A day in the life of an accelerator designer

Tor Raubenheimer

What do particle accelerators and craggy outcrops have in common? Both have Tor Raubenheimer trotting the globe. Thanks to both his work at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and his passion for rock climbing, he has gotten to know people and places on several continents.

“There are places around the world where I know a group of people and I can go and work and hang out,” says Raubhenheimer. “It’s neat.”

Raubenheimer is an accelerator physicist — someone who designs, builds or operates particle accelerators. It’s a title that only a few thousand people lay claim to worldwide. Throughout his career, Raubenheimer has operated SLAC’s accelerators and designed new ones through international collaborations.

He is also an avid rock climber. He makes frequent trips to a local climbing gym — three or four times a week, he says — and occasionally, much longer trips to climbing destinations. Just in the last few years, he has climbed in Australia, Sardinia and Thailand as well as at California favorites like Joshua Tree National Park. For Raubenheimer, rock climbing is a fun way to get to know people and places.

“It’s having something in common, right?” Raubenheimer says. “Either accelerator physics or climbing. When you go to a different area, it makes merging into the culture there much easier.”

Raubenheimer’s climbing pursuits also played a part in bringing him to SLAC. During his college years as a physics and computer science double major at Dartmouth College, he took a year off to ski and climb in Yosemite National Park and was captivated by Yosemite Valley. After college, when he had the opportunity to work as a programmer at SLAC, the proximity to Yosemite and other outdoor wonders attracted him to California.

Working at SLAC opened Raubenheimer’s eyes to accelerator physics.

“As an undergraduate, I had no idea that the field even existed,” he says. “I knew about high-energy and particle physics. I knew about lasers. I didn’t know that there was actually a field studying accelerators.”

As a programmer at SLAC, he worked on software for the damping rings that helped narrow the particle beams emitted by the two-mile SLAC linear accelerator. Occasionally, he needed to go into the linear accelerator tunnel to check on a component or fix something. It’s this hands-on work, he says, that got him hooked.

“The immediate satisfaction of being able to do something and see a result was great,” Raubenheimer says.

He decided to go to graduate school in physics and got his PhD at Stanford, where he worked on a couple of other research projects before returning to accelerator physics. He worked on the linear collider at SLAC as well as researching problems that would need to be solved to build more advanced linear colliders. During his postdoc at SLAC, he started working on the Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser and brought his knowledge of linear colliders to the project. In the years since, while a scientist and professor at SLAC and Stanford, he has worked on designing accelerator facilities at SLAC and internationally.

For the last few years, Raubenheimer has been working on the upgrade for LCLS, called LCLS-II. The upgraded LCLS-II will be able to shoot electron pulses and produce X-ray laser flashes up to one million times per second. LCLS-II will let scientists investigate microscopic phenomena in incredible detail and may ultimately lead to advances in storing energy and curing diseases.

The multifaceted nature of accelerator physics makes it an interesting challenge. On top of theory and simulations, Raubenheimer says, “you have to worry about plumbing, and all the details of how you support things, and what metals go in radiofrequency fields and what don’t. So it’s a very broad field. It requires expertise and knowledge across a wide set of disciplines.”

Many physics experiments involve either huge facilities and thousands of collaborators, like the Large Hadron Collider experiments, or smaller-scale equipment and a handful of researchers. For Raubenheimer, one of the draws of accelerator physics is working on large-scale projects in small teams, which lets him have his fingers in many pies.

“You’ll do the theory, you’ll do the simulation studies, and then you can do the experiments,” Raubenheimer says. “I like having large facilities to play with, but with a small group of people, you can really be involved in all aspects of the physics.”


A New Accelerator Model Tackles Fashion Industry’s Supply Chains

Factory45 and Market45 founder Shannon Lohr wants to help smaller startups in the sustainable fashion space.Factory45

After launching her own apparel brand {r}evolution apparel,  Shannon Lohr was burnt out. She had raised more than $60,000 on Kickstarter in 2011 to bring the idea to life and then taken it to stores across the country. But she needed a break.

She did just that and came back with a new approach to changing the fashion industry — consulting new up-and-coming brands. Her latest platform, Market45 complements Factory45, an online accelerator program that takes sustainable apparel brands from idea to launch. Market45 offers to house their creations and connect them with online customers.

Lohr says that it was her firsthand experience of starting a company and how difficult it can be that led her to set up Factory45. Specifically, she says knows the uphill battle that it takes to break into the fashion industry where supply chains are complex and often inaccessible to smaller brands. Factory45 was the first part of the solution: a business school for sustainable fashion startups, helping connect entrepreneurs with sustainable suppliers around the world.

But this realization took time, nearly a decade. In 2011, Lohr and a friend decided to launch sustainable fashion brand {r}evolution. Following a Kickstarter campaign that became the highest-funded fashion project in Kickstarter history at the time, the pair tripled their goal and quadrupled their first production run. After a sustainable fashion tour of the Pacific Northwest, the two were exhausted though.

At the end of 2012, Lohr sold her portion of the company to her co-founder and moved into consulting, putting to use all the skills she’d picked up during her own stint as an apparel entrepreneur. Although she had stepped away from running her own brand, Lohr realized that all the time she had spent fighting to get her foot through the door could save other designers the effort.