September 3, 2004  


SSI a Triumph in Science and Sociability

By Shawne Neeper

The 2004 SLAC Summer Institute (SSI) bubbled with the vitality of a new, topic-a-day format that brought textbook learning directly alongside cutting-edge research. Themed on Nature’s Greatest Puzzles, SSI opened on August 2 with the first puzzle: dark matter. In each of the nine weekdays that followed, SSI’s 332 participants explored another Great Puzzle from the ground up.

Shown (left to right): SSI Coordinator Ellie Lwin (COM) enjoys Hawaiian night with costume contest runner-up Louise Riofrio (San Francisco State), winner Philip Amanik (UC San Diego) and SSI Program Director Charles Prescott (EA). (Photo by JoAnne Hewett)

Each day began with three, one-hour talks covering background and current understanding in one of the 10 puzzles. After lunch, students returned to Panofsky Auditorium to hear researchers from around the world report their latest advances on the puzzle of the day.

SSI Program Directors JoAnne Hewett (THP), Tuneyoshi Kamae (GLAST), John Jaros (EA) and Charles Prescott (EA) had been working since September 2003 to plan this year’s program. “Student reactions have been very positive,” Hewett said. “They liked hearing in the afternoon how questions from the morning talks are being answered by experiment.”

The topical organization—in contrast to the traditional SSI division between lectures for seven days and conference presentations for the final two and a half days—was a boon for scientists interested in attending SSI a la carte. “Students can stay for two weeks and get the entire scope,” said Kamae. “Those who are interested in a smaller set [of topics] can come and listen to those particular days.”

“This was a brilliant idea,” said David Leith (EB), who helped launch the SSI with Sid Drell (DO) in 1973 and served as a Program Director through 1997. “I think that the magic was in a format change that brought a mix of scientific interests in the attendees and allowed a very interesting coherence between the school lectures and the experiments… All the people who worked on it should be told how good it was.”

Behind the Scenes

“It was really gratifying to see that the hard work we put into vitalizing SSI paid off,” said SLAC Conference Coordinator Maura Chatwell (COM), who works year-round to arrange SSI registration and logistics. Each summer, Chatwell, SSI Coordinator Ellie Lwin (COM) and a cadre of summer student assistants go full steam to provide smooth operations for two weeks of talks, tours (this year to SLAC, Stanford and Lick Observatory), food and mingling.

SSI students enjoy the California sunshine. (Photo by Harvey Lynch)

This was summer student John McLaughlin’s (COM) forth year helping Chatwell with SSI nuts and bolts, in particular getting lecture notes from speakers to students and posting information—including videos of the talks—on the Web ( “It was a challenge to be able to deal with more speakers,” Chatwell said. “We usually have about 35 per year. This year we had 54.”

SSI 2004 required some 16-hour days, from morning set up at the Auditorium to late-evening take down after social hours, and the hard work paid off.

All Work and Lots of Play

When asked on the SSI feedback form what they liked best about this year’s experience, responders most often mentioned the interweaving of theory and research, and social gatherings that fostered discussion.

“We kept them busy every night,” said Hewett. Selected attendees presented their own thesis work during two evening poster sessions. Other nights, attendees converged outside Panofsky Auditorium for snacks and drinks, joined the annual SLAC versus SSI soccer game (which was won by SSI 4 to 3) and gathered at one of three themed dinners.

“By far the most popular was Hawaiian Night,” Hewett said, “when we gave out prizes for the best costumes.” A first prize basket of goodies went to UC San Diego graduate student Philip Amanik for his grass skirt and coconut bikini top.

Attendees indicated that conversation at the gatherings helped them to assimilate the day’s exploration of a great puzzle. As one SSI student wrote, “It was good to have some theoretical and some experimental talks… and the microbrew beer was a great idea!”


All our friends who came from Japan and Europe were very, very pleased with this format.



The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is managed by Stanford University for the US Department of Energy

Last update Wednesday September 01, 2004 by Emily Ball