The Olympics of Particle Research (Daily Press)

The Olympics of Particle Research

Jeff Lab scientist makes a big name for herself studying very small things

Comparing the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility to an island paradise or the Olympics would be a stretch for most people. It'd nearly be an understatement for Latifa Elouadrhiri.

Wooed to the United States by tales of particle experiments at the lab, Elouadrhiri visited the center just three months after arriving in the country. She would join its staff seven years later.

Now a physicist at the lab, she describes the first time that she saw the center with the kind of reverence that most people reserve for their first views of Hawaii or the Eiffel Tower. "It was fascinating ... You hear about Jefferson Lab, you see it in pictures, but being here is like being on an Olympic team," she said. "It was exactly where I wanted to be."

Her enthusiasm isn't all that surprising, considering that one of her keepsakes isn't a childhood diary but the first physics book she ever bought. One of her favorite items is the scribbled note from a fellow researcher, asking for her lecture notes. She leafs through an old journal full of squiggly equations and numbers as if it were a family photo album, rather than an old notebook.

That enthusiasm has helped Elouadrhiri become a well-respected researcher in hadronic physics, a branch of science studying the forces that hold subatomic particles together. Although one of few women in the field, her name usually pops up when folks are seeking experts.

It's not unusual to hear Elouadrhiri's name batted about, said Alexey Petrov, a member of the Topical Group on Hadronic Physics, part of the American Physical Society. The society is a 40,000-member professional group for physicists, and the hadronics group coordinates researchers to speak about the latest discoveries. "You try to find a person who is relatively young and well-known," he said. "It's actually pretty hard."

Elouadrhiri is now involved in a collaboration that would provide a unique look at the structure of protons, which could be a big milestone in basic research. Listening to her explain the project, it's clear that Elouadrhiri doesn't just know her stuff - she loves it. "You have to find a passion for something," she used to tell students, on how to do well in physics. "You have to have a love for it to do well in it."

Elouadrhiri was the sixth child in a family with eight children. She was born Jan. 27, 1962, in Mekenes, Morocco. Her father died when she was 7. That prompted the family to move to Rabat, where her mother and oldest brother set the example.

Elouadrhiri's mother never attended school, a practice that was just beginning to change for women in Elouadrhiri's generation. Despite the fact that she couldn't read or write, Elouadrhiri's mother made sure that her children kept up with their studies. "You would never come home and mom not ask how was the exam you just took," she said.

Elouadrhiri's brother was 17 years older than her. He stepped into the breadwinner role because of his job for the nation's Ministry of Finance. And he held his siblings to a demanding standard. He was the intellectual part of the family," she said. "There was no room for failure. If you got a B, it was not good enough."

He also instilled a sense of self-respect in his brothers and sisters, an idea that just because the family wasn't wealthy didn't mean it was worthless. Elouadrhiri said his example and occupation expanded how far she thought that she could go in her life.

For a little while, she hoped that she was going into volleyball. Athletically minded, Elouadrhiri took to sports like swimming and volleyball. She was even on the city's youth team. "I think I gave it all that I had, ... but I was not strong in it," she said. She was, however, strong in math. A teacher encouraged the skill, and at 15, Elouadrhiri bought her first physics book at a flea market. "I couldn't understand anything in it," she said, explaining that the interest continued, anyway.

Her academic interest also fostered greater interaction with her teachers, and she would often chase down an instructor to talk about alternative ways to solve equations. "I just loved the interaction with the teachers. You could just ask them all these questions," she said. "Every year, I had one that I looked for."

She opted to go into physics once she entered college — only one sibling didn't pursue higher education — but the work was quite different from what students face in the United States. Instead of a curriculum built around the expectation that many might not have a solid footing in physics, freshmen at the University Mohamed were expected to listen to lectures and understand the material on their own.

At the end of the year, one exam decided whether students understood or not. The first two years, students had to rely on their notes from class. During the third year, they had to find their own books or rely on the scant supply in the library. Those books couldn't be checked out.

"When you come to the university, you are left alone," Elouadrhiri said. "There, if you don't love a challenge, you are dead." Elouadrhiri spent hours after lectures rewriting her notes in a journal and going over them until the answers sank in. "When you finally understood something, you celebrated," she said.

She earned a bachelor's degree in 1984 and her doctorate in 1991. Her doctoral adviser did some work at Jefferson Lab, then called the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility. He encouraged her to come to the United States - the lab, especially.

Elouadrhiri eventually made her way to the United States via a research spot at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. One of her first discoveries? McDonald's and Taco Bell just weren't going to cut it. "I didn't like too much American cuisine," said Elouadrhiri, who now dabbles in a variety of cooking cultures like French, Moroccan and Italian.

Elouadrhiri's research was in hadronic physics. Few women are in physics, period, and even fewer in her field. It isn't usually a problem so long as she was just dealing with physicists. But it's an issue that still comes up when she's outside the scientific circle.

"You feel it when you are outside the world of scientists," she said. "It's then when you tell people you're a physicist, and they say, 'Oh! But you're a woman!'" It didn't stop her from enjoying her work, though, or getting recognized for it.

Her research into how energetic protons behave spurred an invitation to speak at an American Physical Society meeting in 1993. She noticed a slim, grizzly bearded man in the front row but paid him little mind. When she sat down, the man had passed her a note, asking for her presentation slides. He turned out to be Nathan Isgur, a Jefferson Lab physicist considered the foremost authority in hadronic physics. Elouadrhiri still refers to him as the "father of the field."

Until that moment, she had been thinking about how her speech had gone."After that, I thought my talk was great," she said. "I didn't even ask my adviser's opinion about my talk." She spoke with Isgur afterward and met another Jefferson Lab researcher, Volker Burkert, not long after that. That persuaded her to make her way to Newport News, and she eventually accepted a joint position between Christopher Newport University and Jefferson Lab.

The CNU aspect of the position involved teaching, a job that had always interested Elouadrhiri because of her own interactions with teachers. She taught freshman physics and entered an atmosphere where not everyone was as committed to physics as she was as a freshman. "The first few weeks, they hated me," she said of her attempts to involve students in the lessons, instead of just lecture them. "Then they loved it."

Now a full-time researcher at the lab, her current work could pave the way for a new understanding of matter. Elouadrhiri is one of four co-leaders on a project called "deeply virtual Compton scattering."

It's essentially taking snapshots of the inner tinkerings of a proton. Eventually, the hope is to construct a holographic 3-D image of a particle that combines the myriad bits of information that scientists have gathered. "So far, we understand some things, but we don't have a complete picture" about the particle, she said. The experiment could provide that knowledge, and it might let her be a teacher of a different sort.

"I hope to have an impact," she said. "I hope to be a role model for others."