NEWPORT NEWS, VA. – The old adage “If you want something done, give it to a busy person,” could be a theme for Valerie Gray’s life. The College of William and Mary graduate student, and a young researcher at the Department of Energy’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, was chosen this year by American Physical Society members as chair-elect for the APS Forum on Graduate Student Affairs (FGSA).
FGSA was created in 2001 to expand graduate students’ involvement in the APS and the scientific community at large and to enhance the ability of APS to meet the needs of graduate students. It also offers support services and encourages participation in activities and decision-making in the physics community. It encourages a free exchange of ideas among graduate students and the greater scientific community by providing opportunities for meetings, electronic discussion and access to a permanent archive of member ideas and programs.
Gray was born in the small town of Baileys Harbor, Wis., and grew up a self-described “farm kid,” with two brothers and a slew of cousins who all worked on the family farm. “Cows, chickens, hay…a farm needs manpower,” Gray recalled with a laugh.
She was the third generation of her family to graduate from the only school in the northern part of the county, which housed kindergarten through 12th grade in the same building. In addition to farm chores, Gray made money babysitting, working as a waitress at a pizza place, as a sales clerk in an ice cream shop, and handing out putters to tourists at the local mini-golf enterprise. She also played basketball, softball and ran cross country.
As early as her days in elementary school, Gray knew her only option for going to college would be to secure a scholarship. There was no way her parents, a carpenter and a seamstress, could afford to send any of their children to college. She also knew that she wouldn’t be pursuing a career in liberal arts.
“Me and English? We were like oil and water. History? No way,” she said with a shake of her head. But in math and science she not only excelled but thrived and found an excitement that drew her in from the very beginning. With her eye on that future scholarship, she hunkered down and sailed through AP Biology. She raced through mathematics – skipped 8th grade math – and during her senior year in high school took calculus 1 while teaching herself calculus 2.
She entered St. Norbert College, a small liberal arts school in DePere, Wis., as a math education major, thinking she would carve out a career as a teacher. While other women her age were reading magazines about hair and makeup, she was reading Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. When her Physics 101 professor, Michael Olson, encouraged her to help in his project developing lab manuals on fuel cells and solar panels for junior high and high school students, she jumped at the chance, and her life was changed forever.
“Once I got into research…I was gone!” she exclaimed.
Throughout Gray’s undergraduate years, her pace never slowed. She worked as a teaching assistant, babysat and worked in the AmeriCorps office. She spent two summers in Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) internship programs, one at Kansas State University and one at Notre Dame, where she worked with the Physics Department’s Michael Wiescher, designing and building a support structure for a 6-by-6 foot piece of scintillator, wrote code and learned to run their accelerators. At the beginning and end of each summer, she made her way home to work on the family farm and other summer jobs.
Throughout her senior year, she continued work on her REU project, using Geant4 to simulate incident cosmic-ray muons to evaluate the efficiency of the muon vetoing system on the Van de Graaff beamline at Notre Dame.
She received a McNair Scholarship in 2011, which helped pay for her GREs and grad school applications. She came to William and Mary in May 2011 and spent that first summer working at Jefferson Lab with Todd Averett, helping to design a prototype Cherenkov detector for the A1n experiment that will run in Hall A (E-12-06-122, Measurement of Neutron Asymmetry A1n the Valence Quark Region).
“He pointed me in the direction of (William and Mary Assistant Professor of Physics) Wouter Deconinck, who needed a student,” Gray explained of the next stage of her work. Starting in December 2011, she worked on the Q-weak experiment, calculating the four-momentum transfer for it, and ran Geant4 simulations to test the value. In 2012 and 2013, she traveled to Mainz, Germany, to take part in work going on at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität for a successor experiment to Q-weak that will be carried out in Mainz.
Since December 2012, she has been working on the Atomic Hydrogen Moller Polarimeter, which will be part of her thesis. The polarimeter is intended for use during the Q-weak successor experiment in Mainz and for the SoLID and MOLLER experiments in Jefferson Lab’s Hall A.
She has continued as a teaching assistant at William and Mary and helps run the REU program there, setting up events and tours. She also mentors undergraduates and is excited to take on the new duties at chair-elect for the FGSA. “I’m used to being really busy,’’ she said in something of an understatement.
Her term started in January; she will assume the chair position next year from Brock Russell, who currently chairs the group. In her role as chair-elect, Gray helps coordinate annual meetings, select those who will receive grant money for travel, and arrange for speakers. She hopes to create a “link local” event in the Washington, D.C., area soon, which will help grad students network and learn about job opportunities. “I’m really excited to be part of this,” she said.