Kiarra Garcia, Accelerator Operator

  • Kiarra Garcia at her workstation

First Post-graduate Career Could Be Start of Lifelong Relationship for Kiarra Garcia

Accelerator Operator Kiarra Garcia believes she is lucky to have landed at Jefferson Lab for her first job out of college. And Garcia hopes to have a potentially decades-long career with her first post-graduate employer, thanks to the educational and career-growth opportunities available at the lab.

Garcia began working at the lab in September 2018 after graduating from Widener University in Pennsylvania and moving with her fiancé to Hampton Roads for his job at the shipyard. Initially, Garcia was not sure what type of job she would find with her undergraduate physics degree. Most jobs in physics, she explained, require at least a master’s degree—and most often a Ph.D.

However, after a rigorous application and interview process, Garcia was thrilled to have been offered the job of accelerator operator. Through her role, coupled with the training and educational opportunities available, Garcia feels that the lab is providing a sort of incubator to nurture her development as a teammate, scientist and, she hopes, a future leader within the lab.

“I really got lucky,” Garcia said. “There’re a lot of people who have been working here for five, 10 or 20 years. Coming in and hearing that—it shows me that this is somewhere I could possibly make a career for myself. To commit that much time to a company, I thought there must be something great about working here.”

Much-anticipated and Planned Projects on the Line

While Garcia has an eye to the future, she is keenly focused on excelling in her current role as one of approximately 20 accelerator operators. Moreover, she appreciates the importance of her job to the success of each project that requires the Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility to be up and running.

Garcia and her counterparts throughout the halls have a simple goal: to make sure there are no unnecessary downtimes and to ensure the continuance of the physics program. Such an event, Garcia realizes, could result in an unwelcome and costly delay to the scientific experiments scientists may have been waiting years to perform.

“It’s an effort to make sure that we are maintaining our operations, so that we are not taking away time from the people who have been waiting in line to gather their data and further their physics,” Garcia said. “It’s a team-based effort, and we’re constantly talking back and forth with one another.”

Keeping the Accelerator Running Requires Teamwork

Garcia likens the process of keeping the beam functioning to that of a team maintaining and operating a car. “It’s like we’re driving a car,” she explained. “The machine is taken care of and fixed by the experts—the mechanics—and the accelerator operators try to keep it up and running as efficiently as possible before the mechanics get to put their hands on it again for their beam studies or scheduled maintenance.”

While the average car has about 30,000 parts that rarely, if ever, need maintenance, the CEBAF accelerator has innumerable parts—each with varying lifespans and maintenance requirements.

“There are thousands and thousands of parts to the accelerator and millions of possibilities of things that need maintenance or are coming up on their lifespan at any given time,” Garcia explained. “Once you install something, it might be expected to last two months or it might last two years. Everyone is constantly inspecting parts to make sure everything is operating at its highest performance.”

Garcia notes that with the 12 GeV Upgrade, the CEBAF accelerator has a higher level of radiation, so more components are expected to go bad faster than before the upgrade, so greater importance is placed on maintenance periods and beam studies.

Importance of Learning from Lab Leaders

Most of what Garcia knows about operating the accelerator comes from intensive lab training and input from her supervisors.

“As an operator, we wear many hats,” said Garcia. “We are responsible for keeping the accelerator running by working in shifts around-the-clock. For example, if a magnet isn’t producing the right current, we may have to power cycle the voltage supply or change out a trim card. We have to make sure we’re up-to-date on how to do those things. If a problem requires specialization, we need to be able to troubleshoot it and know when to call in an expert if we can’t fix it.”

Moreover, Garcia appreciates the knowledge that her supervisors pass on to her.

“They have a better understanding and knowledge of how the machine works, and they’ve seen so many things,” she said. “The machine is so large and the probability of the same thing breaking consistently is fairly low. So, if something breaks once, it’s not easy to predict when the same event will occur again. However, supervisors may have seen something similar before over the years, so they probably know better what to look for when things go wrong. The job is constantly learning. It’s almost never the same day to day.”

To succeed in her role, Garcia not only has to have training and in-depth knowledge of the machine, but she needs to be able to work well on the team.

“We get constant feedback from senior operators and our supervisors,” she said.

In addition to the real-time feedback and training, Garcia must frequently read documents filled with procedures and checklists and pass tests related to those training modules. “As an operator, because we have to get trained in so many departments and with so many procedures, we have to spend a lot of time going through our training system reviewing computerized documents,” Garcia explained. “Those documents are made by senior operators from previous years.”

Settling In

While Garcia will soon apply to master’s programs to continue her physics education, she plans to stay at the lab. For that, she is grateful that the lab not only will help pay for her education, but also work with her school schedule so that she can work full-time at the lab while pursuing her degree.

For now, though, Garcia is comfortable settling into her role while making time outside of work to cook, paint and spend time with her fiancé.

By Carrie Rogers

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Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, a joint venture of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. and PAE Applied Technologies, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit science.energy.gov.