A group of scientists who started at particle physics experiments move their careers to the final frontier.
Symmetry Magazine, the monthly publication of the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, featured SMU physics alum Ryan Rios in an article about physicists working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Rios was a graduate student in the SMU Department of Physics and as part of a team led by SMU Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski spent from 2007 to 2012 as a member of the ATLAS experiment at Switzerland-based CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the largest high-energy physics experiment in the world. Rios and the SMU team were part of the successful search for the Higgs boson fundamental particle.
Rios is now a senior research engineer for Lockheed Martin at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
By Glenn Roberts Jr.
As a member of the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, Ryan Rios spent 2007 to 2012 surrounded by fellow physicists.
Now, as a senior research engineer for Lockheed Martin at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, he still sees his fair share.
He’s not the only scientist to have made the leap from experimenting on Earth to keeping astronauts safe in space. Rios works on a small team that includes colleagues with backgrounds in physics, biology, radiation health, engineering, information technology and statistics.
“I didn’t really leave particle physics, I just kind of changed venues,” Rios says. “A lot of the skillsets I developed on ATLAS I was able to transfer over pretty easily.”
The group at Johnson Space Center supports current and planned crewed space missions by designing, testing and monitoring particle detectors that measure radiation levels in space.
Massive solar flares and other solar events that accelerate particles, other sources of cosmic radiation, and weak spots in Earth’s magnetic field can all pose radiation threats to astronauts. Members of the radiation group provide advisories on such sources. This makes it possible to warn astronauts, who can then seek shelter in heavier-shielded areas of the spacecraft.
Johnson Space Center has a focus on training and supporting astronauts and planning for future crewed missions. Rios has done work for the International Space Station and the robotic Orion mission that launched in December as a test for future crewed missions. His group recently developed a new radiation detector for the space station crew.
Rios worked at CERN for four years as a graduate student and postdoc at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. At CERN he was introduced to a physics analysis platform called ROOT, which is also used at NASA. Some of the particle detectors he works with now were developed by a CERN-based collaboration.
Fellow Johnson Space Center worker Kerry Lee wound up a group lead for radiation operations after using ROOT during his three years as a summer student on the Collider Detector at Fermilab, or CDF experiment.