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As a Physicist and Pilot, She's Skilled Beyond Her Years

By Jim Raper

Holly Szumila-Vance is only 27 years old, and looks much younger. But she has a life's story that could fill a thick book.

The latest chapters would cast her as a nuclear physicist. Since the fall of 2012, she has been a Ph.D. student at Old Dominion with an eye toward becoming a research scientist who does experiments in nuclear physics at facilities such as the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News.

Szumila-Vance is also a helicopter pilot. She got her bachelor's degree in 2009 from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., and then went to flight school courtesy of the U.S. Army National Guard.

She knew after flight school that she wanted to do graduate work in physics, and she applied to ODU. But in 2011 she was deployed to Afghanistan. For 11 months she flew medevac missions, mostly in the Helmand Province where some of the heaviest fighting has occurred in recent years.

After completing that tour, she was able to come to ODU as a student of Lawrence Weinstein, Eminent Scholar and University Professor of physics, who also runs experiments in nuclear physics at Jefferson Lab.

She quickly impressed Weinstein with her ingenuity and hard work, and she was named the Outstanding Teaching Assistant in Physics for the 2012-13 school year. In addition, Szumila-Vance was thrust into the complex job of testing components of a huge, $2 million "drift chamber" that Weinstein and others in the ODU Department of Physics built for Jefferson Lab.

Szumila-Vance watched from the sidelines on Thursday, Sept. 19, as the final component of the six-component drift chamber was loaded onto a tractor-trailer to be shipped from ODU's Nuclear and Particle Physics High Bay laboratory to Jefferson Lab. (Other components were shipped over the past 18 months.)

Each component was strung with 5,000 wires that can detect the particles that spray from an atom-smashing experiment. Szumila-Vance's job was to use sophisticated electronics to test the wiring.

"Signals from each wire go to a readout, so we can see if we have a signal in every wire, if the signals have the right time distribution and if every wire is 100 percent efficient," Weinstein explained. "Holly found problems, not problems with wires but problems with connections to the circuit board."

Tom Hartlove, the physics department lab specialist who manages the High Bay, called Szumila-Vance "an amazing problem solver, wise beyond her years." When she went to a technical meeting with Jefferson Lab personnel, he added, "She blew them away with what she knew."

As for Szumila-Vance, she's accustomed now to being told that she looks too young to be a helicopter pilot, or a nuclear physicist. "People always think that I am younger than I am," she said.

Still, she blushed when she heard compliments about her work from Weinstein and Hartlove, and added, "I just want to say it's been a privilege to work on the project. As the last person to work on these chambers, I could not have done it without the work of so many excellent people before me."

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