DOE Pulse
  • Number 413  |
  • May 12, 2014

Bridge position gives scientist best of research and academic worlds

Patricia Solvignon holds a newly created bridge position as a staff scientist at Jefferson Lab and an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.

Patricia Solvignon holds a newly created
bridge position as a staff scientist at
Jefferson Lab and an assistant professor at 
the University of New Hampshire.

For Patricia Solvignon and her young family, five years of separation have come to an end. In the fall, Solvignon accepted a newly created bridge position, as a staff scientist at DOE's Jefferson Lab and an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire, where her husband, Karl Slifer, has a position. The couple’s two-year-old daughter, Anna, is finally getting to see both her parents, every day.

Solvignon grew up in a French village of just 800 people, where everyone knew everyone else and generations of families stayed close. Solvignon recalls visiting with her grandparents after school each day, playing with dolls and loving every minute of school. Her mom worked in a neighborhood restaurant and so was readily available if her daughter needed her. 

“It was,” she said, “the very best way to grow up.”

She loved math, but struggled with writing. Teachers told her she had a lot of good ideas, but couldn’t quite put them together in words. Leaning toward her strong suit, she majored in math and physics in high school and then first set out to pursue a degree in math at Université Blaise Pascal in Clermont-Ferrand. Trouble was, she started to dislike how abstract math was becoming and switched quickly to physics and chemistry. She received her degree in physics in 1998 and then her master’s the following year.

She was always self-driven. She and her brother jumped right on their homework; no one had to tell them to study. And, for Solvignon, the extreme harshness of an elementary school teacher spurred her to even greater academic, emotional and independent heights.

“He seemed to dislike certain kids in the class. I was chatty, for sure, but that was not a reason to put me for hours in the hallway almost every day,” she said, recalling the period. “For three years, he was rude and demeaning. But it made me strong. I vowed that no one would ever treat me like that again. I was surprised when I arrived in middle school that teachers liked me and congratulated me when I got good grades.”

It was late in her schooling, she noted, before a professor (Jean-Claude Montret, LPC Clermont-Ferrand) praised her skills and encouraged her. “He told me, ‘You are made to do research,’” she recalled. “I was very surprised.” But pleased.

Professors recommended that she come to the United States to do her Ph.D., but there was a problem: she was struggling with the level of English proficiency required by graduate schools.

Physics is a small world, and there are, at times, solutions that are not immediately apparent. A researcher at Blaise Pascal, Pierre Bertin, talked to his friend Zein-Eddine Meziani at Temple University. “Zein-Eddine said, ‘You come here – take English classes – and then start your Ph.D. It will work out,’” Solvignon said.

So she set out with two huge green suitcases and barely a smattering of English for Philadelphia, Pa.

When she signed up for English classes at Temple, they told her it would take two semesters for her to become fluent. “I told them, ‘No! I don’t have that much time,’” she recalled with a laugh. In her typical, can-do fashion, Solvignon bought a television and watched episode after episode of “Friends” and “Seinfeld.” And that’s one of the ways she improved her English in less than a semester.

In 2001, Solvignon arrived at Jefferson Lab to work on her thesis experiment. Although the culture shock of moving from Philadelphia to Newport News, Va. was significant, it was tempered by the fact that Slifer, whom she’d met at Temple, was already doing his own work at the lab.

“He had been here about six months before I arrived,” she explained with a smile. “This city was a big change for me, but it was OK because Karl was here!”

Her thesis, titled “Measurement of the 3He Spin Structure Functions in the Resonance Region: A Test of Quark-Hadron Duality in the Neutron,” was completed in 2006 with Meziani as her advisor, and she received a three-year post-doc position with Argonne National Laboratory under the supervision of John Arrington. One of those years was spent living in Chicago; the other two at Jefferson Lab working in Experimental Hall A.

By 2009, she had become a staff scientist in Jefferson Lab's Experimental Hall C and an affiliate professor with the University of New Hampshire, a role that allowed her to advise students but carried no salary from the university. The newly created assistant professor "bridge position" she now holds was jointly created by the lab and UNH and has given her the best of both worlds.

“I am able to do my research at the lab and have a real teaching job at the university,” she said.

Solvignon has an experiment that is scheduled to run in Jefferson Lab’s upgraded Continuous Electron Beam Accelerator Facility to investigate an aspect of short-range correlations, a phenomenon in which two or three protons and/or neutrons get very close together. She is also an active member of the lab’s Tritium Target Task Force that is working on a detailed design for the implementation of a safe, low-density tritium target. She is particularly excited about this work because it is the first time such a tritium study will be done at the lab.

Currently, she’s at the lab for about a week each month. Beginning this semester, she is teaching three days a week at UNH. By the time her experiment will run, she’ll be able to switch her schedule around to accommodate the work.

Looking back over the years – including nine moves within the U.S. – Solvignon finds great joy in the evolution of her life.

“I don’t think anything can bother me these days,” she said. “I wake up every day and can’t believe how good things have turned out. I got very lucky in my life.”

Submitted by DOE's Thomas Jefferson Accelerator Facility