A High School Physics Teacher Turns Telescope Repairwoman—at the South Pole

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Photo: Val Montecue

Val Monticue’s undergraduate research project when she was an engineering student at Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, Calif., looked at ways to build a telescope that would work despite being mounted on a 30-meter tower and buffeted by high winds in Antarctica. Just as important to the project was getting the telescope there in one piece. She was proud of the work she did, designing a control system that could keep the telescope pointed precisely in spite of the challenging environment.

Since she graduated in 2006, though, Monticue’s career path took her away from engineering: first, into the Brattle Group as a research analyst; and then, in 2008, into education. Monticue is now a physics teacher at Pinewood High School in Los Altos, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Meanwhile, the Antarctic telescope project rolled forward, with the first generation, the Bicep1, deployed in January 2006, and the third in the series installed in January 2015. (Bicep stands for Background Imaging of Cosmic Radiation, and the systems are being used to investigate the inflation theory of the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang.)

Monticue informally kept track of Bicep’s progress, but says she had found her true calling in teaching—which, she says, isn’t that much different from engineering. “The iterative design process used in engineering is the heart and soul of teaching; you are always looking at what you’ve done before, what worked, and how to make it better. My engineering degree taught me more about teaching than my credentialing classes.”

Still, that didn’t mean she didn’t sometimes miss more traditional engineering. And so she applied for a summer fellowship through the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education program. Because of the several papers on the Bicep telescope she contributed to back in her college days, the program was able to place her in the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) at Stanford University. She spent the summers of 2014 and 2015 there working on Bicep3.

Over the first summer, she helped dismantle and package the telescope assembly to prepare it for the cross-country shipment from California to Massachusetts for testing at Harvard. A year later, Monticue joined a group trying to figure out how to improve the telescope’s refrigeration systems. It had already been deployed in Antarctica, but was not working as well as expected due an inability to consistently keep the microwave detectors at cryogenic temperatures.

Monticue was wrapping up her work at Kavli in 2015 when she got a surprising invitation: Would she like to go to the South Pole and work directly on the telescope repairs? She took a leave of absence from her teaching position, and on 7 November, left for a six-week trip to Antarctica.

There, she helped disassemble the telescope, check for leaks in its vacuum jacket, and run tests of different types of refrigeration systems at the various tilt angles of the telescope. “I never got near the real innards,” she said. “People who had worked much longer with the telescope did that. But we were all improving the structure, adding sensors, deciding how to adjust things. It was a matter of fixing lots of little fiddly bits to improve the whole system.” She’s still waiting to hear whether or not the repair effort worked.

On her last day at the Pole, Monticue helped put the whole thing back together.

“The engineering was done, and it was ready for the science to happen,” she says. “Turns out throughout my career I’m always there for the engineering, but not the science.”

She did attempt to conduct a few scientific experiments—at the high school physics level—while at the South Pole, using gadgets three companies (some can’t be named due to nondisclosure agreements) hope to eventually sell to physics educators. Among these are UV sensors, a pyrometer, and the PocketLab package of sensors.

“I tried to run a gravity experiment, but the data was noisy, and hard to analyze. I was able to play with the magnetic field; in most places on Earth it is strong side to side, but at the South Pole it is strong up and down, so that was interesting.” Unfortunately, she says, she couldn’t save any data so wasn’t able to bring it back for use in the classroom. The problem was the lack of significant onboard storage, she says; the equipment was intended to connect to the Internet wirelessly, via apps on a smart mobile device, and the South Pole base is a wireless-free zone, because of potential interference of wireless signals with telescope data.

Still, Monticue said, “I did end up stress testing the equipment in the harsh Antarctic environment, and it did keep working.”

Would Monticue go back for another stint as a telescope repairwoman? In a heartbeat, she says, as long as her school doesn’t mind. “I want to go back, but my career isn’t being an engineer at the South Pole, my career is being a physics teacher at Pinewood.”

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