Kareem Kazkaz

Dr. Kareem Kazkaz, a scientist (experimental physicist) at the Lawrence LivermoreNational Laboratory (LLNL). Dr. Kazkaz is member of the LLNL’s Rare Event Detection group, focuses on designing, fabricating, and operating highly sensitive radiation detectors, to identify  particles that are notoriously difficult to detect (neutrinos), or even particles that are hypothesized to exist, but not yet conclusively discovered ( dark matter candidates such as axions or weakly interactive massive particles, also known as WIMPs).  He worked on rare event detection around the year 2000, when he was in graduate school. He played a role on the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, an experiment for which Art McDonald eventually won the Nobel Prize in 2015.

Dr. Kazkaz shared some of his thoughts with Al Mohandas. Here is an excerpt of our interview with Dr. Kazkaz.

Q: Where did you grow up? Where did you go to college and what was that like?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. It was a very safe, easy environment to live in. I couldn't wait to leave, explore the world, and challenge myself. I ended up going to college at Carleton College in Minnesota. From there, it was grad school in Washington state, research in New Mexico, 18 months in New York City while my wife went through her own grad school program, and then finally settling down in California. Along the way I've traveled to the UK, France, Italy, and China for work.

Q: Why you choose Physics? What would you say most motivates you to do what you do?

I became a physicist because I loved understanding, at the most fundamental levels, how the universe works. I didn't want my efforts to ignore the state of the human race, however, and while studying the intricacies of the universe around us, I also wanted to make concrete, practical contributions to society.

I love working as a physicist.  We perform basic science research to understand fundamental particle physics properties, but then apply that knowledge to build detectors for monitoring nuclear power plants or scanning cargo for radioactive materials. Once a technology is proven in the laboratory and tested in the field, it may be commercialized for wide-spread use throughout the world. What motivates me most strongly is having a lasting, positive impact on the world, not only in terms of expanding our understanding of the universe, but also on a day-to-day level of doing my part to help make the world a safer place.

Q: Tell us about key mentor or person who deeply influenced who you are

The most influential person in terms of my career was my high school physics teacher. He made physics fun, and that's really when I fell in love with the subject. I met him years after graduating high school and thanked him for starting me on this path, but I'm not sure he understood the depth of the impact he had on me. Only after I've grown up did I come to understand how admirable my family is. My family are the ones who I look to for inspiration on life, including dedication, compassion, precision, and humor. I continue to learn a great deal from my parents, my sisters, my wife, and my kids.

Q:  What life-changing experiences you had that put you on the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing today?

Going to college was the biggest life-changing experience. That's where I really started to learn about the world around me, as well as figure out how I fit into the over scheme of things. That's also where I started in-depth study of physics. College is where I started studying a martial art called Aikido, and began incorporating its philosophy into my own life. And finally, but most importantly, college is where I met the woman I would eventually marry.

Q: What a specific project you’re worked on that is interesting and challenging at the same time?

The single project I have spent the greatest amount of my time on at LLNL is a an experiment called LUX, which stands for Large Underground Xenon, and the goal is to search for WIMP dark matter. It's collaboration with about 100 scientists, and we installed a tank of 370 kilograms of liquid xenon deep underground in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in an old gold mine. We use very sensitive photomultiplier tubes to look for tiny flashes of light that result from dark matter interactions, and try to make sure that flash of light didn't come from some ordinary, expected interactions such as we get from gamma rays or neutrons.

In order to completely understand the kinds of flashes that we do get from gamma rays and neutrons, we had to build a model of the detector inside a computer simulation. I was the lead architect of that simulation, which many people contributed to all parts of the simulation. Additionally, we all took part in the on-site construction and operation of the detector, so everyone on the collaboration has also spent time taking the mile-long elevator ride in South Dakota. (Though when it's in a mine, it's not referred to as an "elevator", but a "cage".)

There were three notable points in the project. The experiment was going to have two main WIMP search phases, the first lasting about three months and the second about a year. When our first results came out in 2013, they were much more stringent than any other WIMP experiment in history. We didn't find any dark matter, but given the low rate of false positives we identified, we knew our detector was the most sensitive ever built. I describe it as finding more nothing than anyone else. After that first science publication, we had strong competition from other dark matter experiments around the world, but even so, when we released the results from the year-long science run in 2016, we were still the most sensitive experiment ever constructed. That was the second key point. The third key point was when the LUX collaboration combined with another WIMP experiment called ZEPLIN to construct a second-generation dark matter detector called LZ (which stands for LUX - ZEPLIN), and we received official funding from multiple international government agencies to perform the work. LZ works like LUX, but it will be 20 times larger and 100 times more sensitive. This is a very fast-paced field, with many, many talented and formidable competitors.   Our record stood for four years, and wasn't surpassed until very recently, on May 18th. As it is, the LUX experiment will forever be a part of the story of dark matter.

Q: Tell us about some of the memorable characters in this story

Physicists have a well-deserved reputation for being an arrogant lot, and when you have that many people who think so highly of themselves, there are bound to be conflicts. We are also professionals, however, and though some conference calls can get heated, we do as much as we can to focus on the science and remind ourselves just how much we believe in the work we've taken on. Some times that require admitting someone else may be correct or that a different approach is more reliable, which can be hard to do.

Q:  What lessons you can share with us?

Find what you're passionate about. Science is tough, and not just from the perspective of school and homework. It's tough because it might take a long time. It's tough because you'll have to admit at times that you're wrong. It's tough because the funding is never as high as you'd really like it to be. It's tough because you have stressful phone calls, late nights, and time away from home. If you're not passionate about the work, and strongly believe that what you're doing is worthwhile, you'll lose motivation, and with that a small measure of life satisfaction. But this goes for anything, not just science.

With education, an open mind, inward-looking honesty, precision, creativity, and compassion, we can and do accomplish great things.

Q: When you think of the future of the kind of work you’ve talked about here, what gives you a sense of hope? What makes you concerned or worried?

 

The dedication of the people around me give me hope. What concerns me is how it's popular right now in certain segments of society to reject science. People don't seem to understand that the self-same Scientific Method that gave us smart phones, satellites, modern medicine, and skyscrapers is the exact same Scientific Method that gave us climate change, safe vaccinations and GMO foods, evolution, and the big bang. It is hypocritical and fundamentally inconsistent to enjoy the benefits of the first group without acknowledging the validity of the second group.

Q: What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to?

When I was in graduate school, I worked on neutrino physics. I would like to return to that in a meaningful way.