn, an experimental particle physicist who recognizes his lifelong experiences in athletics — including a record-setting collegiate track run — as a key contributor to his success in science.

Benn is currently the Program Director for the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where he works to connect scientists with government on matters of national and homeland security.

From breaking 42-year old school records to season-ending injuries, Benn has experienced the highs and lows that can occur in sports. I had a chance to ask Benn a few questions about how he drew from those experiences and persevered through a challenging career in science policy.

Thanks, Benn, for taking the time to help us challenge stereotypes and inspire youngsters to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM).

Benn, which team(s) did you play for and when?

I ran track for ten years – middle school through college—and played soccer through high school. My college was Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa. I ran the 55m and 300m indoors and the 100m and 200m outdoors. I also captained both my high school and collegiate track teams. Through grad school and my post doc I played Ultimate Frisbee, and was, for a short time, the president of the Los Angeles Organization of Ultimate Teams (LAOUT).

Who or what turned you on to science?

My parents are both chemists (biochemistry and high school chemistry teacher) so I was exposed to science at an early age. I was always interested in how things worked—I took apart just about everything I could when I was a kid, and I was mostly successful in putting them back together. I had an electronics kit and chemistry set, and entered science fairs. I have just loved science from a very early age.

Do you have any advice for youngsters who might feel torn between following one dream associated with beauty or physique (cheerleading, baseball, etc) and following a STEM career usually associated with, well, geeks?

There is no question in my mind that I am a better scientist because of my time as an athlete. Running track in college forced me to budget my time and to set priorities. In addition, the only way to become a good sprinter is to train, lift weights, and practice, practice, practice. You have to deal with losing, with injuries, and what can be the sheer tedium of practice. In many ways, that is like being a scientist: you only get good as science by doing it, again and again and again. You have to deal with experiments that don’t work and results you don’t understand. Learning how to deal with that sort of frustration is similar to both. And winning a race or successfully completing a project produces very similar sorts of positive feelings for me.

Benn (front runner wearing a red shirt and black shorts) exchanges a baton in the 4x100 m relay during his freshman year at Grinnnell.

Benn (front runner wearing a red shirt and black shorts) exchanges a baton in the 4x100 m relay during his freshman year at Grinnnell.

How did your fellow athletes accept your interest in science?

When I was playing Ultimate Frisbee in Los Angeles, during my post doc, I had to leave a tournament early to catch a plane to Geneva, Switzerland so I could work at CERN for a few weeks. My teammates were all surprised to learn that I was a physicist—and this was a team of nerds! Most everyone was in grad school or had some sort of higher education. Their reaction? To pepper me with questions about physics, my work, and more. They though it was fantastic that I could do both, and were eager to learn what they could from me. The same was true in college—I remember having fantastic discussions about math, physics, and computers when were we headed to or from track meets.

What are typical reactions you’ve received when people learn about your athlete days?

Most people are stunned. My best time in the 100m (10.2 seconds) was pretty good. They generally have no idea that I was a competitive athlete, since I’ve quit playing ultimate and now rock climb. (There’s not much market for 100m dashmen, unlike former milers, and 5/10k runners…)

While in college or high school, how did you balance education with athletics?

The track season may only run from January through May, but the training never really stops. I had to keep is some semblance of shape year round, and that meant constantly finding time to exercise—and then using what little time I had left to study. I majored in physics, which meant lots of problem sets. Grinnell is a liberal arts college, which meant that I had to take classes outside of my major, which meant writing many papers. And to make things even harder for myself, I DJed at the campus radio station.

Midway thought my first season of track I went to my advisor and told him I was thinking of quitting the team. I was having a great season, but felt that my grades were suffering—practice was three hours a day and meets were all day on Saturday. His response was that I should absolutely stay on the team, since being an athlete forced me to budget my time. He was right—once I began to look at things with that lens, I did begin to use my time better and my grades came up.

What is your best athletic experience?

Early in the season during my senior year in college, a freak training accident left me with a torn ACL in my right knee. I was unable to compete for most of the indoor track season so instead I worked on my strength, flexibility, and agility as much as I could. It was a rough season—in addition to my injury, I was moved from the 4th leg of the 4×100 m relay team to the 3rd leg. This was after I’d run clean-up the three previous years. In the end, though, both were for the best. During my last race in my last meet of career, my teammates and I destroyed a 42-year old school record.

The other three sprinters told me after the race that they’d never seen me run so fast and that there was no question that my running was what pulled us past the record.

Benn (brown shirt) competes in an Ultimate Frisbee beach tournament Los Angeles, CA, January 2000.

Benn (brown shirt) competes in an Ultimate Frisbee beach tournament Los Angeles, CA, January 2000.

What is your best science experience?

During my second year of graduate school I was working on a project to determine if a process we’d invented was working correctly. After spending a couple of days scrounging up the equipment I needed, I was having a terrible time getting things to work—the signals didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

I called over my advisor and we started working on it together. We spent hours working on it. After a while, I started making noises about needing to leave, since some friends and I were supposed to be heading to a movie that night. My advisor had at least an hour drive home to his wife and kids. But we decided to keep working on it until we got everything working correctly. Several hours later, we finally got it right, and the results were fantastic: our process did indeed work.

I learned a great deal about how to build experiments in that one night, but more importantly I learned how to focus on the problem at hand and how to work until you’ve found the answers you need.

What were your favorite and/or least favorite courses you took to prepare for your work?

As I mentioned, Grinnell is a liberal arts college. Unlike some universities that place lower limits on the number of classes you can take in your major, Grinnell places upper limits. They really want you to have a diverse education.

To meet some of those requirements, I wound up taking several classes on Chinese history, religion, and thought. During one of those classes my professor returned a paper with a note to the effect that the paper was ungradeable because it was so poorly written. Over the course of that semester—and the next, since I liked both the topic and the prof—he worked with me to help me develop a writing style that worked for me and that followed the rules of English grammar.

The ability to communicate via the written word is essential for nearly any line of work, especially in science. If you can’t tell other people why you did what you, what results you got, and how you got them, why bother doing it in the first place?

My writing ability has continued to serve me well: when I was working in particle physics I was one of the members of the collaboration (a large one, with several hundred members from all over the world) who was responsible for ensuring the paper made sense and told the story it was supposed to tell. And today I am often responsible for editing into a coherent document the policy reports based on the workshops in which I’ve participated.

Benn with Senator Dianne Feinstein, explaining how particle physics can help the world.

Benn with Senator Dianne Feinstein, explaining how particle physics can help the world.